Whereas 2K Sports went to a great deal of trouble to overhaul NBA 2K6's graphics and animations, that level of effort isn't nearly as apparent in NHL 2K6. The requisite smoother-looking, somewhat more detailed player models, ice, and whatnot are all on hand, but even with this game running in HD, it's tough to say that this is the next generation of hockey gaming.
In fact, the only thing that separates this version of the game from the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions is a solid new iteration of the goalie control feature implemented this year. Still, there aren't any other hockey games available for the Xbox 360 this year, and the gameplay is still as fantastic as it's ever been. But out of the three versions currently available, this isn't necessarily the ideal version to get.
In case you haven't already played 2K6 on another platform, here's what you need to know. For this year's game, the developers have actually thrown together quite a number of new gameplay features compared to last year's version. We say thrown together, because in some ways the gameplay feels more chaotic due to all these new components, some of which are excellent, and some of which are not.
Starting with the positives, the best new aspect of the game is the new pro control passing system. One of the problems with setting up good plays in hockey games has been trying to accurately pass to all the right players in a proper succession. This has been nearly impossible with the standard passing mechanics. Here, you can simply click the right analog stick, and button icons will appear above each of the other four players on the ice. You need only press the corresponding button, and the pass will be sent to the right player. This gives you the ability to create lengthy strings of passes that can be especially effective on power plays.
Another great idea added into this year's game is on-the-fly play calling. The D pad is utilised here to let you tell your team exactly what you want it to do. This works on both offense and defense, and by pressing specific directions you can have your team do everything from crash the net and screen the goalie to clearing the front of the net and collapsing. When these plays work, they're immensely effective, as the AI does pretty much exactly what you tell it to do. We did run into some instances, though, where it seemed like defensemen in particular weren't quite doing their part on offensive plays, like crashing the net.
The last big change happened to be the most incidental on the previous two platforms: goalie control. It was a fairly basic system in the previous two versions, letting you use the right control stick to push your goalie into different stances and save types, and hold down a trigger button to automatically position yourself. Neat idea, but not one that was fully fleshed out, it seems, and it wasn't much fun. This system still exists in the aforementioned fashion on the 360, but there's also a whole new version of it that's far more involved and enjoyable. By clicking the right control stick button when in control of the goalie, you'll go into a third-person view behind the net. The goalie becomes somewhat transparent at this point, but you'll still be able to see him and where he's positioned. In front of you is a V-shaped vision cone of sorts that represents your goalie's position to the puck. When the cone is red, that means you're out of position to the puck. When the light's green, the trap is clean, so to speak.
The one thing that's still a pain in the ass, however, is trying to switch between the goalie and skaters. There's no quick, one-button "snap to the goalie" function, so you'll need to switch around players a fair bit before you can actually get to the goalie, which can often be too late.
With all these changes and additions and tweaks to the gameplay, some might be wondering if the core game still feels as solid and realistic as it has in past years. The answer is absolutely yes. The pacing still feels completely perfect, moving fast at all the right times and generally feeling like a real game of hockey with lots of back-and-forth action. Realistic numbers of shots, goals, points, and practically every stat you can think of are typically on the postgame boards.
It's certainly not a steal for AU$100 on the 360, but there's definitely no shortage of content here. The franchise mode by itself would be worth such a price. All the great features from last year, like international rookie scouting, contract negotiations, and staff communication are joined by a new practice mode and team chemistry. For what it's worth, this year's franchise mode progresses like a real hockey season, more so than it ever has before. Trades are frequently offered, especially toward the trade deadline, and pretty much every offer makes sense on some level.
Outside of franchise, all the modes that made their respective debuts last year are back once again. Party mode works fundamentally the same, but with some variations. There are 12 minigames in total, several more than in last year's game, but less actually than what was available in the Xbox and PS2 versions of the game.
Other modes included in 2K6 should sound pretty familiar as well. There's the dream team ladder, where you go up against teams put together by superstars like Marty Turco, Martin St. Louis, Jeremy Roenick, and the like; the skills competitions from the all-star weekend; the skybox mode, which houses all the stats for completed in-game challenges, as well as all your unlockables; and, of course, online play. The one serious downside to the online, however, is the menu system. Simply put, this menu system is completely unintuitive and just plain weird. Certain button functions just don't do what they seem like they ought to, and other times completely random buttons will do key functions.
Some improvements have been made to the way this game looks on the 360, but without an HD setup, you might as well be playing the Xbox version of the game. And even in HD, the differences are subtle at best. You'll certainly see more detail in player faces and jerseys up close, and the ice does look really damn good, especially from the goalie perspective, because that's a lot closer to the ice than most camera views. But again, you don't see most of this stuff when you're just playing the game.
In the end, NHL 2K6 on the Xbox 360 provides an interesting quandary. Every feature found in the other versions of this game is on hand here, and there are even some improvements, like the new goalie control system. But visually this isn't a particularly impressive game -- most certainly not for a game launching with a next-gen console.
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