I've been playing EA's NHL series since I can remember, even before they dropped the PA from NHLPA, but during the 2003 season, EA dropped the puck so to speak, and Sega was Johnny on the spot with their NHL 2K franchise to check the sports giant on its ass. Since then, NHL 2K has successfully defended its position as champions of the virtual ice, but that reign may soon be coming to an end. With the release of NHL 07, EA shows they still have some life left in their skates. It's a little invention called Skill Stick and it's poised to revolutionize the way we play hockey from the comfort of our couches
So what is Skill Stick? It's a new way to control the action. As the announcer at the start of the game explains, think of the left analog stick as your skates, the same as it has been over the years, while the right analog stick acts as your hockey stick. As you move the right analog stick from side to side, your player with stickhandle from his forehand to his backhand. If you push the stick forward, your player will take a wrist shot. If you pull the stick back then forward, your player will take a slap shot. The longer you hold the stick back before bringing it forward, the more powerful the slap shot will be.
That's the basics of the Skill Stick, but there's so much more to it. For example, if you stickhandle to your forehand, then drag the stick back 90 degrees around the perimeter and then push it straight forward, your player will take a more powerful wrist shot. Similarly, if you stickhandle to your backhand and then drag the stick back 90 degrees along the perimeter, and then straight forward, your player will take a powerful backhand shot. You can also fake a shot by pulling the stick back but then not pushing it forward. Basically, think of the stick in terms of two half moons. As long as you keep the stick in the lower half moon, your player will continue to stickhandle. It's only when you push the stick into the upper half moon that your player will shoot the puck.
Once you get the hang of that idea, the sky is the limit. For example, if you stickhandle to your forehand and then drag the stick back along the perimeter 180 degrees over to your backhand, your player will perform a spinerama. How about stickhandling to your forehand and then dragging the stick back along the perimeter 90 degrees, as if to perform a powerful wrist shot, then another 30 degrees, only to let the stick fall back to its resting place. The result is a fake spin move where the player brings the puck back to his forward through his own skates. Sounds complicated, but even Chris Pronger will fall for that move.
The combinations aren't necessarily endless but one thing is for sure, the Skill Stick will separate the men from the boys. Those who master the Skill Stick will take the game to those who don't. For the first time in a hockey video game, some element of skill other than tapping face buttons will be tested. There's a learning curve to be sure, but the reward is well worth it. And for those who struggle with the Skill Stick, you can always default to the classic controls.
The Skill Stick also plays a role in the defensive zone. The right analog is used to throw a body check in the direction of the player. You can also poke check the puck away from a player by pressing the right bumper and again, moving the right stick in the direction of the player. Winning a face-off also requires the Skill Stick, though in no more than a manner of timing by pulling the trigger back when the referee drops the puck. Oddly enough, I found it incredibly difficult to win face-offs on the higher difficulty levels, even when I timed the draw perfectly. The face-off aspect of the Skill Stick definitely needs work because at this point, it's strictly a guessing game. Also, the poke check is far too powerful a defensive maneuver. It's one thing to poke check a player skating towards you but you shouldn't be able to poke check players who have already skated behind you, and that's something you can do in NHL 07.
I'm sure you can tell by now, I'm a fan of the new Skill Stick, but it's only the first step in EA's quest to reclaim the virtual Stanley Cup. The next step is getting the gameplay right. As it stands, player movement simply isn't precise enough. It's near impossible to stand still and rotate your body 360 degrees without skating in a ten-foot radius. Player movement is far too jerky in that sense. It makes it near impossible to perform some very basic plays, such as cycling the puck in the offensive zone or setting up on the power play, either as a defenseman or even setting up your defensemen for a shot on net that's not a one-timer.
On the flip side, EA does a solid job ensuring one-timers don't dominate the gameplay. In NHL 2K7, passes for one-timers are almost always on the tape but in NHL 07, passes tend more to go astray. It's as aspect of realism that some gamers might find frustrating but I find refreshing. Also, with the new Skill Stick, it's tougher to lay out opponents with a simple body check. You either need to be controlling a bruising type player or get a good skating start if you want to knock a player on his ass. That's because, wait for it... there's no speed boost! You heard correct, there's no speed boost in NHL 07. A player's speed and acceleration rating actually plays a role in the action now, as opposed to a button that magically allows almost any player to out skate another when the need arises.
Other than the new Skill Stick and the gameplay that results from it, not much else has changed from last year's installment. In Dynasty Mode, you can choose to play with or without a salary cap. Oddly, you must play an 82-game schedule. The option for a shorter 41-game season is no longer available. The rest of the Dynasty Mode, economical model and all, remain in tact, and unfortunately that includes a Free Agent period that is simply too easy to sign all the best available talent. Another area EA's NHL franchise needs to improve on is online play. When will we start to see some online league support? It's one of the biggest difference makers between EA and its competition. As it stands, two players can engage in ranked or unranked sessions, complete with leaderboard support.
I have to hand it to EA, the Skill Stick is one of the best innovations in a hockey video game. Not only is it a new way to control the game, it's a measuring stick for the skill level of hockey fans around the world. However, while the Skill Stick innovates control, the feel of the game remains in question. Player movement in particular needs to be more precise. I only wish I could have the precision of NHL 2K7 and the control of NHL 07. That would be something to see. Online play also needs some work. In the end, NHL 07 is worth checking out for the new Skill Stick alone, just don't expect the most well-rounded hockey experience out there.