Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player ever to lace up a pair of skates. During the Hall of Famer's 20-year career, Wayne scored 894 goals and 1963 assists for a total of 2857 points. He won seven straight Art Ross Trophies, ten in total. He broke and set records for most goals in a season (92), assists (163) and points (215). He also led the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cup Championships, notching two Conn Smythe trophies as playoff MVP along the way. He lead Team Canada to the gold medal in the 1987 Canada Cup. Today, he's coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, amongst his other duties with Team Canada. He is the face of hockey, without a doubt. With all that said, when it comes to Sony's latest hockey installment, not even the Great One can save it from receiving a game misconduct from this reviewer.
The key to a solid hockey game lies in its gameplay mechanics. Simulating the sport in an accurate and exciting fashion is paramount and unfortunately for Gretzky NHL 06, it gets tripped up right from the opening faceoff. Simply put, the game is too fast. It feels like somebody has inputed a code to give all the players on the ice permanent speed boost. And it's not even a fluid flow to the game, it's more of a herky jerky experience. To make matters worse, body checking has been ramped up so now you can't skate in the offensive zone without getting absolutely punished. The hard-hitting, high-octane gameplay is reminiscent of Midway's defunct NHL Hitz franchise. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with an arcade style hockey game, but I'm just not entirely sure that's what the developer was aiming for here.
There are some simulation elements in Gretzky NHL 06, but the trickle down effect of the fast-paced gameplay basically negates their usefulness. For example, you can use passing icons to make crisp, accurate passes, but by the time you press the button to bring up the icons, target a teammate and press the pass button, you're likely already face-down on the ice, wondering where the freight train came from. The same can be said for the manual shooting control. When you press the shoot button, a power meter appears. The longer you hold the button, the harder your shot will be. And when you've got the aiming mechanism on "manual", a target will appear on the net, which you can move to choose where you want to shoot. But again, considering how little time you have to react and how quickly an opponent will knock you down, there's just no use for this control. To make a long story short, creating offensive chances other than odd-man rushes is an exercise in futility.
That's not to say you won't see many goals in Gretzky NHL 06 because that's not the case. It's just that you won't see many highlight reel goals. On the other hand, it is surprisingly easy to score from the blue line with a simple wrist shot or backhand. Goalies don't seem to react properly to long shots so you're better off shooting from long range rather than from in tight.
The Franchise mode sees a couple of new additions this season. First is team chemistry, a feature that every hockey franchise has adopted in the past couple of years, though Gretzky NHL 06 puts a different spin on it. Basically you can earn player and team attribute bonuses by playing solid defence, passing the puck consistently and scoring lots of goals. In other words, if your team plays well, your team chemistry will improve and vice verse when you play poorly. The other new addition comes in the form of the AHL license, which is one of the leagues the NHL uses as a farm system. More than 500 AHL players and all 27 AHL teams are represented in Gretzky NHL 06. So if you ever wanted to manage or play with the likes of the Cincinnati RailRaiders, Hershey Bears or Portland Pirates, now's your chance to do so.
There are a couple of problems with the Franchise mode, the first being the lack of a salary cap. All the new NHL rules have been implemented into Gretzky NHL 06 with the exception of the cap, but none of the other hockey video game franchises offer one either so the playing field is still level in that regard. The other problem is how long it takes to simulate one day on the season's calendar, about 10-15 seconds, which equates to a half hour to simulate the entire season. That's an absurd amount of time.
The highlight of Gretzky NHL 06 is by far the new Wayne vs. Wayne Mode. Here, playing a regular 5-on-5 game of hockey, you can earn "99 Time" by delivering bruising checks, scoring goals and making other big plays. The objective is to unlock the Great One himself so he can join your team for the ultimate 6-on-5 powerplay, at least until your "99 Time" runs out. This mode isn't called Wayne vs. Wayne for nothing. Both you and your opponent can each have Gretzky on their team at the same time.
Visually, Gretzky NHL 06 is a mixed bag. The player models look decent enough, with accurate builds and faces for the stars of the game, but the player animations are stiff as a board, hence the herky jerky nature of the game. They appear more like they're floating on the ice as opposed to skating, which explains why they can turn on a dime. And it's not just the skaters, the goalie animations could be better as well. In terms of sound, Mike Emrick and Darren Pang return to the commentator's box. Their playcalling is accurate but their banter between plays is lacking. The rest of the audio is serviceable.
Gretzky NHL 06 supports multiplayer for those with network adaptors. The games are relatively lag-free, but you still have to deal with the twitchy gameplay. You can even start a tournament supporting up to 64 players. You'll want to make sure to jump online at least to download the latest roster update, otherwise you'll be stuck with rosters that are terribly out of date, lacking all of this past summer's roster moves.
If you don't get the gameplay right, all else fails. Yes, the Franchise mode is pretty solid, but this isn't hockey league simulator, you'll eventually want to manually play a few games. The Wayne vs. Wayne mode is loads of fun, but it's not worth paying $39.99 USD for. I just can't recommend Gretzky NHL 06 over either of the other two hockey video game franchises currently on the market. The developer has to take stock and figure out which direction to take their franchise. Is the goal to provide an accurate simulation of the game of hockey or to create an over-the-top arcade experience, like the Wayne vs. Wayne mode. The next time we see Gretzky on the ice, it might very well be for the PlayStation 3. Let's hope the developer can figure it out by then. Until that time, Gretzky NHL 06 is best left on the bench.