Players: 1 to 4 Player Game | Release Date: 11/16/05 | Genre: Sports
After experiencing an NHL lockout for an entire season, I can safely say that I've encountered my worst nightmare as a hockey fan. That one year lost is just one more chance the Leafs could have used (and badly needed) to be Stanley Cup champs for the first time since '67, but I digress. It's now important to focus on the upcoming NHL season, and where there is hockey there are videogames, specifically, NHL 2K6.
Last year's ESPN NHL 2K5 was definitely touted by most people to be the better hockey game between its self and competing franchises. EA's arcade style experience just couldn't hold a candle to ESPN when it came to gameplay, not to mention being the most realistic representation of the sport. This year, even though Kush Games lost the ESPN license and Sega as its publisher (in favour of Take2 a.k.a. 2K Games), appears to follow the same path.
At first glace the game appears to play largely the same as last year, but there have been some minor to major tweaks to gameplay which aren't so noticeable off the bat. CPU AI, particularly defensive AI, has seen some improvements which add to the realism of the game. Players on the ice appear to be more aware of their positions, and rarely will you find yourself on a breakaway.
Goalies have significantly improved, not that they were any slouch before, but now they appear to move a lot more realistically. With the help of motion capturing from Dallas Stars' goaltender Marty Turco, goalies move more naturally rather then so stiff as in past games of the series. They'll desperately dive for saves, go down in the splits to stop a deke, and even poke check a player who is circling the net with the puck.
Offensive play has seen a few major additions. The first, which will become instantly noticeable when behind the net pressing the shoot button, are wrap arounds. Just like NHL Hitz, when you are behind the net and press shoot, your player will automatically attempt a wrap around on the net. This move seems very, almost too, effective on lower difficulties. Once you raise the difficulty though the goalie is usually in position to make the save and/or poke check the puck off your stick.
The next addition to offensive play most people probably won't even recognize. When you're in your offensive zone and skating towards (or near) the blue line with the puck, your player will automatically turn to face the net. This is particularly helpful to avoid offside calls when trying to cycle to puck in the offensive zone (an issue that plagues all hockey games before it). You also now have the ability to call play styles on the fly by pressing the corresponding button on the D-Pad. For example, if you had the puck and wanted a few of your guys to screen the goalie so the player at the blue line could get off a shot that might find its way to the mesh, you simply press left. Other offensive and defensive plays include crashing the net, calling for help, collapse, and clear the net.
The enforcer system is new this year, allowing your designated ë¥®forcer' players to actually lower performance ratings of other players if you knock them around enough to get them off their game. This sounds cooler then it is though, because it not only lowers accuracy of your star players, but also speed. I've been following hockey all my life and I've never known an enforcer to bother a player to the point where they actually skate slower. If anything, they should be skating faster to get away from them. So, though this new feature may sound like a good idea, it's not very realistic as opposed to the rest of the game. Something that should definitely be tweaked in next year's game.
Icon passing is one of this year's big new additions. By pressing in the right analog stick, icons appear above each player's head, and then by pressing the corresponding button to the player, you will attempt a pass to them. This makes passing much more intuitive, and plays will actually unfold the way you've planned them (assuming the defence doesn't stop you from doing so) without accidentally passing to a defenseman back in the play when you're on a 2 on 1 rush. When in this ì©£on passingî ode, you can also use the right joystick to perform actions such as dumping the puck around the boards by flicking it in a particular direction.
Along with all gameplay tweaks and additions, the return of every mode you've seen in last year's game is back - Franchise, Party Mode, Exhibition, Playoffs, etc. Franchise is largely the same as it was last year, with most bugs finally gone, and with an email system that is put to use more often. There is also the addition of scheduled practices between games. By practicing you can improve a line's chemistry which in turn will get them to perform better on the ice. You also have the option to specify specific players to work on certain areas of their game. Push them too hard though and you could end up with a very fatigued team, which will come out in their performance.
Graphically NHL 2K6 has seen only minor improvements compared to last year. That's expected though as the current-gen consoles are reaching the end of their life cycle there isn't much left for these developers to push out of the hardware. The faces are not quite as detailed as NHL 2006, but the textures (especially on the jerseys) looks very nice. Animations are still a little stiffer then I would have liked to see them. It's odd in contrast to the goalies though, who are so incredibly animated that when you see them next to the other players it's almost as though you're looking at two different versions of the game in one screen. With that said, players are animations have improved, but just not to the extent that the goalies have.
Cinematic sequences; before, during, and after the game are still as prevalent as ever. The crowds still look a bit loony to me though, it's an area I'd like to see improve before they continue showing them wave to the camera. Its good to see some of the more bone-head cinemas are gone though, including the ice girls who shovelled the ice of snow (give me a break) and a player bowing to the crowd after scoring a hat-trick; which by the way, if you ever see a hockey player do that then shoot me an email so I can find the moron and teach him a few lessons in hockey etiquette.
The sounds of the NHL are brought to life here to say the least. The best commentary team to ever announce a hockey game, bar-none, Bob Cole and Harry Neale from Hockey Night in Canada. Words can't describe how much play-by-play commentary has improved thanks to Bob Cole himself. Colour commentary is not as impressive, but it has nothing to do with Harry Neale and everything to do with who ever wrote his lines. In NHL 2K6 they have Harry Neale talking about topics like the ë°¯sition of the goalie's right pad' that you'll never hear him discuss in a real hockey game. When they have him spewing out NHL history and thoughts on certain players is when he is at his best. So even though there may be some bad, the good here definitely over-shadows it.
The sounds of the crowd and players on the ice come to life on a Dolby Digital 5.1 (or better) Surround Sound system. With the addition of soundtracks support, included with the ability to edit and time what part of each track plays (a feature last year's was missing), you are truly able to set the music of each rink to their specific play list. Scoring a goal at home and hearing ë¯mbie Nation' play, or ë?©sunderstanding' by Genesis when you receive a penalty is a beauty in itself.
Online play has obviously returned this year, and with all features intact. That includes [free] leagues, stat tracking, downloadable rosters, etc. For the most part it plays very smoothly, but there were a few instances where the game would lag pretty badly. It all depends on yours and your opponent's connection though. So assuming your connection is fine, just be careful who you are facing by glancing at the ping column in the lobbies.
I'll try to make this as simple as possible. You like hockey and/or hockey videogames. NHL 2K6 is $20. NHL 2K6 is the forth quality title in a row for this franchise. Need I say more? This one is really a no-brainer, especially if you are into the simulation aspect of the game. If you are looking for an arcade experience, I'd still suggest a purchase. You probably won't get the arcade experience you are looking for but you are still getting one heck of a game, and you aren't losing much by only spending less then half of what a regular title costs.