The same week that NHL 2K7 hit retail shelves nationwide, I had the opportunity to sit down with the game's Project Manager, Ben Bishop, for a little one-on-one. While I handed his San Jose Sharks a 2-1 defeat at the skates of the Colorado Avalanche, we discussed all the new features found in this year's installment. We also talked a bit about the future of the franchise, in which Ben revealed that 2K8 would likely be the season when the series truly makes the leap to next-generation gaming. That's not really a revelation, considering next year's installment should be next-generation exclusive, but what does that say for NHL 2K7? Does 2K Sports still reign as champions of the virtual ice?
NHL 2K7 sports a handful of new features. The most noticeable on-ice feature is the new skating engine, an improvement only found in the Xbox 360 version of the game, not in the current generation versions. With the new engine, players skate much more smoothly than before. Turning, stopping, accelerating and gliding are more natural and there's a feeling of momentum to the skating. To accompany the new skating engine, new passing and shooting animations were captured. The end result is added precision in terms of moving your players around the ice, which makes for a much more realistic hockey experience.
Speaking of control, the multi-layered Pro Control system has been expanded to include drop passes and a new feature called Pressure Control. Triggered during play, Pressure Control allows you to shadow a player on the opposing team. You can set how much pressure to put on the player, from simply keeping an eye on him to constantly punishing him with checks. Of course, the more physical you are with Pressure Control, the more chance you have at being called for a penalty. Pressure Control is essentially a way to protect a lead or counter a superstar player. The rest of the control scheme remains in tact, including such previous enhancements as Pro Control passing, Total Control dekes and Crease Control.
While the new skating engine is the most noticeable on-ice feature, the best new addition is arguably the new cinematic presentation, dubbed Cinemotion. This feature does away with the TV-style broadcast in favor of a more cinematic approach to the game. It all starts with a pre-game cutscene in the locker room as the coach addresses his team. It then moves to the ice with the use of a dynamic camera that intelligently zooms in on the action in tight situations and pans out when the player needs to see the entire ice. You'll hear hundreds of lines of dialogue not only from the players on the ice but coaches as well, as they bark out strategies from the bench. You'll even be able to hear your teammates call out to you on the ice when they're open. The Cinemotion experience can be accompanied by either a dramatic score or by commentary from Hockey Night in Canada announcers Bob Cole and Harry Neale. The entire Cinemotion experience really enhances the NHL experience but if you're an old school gamer, you do have the option of playing in a traditional broadcast style.
So we've got the new Cinemotion presentation, a new Pressure Control system, and the new skating engine with all-new player animations, but how does all this affect the on-ice gameplay. The answer is surprisingly little. The skating engine certainly allows for more precise movement of your players but in the end, gameplay is essentially the same as last year's installment, which is to say it's solid if slightly flawed. If you're familiar with NHL 2K6, you know what that means: lots of one-timers. Players cruising down the wing waiting for one of their teammates to get open in front of the net for the cross-ice one-timer. It's the most consistent way to score goals, other than breakaways, and it's a shame that hasn't changed. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what needs tweaking in that regard, but I'd love to see defencemen play a larger role in the offensive zone, especially skilled defencemen. Point shots should make it through a little more as should wrist shots from the slot or circle. As it stands, the one-timer is still the way to go.
Off the ice, the Franchise Mode has received a few minor enhancements, the most necessary in the form of a salary cap. There's also an increased emphasis on team chemistry that places a premium on home ice advantage and balancing lines. Rivalries also play a role on the intensity of a game. Each team has a major rivalry and three minor rivalries, often with teams within their division, and for those that like to play multiple seasons, the rivalries are dynamic and change over the course of a career.
A lot of hockey fans complained last year that all-star caliber players traded hands far too often in the Franchise Mode. Apparently the AI has been tweaked in that regard but it took less than a month before the Columbus Blue Jackets traded their franchise player, Rick Nash, straight up for Dominik Hasek. Worst. Trade. Ever. It doesn't happen as often but head-scratching deals like these shouldn't occur at all. In other areas of the Franchise Mode, at nine rounds the entry draft is way too long considering how shallow the talent pool is. By the time you reach the fourth round, you're drafting players in the low 50s in terms of skill level, players that will never make your pro roster no matter how much time they spend in the minors. It seems like a waste of time at the point. Last but not least, I'd love to see the menu system receive an overhaul; it looks a little dated.
The NHL 2K series has always excelled online and NHL 2K7 is no different. The online leagues system returns, complete with new Stanley Cup celebration for the overall winner. A minor but important tweak, players will retain their own camera angles when Crease Control is used so as not to disrupt each other. For those who enjoy the party games, NHL 2K7 introduces four new ones to the mix, including First and Goal, Up a Creek, where players have to negotiate barrels as they race from one end of the rink to the other, Hold On, in which players jostle to see who can control the puck the longest, and Treasure Hunt.
NHL 2K7 is by no means a giant leap forward for the franchise. As stated earlier, 2K8 is the season to watch out for. As it stands, while the Pressure Control and drop pass are nice additions to the control scheme, they aren't as innovative as last season's Pro Control Passing or even Crease Control. The new skating engine adds more precision in terms of player movement on the ice, but it doesn't negate the overwhelming use of one-timers to score goals. The new Cinemotion presentation is the real deal, offering an exciting new way to play the game of hockey. When all is said and done, there's little question NHL 2K7 remains the most complete virtual hockey experience on the market. For current generation users, it's an easy recommendation at only $20. It's a little more expensive for Xbox 360 gamers at $60. Still, hockey fans won't be disappointed.