NHL 2K6 Review (Xbox)

I remember yesteryear. It was a simpler time. iPods were the size of index cards instead of business cards. Jennifer still loved Brad. Everyone still loved Raymond. And the United States was dealing with a war on foreign soil that politically divided the nation. It was a different time. Large groups of Canadian, American, and European men would spend countless hours on a frozen floor, playing a game called hockey in a league called the NHL. Oh, the memories. I still remember those good old days. Good old 2004.

Back to today. The epic struggle between millionaire players and billionaire owners has ended. In just a matter of days, the NHL will drop the puck on the 2005-2006 season. Same players, same owners, same attitude - and a few rule changes. Will the fans come back in droves? Were there even droves of hockey fans to begin with?

What hasn't changed in the last 16 months is the popularity of NHL video games. Multiple titles were released last year and really saw no ill effects of the lack of a real product on the ice. In fact, the industry may have even benefited by being the only fix that hockey junkies could score.

The NHL 2K-series from 2K Sports has skated its way to the top of the list in many gamer’s minds. In the last few years, this franchise has wrestled away countless fans from the previously undisputed champion. With the rapidly changing landscape of the league this summer, would the development team have the time to create an accurate simulation of the new NHL? Does this series have the staying power to battle Goliath once again?

Lace 'em up tight. Game on.

What’s the first thing every NHL fan wants to know? Are the new rules that have been put into play for the 2005-06 season in the game? The simple answer is yes. In an effort to speed up the game, create more scoring, and make the Phoenix Coyotes look more like the Phoenix Suns, the NHL has modified a few rules this season. For the hockey amateurs, let me break down the big ones for you and tell you how it affects NHL 2k6.

Two-line passes are now legal
Many non-purists turned off two line passes anyway, but the NHL has now followed suit. In a nutshell, the league has rendered the red (center) line only a factor in icing calls. This was put in place to eliminate the dreaded "neutral zone trap" that the New Jersey Devils made famous and will hopefully result in more offensive breakaways and odd-man rushes.

Yep, it's in the game. However, the AI still tends to play like the red line is still a factor. They'll tend to linger around center ice when you’re starting it up with a defensemen. This is a minor (but understandable) AI disappoinment, but at least the rule is there.

Multiple goaltender restrictions
The goalie in hockey must be the equivalent to the NFL kicker in the respect department, because the league has changed their life the most. All goalie pads, gloves, blockers, and even jerseys have been reduced in size. So, basically, they want to create more offense by limiting the defense. It seems kind of cheesy, but when you consider the mass of goalie equipment filling the nets in the last few years, a little shrinkage isn’t going to kill them. Hard to tell if this is in the game, but we'll just assume they reduced everything by, say, two pixels.

In addition, the goaltender can no longer handle the puck behind the goal line except within a small-restricted zone. Simply put, the goalies had as much leeway as regular skates, but you weren’t allowed to hit them. So, if you can't hit them, it's only fair that they can’t play like defensemen. This should also result in less dump-and-chase style hockey. Yes, my friends, it's in there. And, in this case, the AI seems to play it correctly. You see far more carrying the puck into the zone versus dumping the puck in now.

Shoot-outs for tied games after OT
People have been crying for it for years. It's real simple, a tie is like kissing your sister. A shoot-out is like kissing your best friend's sister. The tie is now dead and the shootout is here. However, the overtime or shoot-out loser will still receive one point. This has been a pretty standard international rule available in previous versions of the game, so, obviously, it's present in NHL 2K6.

Other rules have been put into place, but they are a little more difficult to decide if the programming has changed. Referees are supposed to call interference penalties more often, but they've been given that same directive for three years and the clutching and grabbing remains. The blue lines have been moved four feet closer together to make the neutral-zone smaller. Like the goalie equipment, it's hard to tell if such changes are in the game.

The bottom line is this: the teams at Visual Concepts and Kush Games appear to have done everything they could on short notice to get the new rules in and get it to market on time. And more importantly, the game is so customizable with rules and slider adjustments; so you can really make up your own league.

The rules being in place are all well and good, of course, but does NHL 2K6 still play a good game of hockey? I’m happy to say that it plays the best game of hockey to ever hit any console. The solid gameplay from last year’s addition has been improved and they've added a few new bells and whistles that really make this game shine.

The first, and by far my favorite, is the new Pro Control passing system. Basically, it's icon-based passing in a hockey game. Click the right thumbstick and icons appear above all of your players. A tap of that button sends a pass that way. A double tap will make the pass and tell the recipient to take a one-timer. And the beauty is that you can string these moves together to run plays - like hockey should be. There's nothing more satisfying than gaining the zone on the power play and executing it just like the pros. A pass to the wing. He drops it back to the point. Sends it back to the wing down low - who makes a tape-to-tape pass to the center for the wrister. I love this control system, but my personal preference is to only use it in the offensive zone. On breakaways and odd-man rushes, I tend to rely on the old reliable passing method that still works just fine. It’s almost like having a game within the game.

Another addition that I really enjoy is the ability to call offensive and defensive plays on the fly. Using the D-pad, you can set each of the four directions to a different play or defensive philosophy. If the opponent starts sending their bruisers down low to screen, a quick flick on the pad orders your squad to "clear the front of the net", and the defensemen get down there to free up the goalie’s line of sight. I know we’ve been sold on the whole "hockey plays" thing in the past, but, I assure you, they're real and they really work this year. And calling them on the fly, like they do on the ice, is exactly how it should be.

The last "major" addition of note is the new "Enforcer" role. Certain players on your team will have a big capital "E" under their skates - signifying that they are an Enforcer, a bully, a little ball of hate. The more they pick, poke, prod, and punish the opposition, the more likely it becomes that an opposing player may become intimidated and lose focus. How will you know? Well, they’ll get a little "I" under their skates. You'll also pick them out because they'll be the ones missing the net on their shots, making sloppy passes, and playing an overall poor game. While I like the idea and certainly, enforcers certainly still exist in the NHL, I'm a little surprised this addition made it in with the NHL's new crackdown on fighting, clutching, and generally harassing.

The AI is top notch for whatever level you're on. I found the lower-levels far too easy from the beginning and, even after 60+ games, the higher-levels are still too hard for me. You’ll find the game you want to play inside this box.

Coming into this year’s release, NHL 2K6 had some enormous skates to fill. I loved the look and feel of last year’s release as much or more than any other title out there in 2004. The first thing that jumps out at you immediately is that ESPN has been completely removed from this title. We all know the saga of exclusive rights deals, yada, yada, yada.
But to be quite honest, they don’t miss a step in 2K6. While many will argue that part of hockey's lack of mass-market appeal is because it's not a television-friendly game, I not only disagree, but also think it shines through in video game form on NHL 2K6.

This title really creates the atmosphere that you get from the NHL. From the lights and the uniforms to the sounds of a hard check or a wicked slapshot, Visual Concepts and Kush Games have gone the extra mile to make it look, sound, smell and taste like hockey. The crowd noise is very dynamic and seems to pop at just the right moment. It's so amazing to watch Curtis Joseph stop a flurry of point blank shots from the Calgary Flames, and hear the crowd begin chanting "Cujo-Cujo-Cujo". If it's in the game, it's… well… you know what I mean.

The player models are solid as usual and the animations have taken another step up from last year. You'll notice it the most in goalie animations. I guess having a goalie on the cover makes you concentrate a little more on what’s going on between the pipes.

One of the major changes that I liked that will be lost on 90% of non-NHL fans is the addition of Bob Cole and Harry Neale on the microphone. If you're not familiar with them, Bob and Harry are the voices of Hockey Night in Canada. If you're not familiar with Hockey Night in Canada, think Monday Night Football, but with double the history. Hockey Night in Canada started on the radio in the 1920’s and moved to television in 1952. You talk about a national icon? Hockey Night in Canada is Canadian history.

Cole and Neale do a nice job on the play-by-play and color duties. People who aren’t familiar with their work may find it a little different than the ESPN style of today, but it's classic, and it works. The only complaint here is - and you can't totally fault Harry and Bob for this - is that there are some comments and statements made in their commentary that is historically inaccurate. One example would be a comment that Harry Neale, who actually once coached the Detroit Red Wings, makes about Steve Yzerman. Neale says that Yzerman’s ability to change from a scorer to a two-way player has allowed him to get his name on the Cup twice in his great career. Well, Yzerman has actually won the Cup three times. I caught a few other little things like this, but there's nothing Earth-shattering. I'd love to see them add Ron MacLean and Don Cherry to next year’s title for between period analyses.

2K Games' trademark on the Xbox is their fantastic Xbox Live experience. NHL 2K6 keeps the tradition alive with a smooth interface, easy-to-navigate menus, and fluid gameplay online. Exhibition games, "party" modes; they're all available online. The die-hard sports gamers will be happy to know that the brilliant online leagues are back - with everything that made last year's experience great. An added (and potentially huge) bonus to this year's league system is the ability to create a league and then draft rosters for each team, "fantasy-style".

At the time of this review, a few of the kinks in the "fantasy league" system still remain, but there is no doubt that the game's developers are dedicating a greater amount of time to the online multi-player experience in their games then the competition is. In an online world, this best-in-the-business dedication is what makes 2K Games' titles the best around for Xbox Live sports gamers.

This is the best game of hockey that I have ever played.
That’s not just the Molson talking, either! At $19.99, this may very well be the greatest value in sports gaming history. It would be worth every penny at $49.99.
And when the online functionality clears the speed bumps, it may be worth twice that. If you like video games at all, and I have to assume you do, you'll get more than $20 worth of enjoyment out of this title. Whether you're a hockey fan or not, it's worth the price of admission.

If the real NHL puts a product on the ice this season that is half as good as NHL 2K6 plays, then we may be in for the resurgence that the league is looking for.

NHL 2K6 Score
out of 10