One of the biggest critiques of sports games is that they are nothing more than roster updates from year to year, so with no real stats to update due to last year's lockout, the 2006 class of hocky games would be pointless, right? Well, not exactly. NHL 06 is much-improved over last year's version (that one was pointless), and while it isn't a return to the dominance that EA enjoyed in the 90's, it's a solid game that hockey-starved fans will enjoy.
NHL 06's controls are simple and easy to pick up, though they would be easier to learn if somewhere in the paltry 6.5 page instruction manual (it's actually 9 pages, but 2.5 are legal disclaimers), if things like "bruise control" were actually explained. At the touch of a button you can sprint, shoot, deke, pass, and on the defensive side, you can poke check, check, and sprint. In a nod to the series' glory years, you can once again perform dekes by moving the left analog stick left or right. If you spent any time with the oldschool versions of NHL, it won't take long before your deking skills come back. It's now possible to aim your shots via a target that appears in the goal when you're getting ready to shoot. It takes some practice to get down, but when you do, it will be a valuable weapon in your scoring arsenal. If you fear change, this option can be turned off.
It seems that every year there's a new control gimmick, and this year said gimmick is the "Skill Stick." Flicking the right analog stick will have your player perform a variety of moves, and if done in close proximity to the goal, a fancy move and then a shot. These moves aren't very effective, and they take a long time to perform, making them reminiscent of early PlayStation games where you had to wait for one long animation to finish before going to the next.
Unfortunately, the controls don't feel all that responsive. It often takes multiple button presses to get control of a particular skater, and the same goes for trying to get off a quick shot – sometimes you can, and sometimes you can't. While you can't stop on a dime while wearing skates in real life, changing directions is more cumbersome than it should be in a hockey video game. On purpose or not, it's too easy to skate into the goal or the goalie on a wraparound, or skate right past someone you were trying to check. Part of the problem around the goal is due to the computer's propencity for crowding the area around the crease, but it's made worse by being unable to weave around the traffic.
The action on the ice is fast, but not so fast that it's too hard to play. Should you want to speed things up or slow them down, there are sliders that can be adjusted to your heart's content. Allegedly there are new puck physics this year, but they don't seem to be better or worse than any previous games. If one of the biggest results from the new physics is the water bottle being knocked off the top of the net, color me unimpressed. The new rule changes aren't really noticeable, other than the "illegally handling the puck outside the restricted zone" call against goalies who stray too far from their goal with the puck behind the net. It gets called quite often, and it's a touchy call that takes a while to get adjusted to.
Many people felt that the focus on big hits and checks was one of the key things holding the NHL series back. Instead of playing defense, cutting off passing lanes and playing intelligently, people would spend the whole time lining up huge hits. It was fun, yes, but it was far from realistic. NHL 06 has not only toned things down, but almost totally eradicated checking from the game. You can hit people, but it's almost impossible to knock them down, and it's tough to just knock them off of the puck. Lining someone up and slamming into them is almost as likely to knock you backwards as it is to jar the puck loose. You'll find no argument here that a change was needed, but this feels just a little too extreme.
One of the coolest things about NHL 06 is that it includes the Sega Genesis version on NHL 94, which is arguably the best hockey game to date, or at least the most enjoyable. The gameplay is just as tight as it was back in the day, and if you played the heck out of it in the past, you'll have no problem sliding back into things. It's not a perfect port, however, as the beloved Hartford Whalers have been replaced by a generic Hartford team. An even greater disappointment is that none of the players are real; no doubt the result of licensing issues. The lame teams and players aren't enough to ruin the fun though.
Even though the back of the box hypes a "Creation Zone" the editing capabilities of the game are a letdown. The player editor is difficult to use because it utilizes an odd dual analog system to make changes, which results in a lot of trial and error. In addition, your player's head is always moving around, bobbing back and forth, making it difficult to see small changes. Unlike Tiger Woods, it's tough to make a player that looks just like you, despite the game's claims. The team creation is bare bones and gives you only limited choices for your team's city, arena, logo, and jersey. I live in an area with over 1.4 million people, and none of the cities in my area were available, and I wasn't even able to manually enter the city name. That's pretty weak.
For anyone looking to take their team through a full season, NHL 06 offers up a dynasty mode that has all the basics, but no frills. You get an objective from the owner like, make the playoffs, get the first draft pick, etc. and then you play through the season. You can simulate games and focus on GM duties, or play every game and manage the team as well. One neat feature is that you have the ability to upgrades certain aspects of your front office. Spending money on lawyers will yield better results during contract negotiations, and an increased budget to the assistant GM increases the likelihood of a trade being accepted. Accounting, marketing, and scouting can also be upgraded to help save money on taxes, increase attendance, and improve scouting reports. The rest of the dynasty mode is pretty standard; there are no fancy cribs to decorate and no mini-games to improve stats. It's not bad, and it's probably enough for most people, but there are much better franchise modes out there.
NHL 06 supports online play and downloadable rosters, but actually getting online is a rather cumbersome experience. You'll need an EA account, which requires an email address, password, and usually several tries at a nickname – since so many are taken. If you're behind a firewall, or you're using a router, prepare to spend a lot of time learning how to open ports, because without certain ports open, you won't be able to play at all. Many people who aren't technically inclined won't be able to get online with the game, which in my opinion is inexcusable. If you think you fall into this category, and you've got an Xbox, then the Live-enabled version of the game is the way to go.
NHL 06 is a nice looking game, but it doesn't appear to be pushing the limits of the PlayStation 2. The only thing that looks below average are the pixilated team logos on the sides of the helmets, everything else is nice. The player models are detailed, and it's now easier to tell the difference between a small, speedy center, and a hulking defensman . During goal celebrations or in cut-scenes, you'll see that the players even have a variety of facial animations. The goalie animation is top-notch and very realistic. They'll make tons of spectacular saves, and the amount of different save animations appears almost endless. The camera is competent, but to show off the nice players, the default camera has been pushed too close to the action. Using the classic view alleviates this problem, but it's something that shouldn't have been changed in the first place.
Each NHL arena is represented and filled with nicely animated, rabid fans – not the pixilated blobs that you're used to, but actual decent looking people. Unfortunately the rink entrances are pretty boring, and other than minor details, they're the same from rink to rink. Sure, most people end up skipping them after seeing them a few times, but sometimes you want to increase the drama or make the stakes feel higher, and watching the intros was a great way to do it.
While so many games are now supporting widescreen and progressive scan, the absence of both features in NHL 06 is noteworthy. The real sport of hockey has benefited greatly from widescreen and high-def presentation, so it's reasonable to assume that the video game version of the sport would similarly benefit from the same. Alas, we'll have to wait until next year.
The audio presentation is solid, yet unspectacular. Once again, Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson provide the play-by-play and commentary, and while they are generally accurate with their comments, the two aren't very interesting. They call the action just fine, but don't feel spontaneous and don't expound on their basic observations. A small gripe is that the announcers only call out the first name of your created player, which is better than nothing, but sounds odd when everyone else on the ice is being called by their last name. My last name is Thomas, so it's not like it's not in the database. The arena announcer doesn't say the name at all, which is disappointing. The arenas sound lively and are filled with loud fans and of course fog horns, sirens, and rock tunes throughout the game. As usual, the EA Trax are hit and miss (almost always a miss, if you ask me) depending on your taste.
If you haven't bought a hockey game in a couple of years, NHL 06 is worth a purchase. That said, if you own NHL 2K5 and you're not a hardcore hockey fan, you're better off sticking with that this time around. Despite improvements across the board, the lackluster controls, disappointing team and player editor, and lack of new features make NHL 06 a good, but not great game.