NHL 2K6 Review (Xbox 360)

Remember the game Ice Hockey on the 8-bit Nintendo? Sure, you do. Well, I recall the game coming with a suggestion card, asking the consumer what they would like to see in future hockey games. I'm sure I wasn't the only one that filled that card out, asking for a hockey game with real NHL players, a hockey game with a full regular season. The thing is, as bare as that game was in regards to options, it was a blast to play. Now, fast forward to 2005. Hockey games in general have progressed so much over the past 15 years that there really isn't much left for us to ask for. Now that the next generation of video gaming is upon us, our level of expectation have been taken up a notch. With NHL 2K6, a launch title for the Xbox 360, Kush Games and Visual Concepts think they're up to the challenge. Let's see how their latest hockey title stacks up.

From the first drop of the puck, the first thing you'll notice is the graphical improvement of the arenas over the Xbox version of NHL 2K6. Actual ice reflections, skate markings, and 3D rendered crowds really help in trying to convince a gamer that they are watching a live telecast of a hockey game. With tons of new goalie animations and refined player models, NHL 2K6 looks fantastic in high definition. The crowd models may look a little rough around the edges, the actual faces of the player models may look nothing like their real life counterparts, and the clunky menu interface is still present, but you'll still be hard-pressed to find a hockey title that looks better. As beautiful as the visuals are, the game sounds even better. Supporting Dolby 5.1 Surround, players body slamming another into the boards, or ringing a slapshot off of a post only sounds better if you're sitting front row in a NHL arena.

I'm happy to report that all of the features you'll find in the Xbox and PS2 versions of the game have made their way into the next generation on the Xbox 360. As icing on the cake, Kush Games and Visual Concepts took it a step further by adding a new feature called Crease Control, which we'll discuss later. For now, I'll give you a brief overview of some of the features that made their way over from the Xbox and PS2, starting with Pro Control Passing. Basically, for anyone familiar with basketball videogames, this feature is the equivalent of icon passing. With a simple click of the right stick, the Pro Control overlay, as well as the pass icons, will appear on the screen. To pass to a specific player on the ice, you just press the button that corresponds with that player. Pro Control lets you string together passes without really having to worry about accuracy, and is extremely effective with the man advantage. If you wish to take a one-timer with the player you are passing to, just press the button matching their icon twice. Tapping the right analog stick up will lob the puck, down will protect the puck, left will dump the puck into the left side of the zone, while right will dump it into the right side of the zone. If you wish to exit the Pro Control mode, just click the right analog stick again.

Another feature that's new to the NHL 2K series this year is On The Fly Coaching. With this feature, you can easily change your team's strategy to adjust to the current situation on the ice. For instance, you win a faceoff in the offensive zone, while on the power play. You're able to work the puck back to your defenseman at the blue line, but notice that you have no traffic in front of the net. Pressing up on the directional pad instructs your forwards to crash the net, increasing your chances of putting a rebound into the back of the net. If you want to screen the goalie, simply press left on the directional pad. Pressing down will call for your defensemen to pinch towards the net, while pressing right will call for help if you're pinned against the boards.

For the debut of the NHL 2K series on the Xbox 360, Kush Games and Visual Concepts decided they wanted to introduce a new feature that was exclusive to next generation gamers. Crease Control takes you between the pipes, and puts you in command of the goalie. To access this mode, you'll have to click the right stick when your team does not have control of the puck. This will bring up a third-person view of the goalie. A red or green cone represents the goaltender's vision. If you have the puck-carrying player in your vision, the cone will be displayed in green. If that player is outside of the cone, it will be displayed in red. To maneuver the cone, use the left analog stick. The object is to have the player lined up in the cone. When a shot is taken on goal, the game will briefly slow down, giving you the oppurtunity to make the save. After the shot is taken, a blue target circle will appear. Still using the left analog stick, you'll have to place it in the vicinity of the shot's location. Pressing A will instruct the goalie to attempt to stop the puck. You can even attempt a diving save by tapping the right analog stick in the direction you'd like the goaltender to dive. While this mode is ideal for shootouts and penalty shots, the downside of it is that while in this mode, you'll have trouble noticing the gorgeous new goalie animations that were added for the Xbox 360.

Where this game really shines is in the gameplay department. Whatever type of game you wish to play (Arcade or Simulation), NHL 2K6 has a predetermined set of "sliders" for that style. You'll notice immediately that the feel of this game is much different than that of the Xbox and PS2 versions. For instance, the game plays slightly quicker out of the box, has a more open flow to it, and the checking has been toned down significantly. While it's not necessarily end-to-end action, the implementation of the NHL's new rules certainly give you the room to maneuver with the puck. However, the AI is relentless with their forechecking, so bobbing and weaving through traffic is not an option. This game forces you to learn the intricate controls if you plan to be successful.

For those worrying if some of the bugs from the Xbox and PS2 versions have made their way over to the Xbox 360, let me address them. One of the biggest complaints was the CPU's breakaway AI. While I have experienced the rare occasion where the CPU would decide to pass the puck when he's skating in one on one with my goalie, it is drastically improved in the Xbox 360 version. More often than not, the AI will shoot the puck, and more often than not, the AI will score. I've seen some beautiful goals through the five-hole; now if I could only manage to score some myself! Another notable complaint was regarding the dreaded "face-off bug". After logging about 20 games offline, and 10 or so online, I feel confident saying that this bug is no longer in the game. Skip through those cutscenes to your heart's content. Your center will still be ready to take the face-off. Unfortunately, not every bug was addressed. I had only heard the stories of the "behind the net" goal from the Xbox and PS2 versions, never experiencing it. Well, it took me only three games on the Xbox 360 before I finally witnessed it. The fact that it happened in the final 3 minutes, with the score tied 2-2, made it even more stressful.

Nothing is more frustrating than watching your star player go down with a serious injury; however, nothing is more perplexing than watching that same star player take the ice on his next shift. Injuries are in the game, but for some odd reason, they don't actually register until the game is finished. I've also had instances where two players involved in a fight were never penalized for it, and yes, penalties were on. The fighting penalties were never listed under the penalty summary, and the players never took their respective seats in the penalty box. The casual hockey fan may overlook this, but I consider myself a hockey fanatic, and these sort of things jump out at me.

Over the past two years, NHL 2K6 has built a strong following through the Xbox Live community for a variety of reasons. One of the main attractions are the unparalleled 2K Sports league websites. These sites give those that own both Xbox Live and NHL 2K6 the option to create a tournament or league that fits their liking. Unfortunately, for most Xbox and PS2 owners, these leagues and tournaments have been crippled by games that have been played not registering. Early indications on the Xbox 360 point to this no longer being a problem. Running a test league, I've yet to see one game that hasn't registered. Aside from leagues, the options to play exhibition lobby games, as well as "party" mode, are still available. With all of the different game modes, and fluid gameplay, Xbox Live hockey fans will be playing this game well into the hot summer months.

For those looking for the most realistic hockey game on any console, look no further. The debut of NHL 2K6 on the Xbox 360 has set the bar high for its competition in 2006. The king of the console hockey throne is showing no signs of letting up with its latest installment, which I consider the best hockey game ever made. Sure, the $40 price increase may be steep for the casual fan, but true hockey fans owe it to themselves to make sure this game is a constant in their gaming rotation.

NHL 2K6 Score
out of 10