EA Sports’ NHL franchise has been in a couple year funk, with NHL 2005 and NHL 06 being relatively disappointing titles. NHL 07 for the Xbox 360 is EA’s first foray into next-generation hockey, built from the ground up to actually be a next-generation experience. Does EA pull it off? Despite a few gameplay annoyances and barebones features in both the online and offline portions of the game, the addition of the skill-stick and the mind-blowing graphics makes NHL 07 a no-brainer for any fan of the coolest game on Earth.

The first thing that will stand out about NHL 07 is the tremendously detailed character models, which are arguably some of the best to be found out of any sports title to date. You cannot necessarily see all the very fine detail in the game while it is in action, due to the default camera angle. However, go to the instant replay and just zoom in on the players. You can see the thread on the numbers of the player’s jersey; turn around and look at that players face and you can immediately recognize that player. During the cut-scenes in between stoppages of play, the graphical detail is even more mind-blowing.

One of the other great things about the graphics in 07 is the goaltenders. When you shoot to their glove, you will see the puck go into their glove properly, whereas in previous iterations of the game, it seemed like the puck magically sucked into their hand. Their pads are actually not stuck to their leg this time around, so you actually see their pads go flush to the ice to prevent the puck from sneaking through their legs. The crowd is also worth mentioning in NHL. When the puck goes into the corner, you can see the crowd standing up and cheering. They are all in full 3D and look realistic

Now, the game looks great, but how does it play? Well, let me assure you, the skill stick that EA has put into the game probably is the single greatest thing to happen to hockey games in a very long time. It gives you a level of control that has not been seen before in a hockey game. You get the feeling that you actually have complete control of what your player is doing. It feels like you actually made the goalie pull a hamstring when you pulled off an insane deke, and that you can do what you want to do.

For those of you who do not know what the skill stick is, the right analog is your hockey stick. Move it to the right, the puck goes to the right, go to the left, and the puck goes left. Flick the stick up and you snap the puck on goal, or you can choose to pull the analog back and then forward to unleash a vicious slapshot. The advanced moves include moving along the edges of the analog and pushing up to unleash a more powerful wrist shot, or driving the analog around to perform a spin deke. The system works extremely well, and while it has a steep learning curve, once you get it, it just feels right.

What the skill stick does is kill the over-reliance in hockey video games on the one-timer. For the first time, your means of scoring is not limited passing it off to a teammate and scoring your 1,437th one-timer goal. In fact, if you choose to use the one-timer too much in NHL 07, you are not going to get anywhere fast. The game manages to accurately portray the one timer correctly, as in the one-timer is a hard move to pull off in the game of hockey. It takes a lot of precision and timing between two different people, which is why it is an extremely exhilarating goal to see and to connect on. When you do pull one off, it just feels a whole lot better in 07, as you have to work for them and time them correctly.

Despite all that, there are some annoyances about the gameplay that do hinder things slightly. First off, EA revamped its puck physics to try to stop the black biscuit from being magnetic. While it works fairly well outside shooting the puck, too many shots trickle in the goal through the goaltender. If this was just once in a while, it’d be fine, because the puck does do some strange things. Too many times you or the AI will shoot the puck, hit the goaltender and slowly find its way into the back of the net.

Another problem that was encountered is that defense is a bit boring to play. You don’t have too many options at your disposal besides checking and poke checking, and with the skill stick, it’s easy to get around over-aggressive checkers. Lastly, you change players by pressing the right trigger, and a lot of times when you pick a new player, his momentum is carrying him in the wrong direction or you just flat out cannot get to the right player that you need to perform the right play. These are minor problems, but problems nonetheless. Overall, though, you cannot get much better than the gameplay that is found in NHL 07.

Sound wise, the game is good, but not spectacular. The old duo from the 2K Sports series Bill Clement and Gary Thorne are here to call the game. They are the cream of the crop in hockey broadcasting, and they do an excellent job lending their voices. However, like most sports games, you will have heard pretty much everything they have to offer in commentary after a while. The in-game sounds are all solid, from the sound of the skates scraping against the ice, to the roar of the crowd, to the sound of stick hitting puck, all the way down to player and coach chatter. However, the soundtrack in the game is seriously lacking. There seems to be only about three or four songs on the soundtrack and they get recycled over and over again. It does not help that all of the songs do not merit listening to.

One of the biggest knocks that can be made on NHL is that it is relatively featureless. It has a ten year dynasty mode, a world championship mode and the “Dodge Shootout Mode”. The online is bare, with just the standard unranked/ranked matches. Speaking of online, for the most part, it plays alright. Depending on your connection you will receive more or less amount of lag. For the game that I played, I did experience some slow-down. Not to the point where it was unmanageable, but it does screw up your timing in some instances. NHL 07 will also catch flak for not including online leagues, which EA has not supported in any of their sports games for no apparent good reason. However, if given the choice of excellent gameplay or excellent online options and plentiful offline features, I know I’d lean towards the gameplay.

Regardless of the relatively barebone features in the offline and the online and despite some annoyances in the gameplay, what NHL does is re-invent the way hockey games are played and makes hockey games feel new again. For that, this hockey fan is grateful. Anyone who is a fan of hockey owes it to themselves to pick up this title.

Originally Written By: Art Green

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