Hockey fans rejoice for the season is upon us once again (finally), and with every new season comes a new edition of the game. While this year’s season is most certainly a huge step up from last year’s, the advancements in EA’s most recent offering are not as obvious. This is not to say that the game isn’t good, far from it, just don’t go expecting the game to be leaps and bounds ahead of last year’s edition. However, if you are like me and didn’t pick up NHL 2005 for fear of adding to hockey withdraw, NHL 06 is definitely worth a look.
NHL 06 includes all your favorite teams (and the ones you hate) from the NHL, as well as having a few of other national leagues (Elitserien, SM-Liiga, and DEL), and even a world league. So if you would rather smash the U.S. with Canada than crush the Ducks with the Pens, by all means, go right ahead. Keep in mind though; the rules do differ throughout the leagues. Of course, if you have trouble remembering the rule differences, or the new rules, there is an option to turn down, or off, a number of different rules. I’ve never been good with the rules to hockey, so I don’t fiddle with them much, but the new NHL rules (at least the ones I know of) seem to be in effect. The only thing missing on the players’ front are those big name rookies that we’re all excited about (don’t expect to see Sid the Kid go zipping by), but that can be forgiven since they couldn’t grab rights to the players before the season started (rules of the draft I think).
The simple remedy to this, however, is to take advantage of the “create a player” mode and build your own hotshot rookie, or a seasoned veteran if you prefer. “Create a Player” is fairly basic; you get to fill in the basic player info, pick from a small variety of equipment, set your stats, and adjust your appearance. Don’t expect to be able to build your likeness this year, as most of the adjustment options still leave you looking like basically the same guy (who looks surprisingly similar to the games producer, coincidence?) with a few minor differences. Of course, who really cares since you’ll be under that helmet the entire time anyways. You also have the option of dipping your creative little fingers into the legitimate roster, adjusting current players in a number of different ways (basically any way you can change your created player), or swapping players to different teams and leagues. Or you could just create your very own team, complete with logo, uniforms, and home ice. Set the team up and then pack it with all your favorites from any of the included teams and leagues, or the free agent pool. The only issue I have with creating my own team is that the rosters seem to reset when you enter them into a dynasty, so both you and your opponent might end up with the same player. Certainly not the most full featured “Creation Zone” ever to grace the game of hockey, but nothing to scoff at either.
Once you’ve done your bit with the rules and rosters, you’re ready to settle down and get things started. Of course, you have a number of options here as well; you can choose to “Play Now” and just hop into a game or you can pick one of several “Game Modes” and put a little more variety into it. Here you can select to play a basic “Exhibition” game, take part in a single “Season” of varied length, play a season in the “Elite Leagues” of Europe, pick your favorite teams from the NHL and around the world and set up a “World Tournament”, play a half ice “Free For All” for one to four friends, or manage your way to the top in “Dynasty Mode”.
In “Dynasty Mode” you can select your favorite team and build a dynasty in your own image, making decisions both on and off the ice. You also have the option of placing your created team into the mix (trading it in for another team) and taking a look at how well you really did when you put them together. Once you’ve picked your team and the rules by which you play, you’ll be prompted to set up your GM, choosing from a number of GM types to increase the aspects of your team that you feel will make the most difference in the future. From there it’s off to the head office to perform a number of tasks before sending your boys off to the ice; including trades, contract negotiations, staff and equipment enhancements, practice schedules, team strategy, and even checking reports on future prospects. Once you’re ready to go you can take the reigns and lead your team to victory, or press a button and watch it simulate the outcome. Fear not, if the Sim takes a turn for the worse you can interrupt at any time. Throughout the 82-game season you can make adjustments that will help your team grow, but make sure you keep an eye on your finances so that you aren’t left holding the bag at the end of the year. The more careful you are in your management, the more money you’ll have to spend for your next season, so keep your fans and players happy. All in all, it makes for a very solid management mode, with only a few small issues, like no salary caps (at least none that I can find).
In case you actually still buy sports games to play the sport, on the ice has never been this good. The controls, A.I., graphics, and sound are all solid and make for a complete game experience. You have all your basic control functions at the press of a button, of your choice for the most part, and now you have some more advanced moves at the flick of the stick. You can now deke using the Control Stick, making your dekes a slightly more natural part of moving your player than before, but if you have trouble with the movement there is still a button for auto deke. For all you hotshots out there you now have use of the “Skill Stick” (C-Stick) to pull off some of the more impressive shots in hockey like spinoramas, toe drags, and between-the-legs shots, assuming the player is good enough to pull off the moves. Simply flip the stick in a particular direction and watch him move. It’s a nice idea, but this particular control isn’t as responsive and it’s completely useless if you have weaker players that have no special moves. A better use would have been allowing aimed shots just by tapping the C-Stick or even a Check Stick, anything that would find function for everyone on the ice. For those skaters with less skill, you can still take aim with the Control Stick and fire the puck into the top corner, or slip it right between the goalie’s skates. Of course, don’t expect these all to go in, the goalie doesn’t like to let those pucks past.
The A.I. has all the moves in all the right places, making it hard to carry away the game even on easy, but don’t expect great plays from your own mates, because the game is set up to let you do most of the work. Occasionally your D-men will drop down to block a shot, and your goalie will work his butt off, but offense is all you, which is made easier by the one-timer feature unless your guys don’t want to get into position. The other drawback to the A.I. is EA’s standard cheap comeback A.I., which will cause the opposition to make the most impressive plays in order to keep the game close, or cheat you out of your win at the last possible second. I had a team score 3 goals to tie and pass me in the last 2 minutes (with accelerated clock speed) of a game in which they hadn’t managed to score in before that. Sometimes it feels legit, but sometimes it just isn’t right and it can really annoy the heck out of the player. On the other hand, you could always adjust the sliders to your liking and make the game as hard or easy as you want.
Visually the game is impressive with the most beautiful arenas, realistic cut scenes, and a variety of camera angles to choose from. As far as I can tell, players haven’t really changed that much in the last ten years, aside from their faces and a few little details that you probably won’t notice except in the cut scenes, but they still look great. The puck plays clearly on the ice and you can see when you lose control of it, or when it slips in past your goalie, although you might lose sight of it in front of the net on occasion.
The sounds of hockey may not seem as important as the sights, but I still like to have the complete experience. Most of the basic effects sound good, and you may not notice them in the heat of battle. The EA Jukebox is back, and once again filled with music that just doesn’t feel like it belongs at a hockey game, but that may just be me. I can’t stand most of it in game or in menu and would rather have more generic organ tunes playing during the game, but at least I can turn it off. The announcers also need some work. I don’t know how many times per game I’ll hear the same useless tid-bit about a particular player or the words “One Timer!” blurted out in the same strange tone. Sure the real announcers sound that way, but they have so much more variety in what they say and how they say it that it doesn’t get on your nerves as much. A few more recordings of some of the more likely comments wouldn’t hurt. Even Madden doesn’t say the same senseless remark this many times per game.
The only major issue I take with the game is one that I take with almost every single game put out by EA, lack of a solid instruction manual. I for one would appreciate complete information on how to play the game and use new features, what certain options do, and maybe some “rules” information for new comers to the game. I don’t want cliff notes, I want the book.
Minor flaws aside, the game hits the net where it needs to the most and it makes for a great game of hockey. If you love hockey and own a Game Cube you’ll definitely want to pick it up, as there is no real competition on the system this year. Hitting the ice, hitting the puck, and hitting the other players has never been this much fun.