It seems like the only hockey to be found during the NHL's lockout was of the video game variety. EA, 2K, and Sony all released games, and now, despite there having been no hockey played since the last release, all three are back at it again. SCEA's effort, Gretzky NHL '06 is a decidedly arcade-style take on the sport, which will please casual fans, but likely leave hardcore fans out in the cold.
One thing that Gretzky NHL doesn't skimp on is game modes. There are single games, franchise, practice, a full online support, and Wayne Vs. Wayne mode. A full AHL license has been included in the game, so if your dream has been to take your local AHL team (Go Norfolk Admirals!) all the way, you finally get your chance. You can also unlock some jerseys and a few special players by completing challenges during the course of play. The extras aren't particularly inspiring so there's no real incentive to earn points – it just sort of happens.
The regular hockey action found in exhibition or franchise modes isn't totally skewed towards the arcade experience, but it's still not what purists would consider a simulation. There are plenty of goals and tons of big hits, so in short, lots of action. The controls are simple, and they feel more responsive this year. Dekes can be performed via a button press or by using the right analog stick, which is a good way to please fans of either scheme. There's only one button to shoot, and the longer you hold it, the harder your shot will be. Having one button for slapshots, and another for wristers would allow more control, but since the game seems to go for simplicity in most cases, this control scheme doesn't work out too bad. Passing is very unbalanced, as the computer can pass at will at astonishing speeds, while the best you can hope for is to string together two or three passes without turning it over. Using icon-based passing helps alleviate this problem somewhat, but a little more balance would have been better.
The franchise mode is improved over last year's, but it's still not incredibly deep. In general, it's a decent franchise offering that will please casual fans. Since the game features the full AHL license, you have control over your team's farm system, which is a nice addition. The default rosters are extremely out of date, and while they can be updated via a free download, not everyone has this ability. For some reason there's no salary cap, so if you're so inclined you can sign players off the free agent market for as much as you want with no repercussions. Team chemistry has been implemented this year, meaning completing passes and scoring goals will elevate the play of that particular line. It's an effective way of encouraging you to not just take the puck up ice alone every time, and a feature worth expanding upon next year.
In what one can only assume is a way to get some more mileage out of having a retired player as a spokesman, you can know unlock "99" time, where Gretzky himself comes out on the ice as a sixth skater. The action in this mode is faster than normal, and plays more like NHL Hitz than a sim. Whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing is totally up to you. The thinking behind Wayne Vs. Wayne mode is solid – pass the puck, involve your teammates, and play good defense to fill a meter that gives you a boost when it's full. It's just bizarre that said "boost" is a retired 44 year-old player that now coaches. It would have been just as effective to have the existing players' skills enhanced, and it would have fit in with the flow of the game better as well. The giant meters at the bottom of the screen, combined with the size of the score overlay up top actually cause quite a significant portion of the ice to be obscured. It's also very distracting to watch your points and combos flashed in the middle of the screen, and going in and out of "99 time" causes all of the action to be obscured for several seconds.
Sony always does a nice job with their online play. There are tons of features, it's easy to connect, and things generally seem to run smoothly. The one issue they have is a big one; nobody plays their games online. It's a struggle to find a match, much less a good one, because so few people play.
Gretzky's visuals aren't bad, but there's not one thing that it does better than the competition. Player models are decent, and there are a fair amount of animations all around, but the players all look like they are running instead of skating. It's one of those things you've got to see in motion to really understand, but trust me, at times it looks more like street hockey than ice hockey. The arenas are pretty standard looking, as is the crowd, which is mostly comprised of 3D models who will stand, clap, and cheer throughout the game. There aren't too many cut-scenes or replays, which is actually a good thing, since after a few games, most people tend to skip right over them anyways. Sony has just opted to cut-out the middle man on this one.
The framerate is a little bit choppy, depending on which camera you opt to play from. None of the camera angles are perfect, as there's always an issue like being close to the action, cutting off too much of the top or bottom of the screen, or killing the framerate. On a side note, the motion blur during Wayne Vs. Wayne has got to go – it's terrible. Nobody wants to play their sports games with motion blur.
Like the graphics, Gretzky's audio is pretty standard. Mike Emrick and Darren Pang do a competent job calling the action, but that's about it. They offer almost no insight into why things are happening, and they surely won't ever surprise you with an intelligent point or funny story. The sound effects get the job done – nothing more or nothing less.
Gretzky NHL 06 isn't a bad game, but it's hard to figure out what the point was. It's not much different than last year, it's $10 more than EA's NHL 06, $20 more than NHL 2K6, and both of those games offer superior gameplay and presentation. There's simply no reason to recommend it from either a gameplay or price perspective.