Sports games have been the most numerous titles to grace the next-generation Xbox 360. We’ve had football, golf, basketball, american football and now we have a next-generation Ice Hockey game. With Basketball 2K6 already released we were expecting this new title to be graphically superb, sadly we were greatly disappointed.

One of the newest features of NHL 2K6 involves clicking your right thumbstick in. When your on defence and you click in your thumbstick you will take a position behind your goalie where you will have to control a cone of vision while trying to save the puck. The cone will be red if you aren’t in a good position to make a save, and you’ve guessed it, it’ll be green if you are in the perfect position. You could in fact stay behind the goalie for pretty much the entire match, but to be honest you miss out on all the action and although it’s a pretty neat idea I find that it takes the fun out of stopping the opposing attackers from even hitting the puck.

When you’re on the offence and you click in the thumbstick you will find yourself with a virtual controller in front of you. The great thing about this virtual controller is that you can make pin point passes all the time. The problem is that you can’t do combos as once you’ve hit the puck, the options disappear and you have to re-click the thumbstick. The idea is a great one, but again like the goalkeeper ‘Crease Control’ option I find that the new ‘Power Play’ removes a lot of skill usually required when playing an Ice Hockey title.

As for game modes there are loads on offer, as you would expect from any high ranking sporting game. You get the usual franchise mode, which sees you take a team into the thick of the Ice Skating world and you must try to lead your team to glory and thus stamp your name into virtual Ice Hockey history. Franchise will have you playing until the wee hours of the morning whopping your most hated team or buying that player who you’ve been eyeing up for the past two seasons. You also have party mode which involves eighteen different mini-games to battle it out against friend or foe. Personally I never really liked party mode and instead always opted for a good old one on one with a mate. There are of course practice modes where you can refine your offence, defence, goalkeeping and shootout skills.

There is of course Xbox Live to think about. Now talking to some American friends they all think that the game is absolutely awesome online, like nothing on earth and it really adds months of life onto a game which has a lot of stiff competition. The problem is that I can never seem to get into a game, maybe it’s something to do with the British, but out of thirty attempts at starting a game I only ever managed to play 2. For me that is terrible having to try and get into a game fifteen times before actually getting onto the ice. Hopefully a patch will be released, but for now I would pass on online matches.

Now I heard that the most improved aspect of the Xbox version was the graphics and that’s what you’d expect. I mean Battlefield 2, Fifa 06, Far Cry all of them have vastly improved in the graphics department …. and that’s about it. Now I myself never played the Xbox version and to be honest the graphics in NHL 2K6 are below par. For one the hockey players don’t look that much different, apart from the different hairstyles there really isn’t that much that separates one player from another. The eyes, nose and mouths all seem to be the same on each and every player that I get a close up on which really does make the game lose that unique feel that you usually get with sports games.

As for animation it all looks pretty good, skating is as smooth and as fluid as what you would expect. Also things like body checking and hooking are all pulled of very nicely in the game. Replays are let down by the fact that the puck is very glitchy and will go through the hockey stick before it moves. This is a shame as games like FIFA have perfected the art of replays and it would be nice if the same could be said about NHL 2K6. Saying that the actual Ice Rinks to look very good, they shine at the start of a game and will slowly deteriorate throughout the game or at least until the end of a quarter. Also your ice trails looks very nice in the game and things like the powder residue you get from turning sharply do in fact look very realistic. Another neat thing I noticed is that the powder from turning, sticks to your hockey boots and adds that little bit more realism to the game.

As for the gameplay side of things it all seems a tad to easy. Every time I got the puck I could quite happily take it from one end to the other without so much as a challenge from the opposing team. Even on All-Star setting I still found it a breeze getting past the defenders and taking a pot shot at the goalie. What’s more the default easy setting is quite literally like taking candy from a baby. You could take on the opposing team without a goalie and only one attacker and still win, so I would recommend you bump it up to Pro before starting a game. Don’t get me wrong you will get challenged every now and again, but it just seems like they opponent AI is rather slow even on the All-Star setting. The earlier mentioned Crease Control does come into its own when a shootout takes place as you’ll find saving shoots a hell of a lot easier as you actually have control of the goalie.

The new ‘On the fly’ coaching within the game also adds the ability to change your style of play while in the middle of the game. A simple press of your D-Pad can change your offensive team into a defensive. The best bit though is the mini-instructions. For example if you’re on defence you can order your team to cover your goalie and in effect make a wall against the opposing team. You can also clear the crease if you choose to and do things like instructing your team to pinch. There are a few more options which over time you will get accustomed to, but overall it’s a nice addition and what’s more it does make the game a lot nicer to play.

Also you will notice that some players will have a red E underneath their name. At first I thought this was a penalty of some sort, but after a quick read of the manual I realised that it does in fact show which players are the most intimidating to the opposing team. You may wonder what this means while playing, well simply put the other team will back off when the ‘E’ player has the puck. This addition seemed at first to be a tad pointless, over time though you will find yourself using the ‘E’ player to get behind the defence and play that all important pass to one of your fellow team mates. The other addition to the game is Maximum Goaltending, which is where you have the chance to take complete control of your goalkeeper. To be completely honest it’s a pointless feature as it’s to hard controlling your keeper and much like Crease Control it just isn’t fun, so I would steer clear of that one.

Audio wise the game sounds absolutely awesome when plugged into 5.1 surround sound. The sound of the puck being hit by your stick, the thud as it lands in the goalies hands even the sound of your skates gliding over the ice all sound stunningly realistic. The sad thing is at the crowd seem rather lifeless in NHL 2K6. For example when playing Fifa you will notice the crowd’s cheering will get louder and louder when a certain team gets nearer to their opponents goal and yet in NHL you don’t get this. I understand that Ice Hockey is faster paced, but even when a game has gone into a shootout the crowd provide no support in terms of sound level to the skaters on the rink. Commentating in NHL 2K6 is Bob Cole and Harry Neale and to be completely honest I have no clue who they are, even so they do an admirable job. They provide you with a good insight into the game, sadly like all sporting games after a few hours of listening to them you can pretty much predict what they are going to say next.

My overall view is somewhat bad. The game itself plays very nicely, you got high speed not stop action, with matches being won and lost by nothing more than your own instincts. Saying that graphically the game is awful, in fact I think it’s one of the worst 360 titles released thus far. The player models all look like they’ve been copied and pasted onto each other; what’s more replays are so glitchy that you would rather miss that wonder goal from the half way line than watch the puck going through your stick in slow motion. Online doesn’t save the game like it usually can with other games (Battlefield 2 for one…), it’s impossible getting into a game and even if they do make a patch it will be at least two maybe three months before it’s released. Would I recommend this game to a friend? Sadly the answer is no, games like Fifa 06, NBA 2K6 even Madden completely blow this title away and it’s a shame as this could have been a great next-gen title.

Originally Written By: Lee Matthews

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