Suit up, folks! The first next-generation NHL game from mega publisher Electronic Arts is coming and NHL 07 looks to be the best NHL game by EA since NHL 2004. After a rather disappointing efforts on their last two NHL games, it appears that NHL 07 might be the gold-standard for next-generation hockey games.

One of the first things that people will notice about 07 is the tremendous facelift the game gets for the next generation. The player models in the game look absolutely stunning. The amount of detail EA Canada put into creating these models is very commendable. If you follow the sport, you will instantly know who the camera is on in this edition of NHL. They have the details down to how high Jaromir Jagr wears his hockey pants or if players have thin or thicker shin pads. You will also see the stick flex when a player leans into a high powered slapshot or a wrist shot.

The ice in the game looks good, but it really looks about as good as past generations of hockey games. However, the only real improvements that they could do to ice is just having real-time skate marks that stay there throughout the whole period, and that might be a bit too much to ask for at this point in video games.

The crowds in the game are worth mentioning as well. They are in full 3D and look razor-sharp. Having said that, NHL 07’s crowd suffers from “crowd hopping”, which I define as the crowd will just go up and down at just purely random times, waving their hands and doing nothing in particular. Hopefully they will address this, but it’s not worth holding your breath over and doesn’t really drag down the experience.

Some of the better graphical touches found in this year’s edition of NHL are found on the goaltenders. In past iterations of hockey games, the goaltender’s leg pads seemed to just be glued to his legs. That is all thrown out of the window and burned with 07. You can see from the video how the pads separate from the goaltender’s legs, like they should. Another nice thing about goaltenders is that they actually have to close their hand on the puck to make a glove save, not just have the puck go in the general direction of the glove and have it go inside the mitt. The last thing that stood out about goaltending animations is that goaltenders just stretch so realistically when they are beat on a play. For example, he will push off his back foot and throw out his leg pad in hopes of making the save, and you can see the skate trail on the ice from where he pushed off from.

In terms of gameplay there have been some upgrades with how goalies play. Instead of having goaltenders that act and move the same regardless of their style of play, EA has made each goaltender actually play like he does when you watch him on television. For example, Jean-Sebastien Giguere will play a much more positional style of goaltending while a goaltender like Dominik Hasek will be much more athletic and all over the place.

What about skaters, though? They are definitely not left behind. The biggest innovation that NHL 07 has to offer hockey fans is the “skill stick.” Basically, the right stick actually has a use. If you snap the right stick forward, you will release a quick wrist shot. If you pull back, you will wind up for a booming slapshot. Then, moving the stick left or right controls your ability to deke by defenders and make them and the goaltender look like fools. The design on it seems so simple and intuitive; it is strange that it has been this long before it has been implemented in a hockey game. Having played a fair share of NHL games, I have always wanted the ability to feel like my movements were done by me and not by the preset moves that the developer gave you. This looks like this is going to be a key feature of the game and it will be something that is actually core to the gameplay, rather than some of the other things EA have tried in recent years that have failed because of their complexity and lack of purpose. It seems like the skill stick will be a great addition to the franchise and its limits are only what your creativity put on the game.

As so with previous years, the left stick controls your movement on the ice. If you push it hard up or down, the player will automatically go as fast as he possibly can. There is no speed burst in NHL 07. In fact, you only need to use two buttons on the game controller and the two analog sticks. The right trigger controls passing while the left trigger is what EA calls “vision control.” When you hit the left trigger, your player will always face up ice. This will give you a lot of control in and around the blue line where you must keep the puck in the zone to continue your attack on the other teams’ goaltender.

In addition to these gameplay and graphical enhancements there are some new additions to the game to give the GM mode in NHL a bit more depth. There are now seven different player types. Those seven are danglers, grinders, playmakers, snipers, power forwards, offensive defenseman and defensive defenseman. You can assign any player to any of these roles, but if you know how the players act in real life and assign them to the right role, you will have more success. In NHL 07, there are no icons while you are playing on ice to let you know which player is what style, which could be somewhat of a detriment to people who don’t necessarily watch the sport all the time. However, the game looks much cleaner without the icons clogging up things, so there are some upsides to taking out the icons.

On top of creating new player behaviors, NHL 07 will also be implementing a player leveling system. Getting your younger players game experience and having them be successful while on the ice shapes your draft picks into the next Wayne Gretzky. However, at the same time you must focus on keeping your veterans happy, lest they demand a trade.

EA has also switched up their announcers. Instead of having Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson announce the game, they have brought in former 2K Sports announcers Gary Thorne and Bill Clement. From their work on the 2K series of hockey games, the calling of saves, goals and fights should be in safe hands.

For you achievement junkies, there are twenty-six achievements in the game. Though no specifics have been revealed about those achievements, one would hope that they will finally do a sports title that will give players a reasonable challenge.

From what has been shown of NHL 07, the franchise is definitely going in the right direction. The game just screams next-generation from the graphics to the gameplay. Look for a review on NHL 07 around the release of the title, which is due to out in retail on September 12th, 2006 in North America.

Originally Written By: Art Green


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