Commentary, opinion and news on the world of hockey.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

EA Sports: If it's in the game, I need a map

EA Sports has got to change it's catch phrase - "If it's in the game, it's in the game..." because honestly, it has absolutely no attachment to how the game actually plays.

Since the late 90's, EA's NHL franchise has been in steady decline. With every passing year, their versions of hockey went from the best available to the bottom of the heap (considering the NHL2k franchise, etc.). EA's NHL 04 was a huge improvement over the last several releases, however last year, NHL 05 was a major kick in the face to the game playing fanatics who dished out their hard earned coin for that barrel of dung.

Due mostly to file sharing programs like bit-torrent, several acquaintences were spared the agony of purchasing the product and simply downloaded it. However, the game mostly lay dormant. It truly says alot about the quality of a game when people who have obtained a free version don't even think it's worth the time to play.

Now comes NHL 06 (the PC version, in my case), and after playing the demo for a week or so, I decided that it was good enough, on it's face at least, for me to shell out the $39 to buy the full version. As it turns out, the demo was not indicative of what the full version brings.

The Positives

I'll start with the aspects of the game that are actually impressive - mostly because it won't take me long to type them. EA Sports has always been the leader in graphical presentation, and that holds true here. NHL 06 looks and sounds amazing - at least the on-ice portion of the game does. The player and arena detail are truly amazing, from the teams, players, on-ice advertising all the way up to the scoreboard and crowd. Every visual aspect of the on-ice game has been tuned and the presentation is second to none.

Secondly, the game is much harder over previous versions - at least so far. My main complaint about previous EA Sport's NHL releases was that they were much too easy. Take the last two years for example. Even on the most difficult settings, with the AI aggression tapped out, it was much too easy to score goals and much too easy to prevent the computer opponent from scoring them. I would routinely win games in the 9-1 range, and once I even went through an entire 82 game season with a mediocre team and didn't lose a single game. NHL 06 proves to be a much harder challenge on the 'difficult' setting (the 'medium' and lower settings are still much too easy).

The Negatives

However, as the old saying goes, be careful of what you wish for. EA's NHL 05 had many flaws, and one was the overabundance of hitting which barely allowed any kind of offensive game (for me, nearly 99% of my goals were scored from near the blueline off the rush). This flaw in the hitting game was incredibly annoying. Any player could smack the tar out of any other player despite physical attributes. Paul Kariya would have no problem bodychecking Zdeno Chara clear over the boards in NHL 05. Often a game (set on 5 minute periods) resulted in well over two hundred hits. Obviously this had to be changed substantially.

Well, it has been changed in NHL 2006. The problem is, EA has gone from a system that had way too many lumbering, interefering and ridiculous checks to a system where there are still ample body checks - but they simply have no effect. If an opposing player is carrying the puck and you dish out even the nastiest bodycheck, routinely the opposing player is shaken slightly - along with your own player - but almost always the opposing player manages to retain control of the puck while your own player has just thrown himself way out of position. This is the case for even some of the hardest checks dished out. The effect of body checks is laughable, and given the problems with last years version, highly ironic.

The lack of effective checking is a huge drawback in this game and it makes things extremely difficult when attempting to contain the AI team from moving around at will in your own end. Since body contact has virtually no effect on the opposing team's puck possesion (despite the 'puck control' setting cranked all the way to zero, and 'hitting power' cranked up to the max) there are very limited ways to take the puck from the other team. One option is the poke check. This works occasionaly, but just as frequently as it results in a turnover, it results in a tripping penalty. The other option is to hook or tie up the defender. This is somewhat effective, and there is a toggle setting in the game for how effective hooking is, however it often results in holding or interference penalties.

This brings me to another peeve of mine - lopsided penalties. As with the previous releases of EA's NHL franchise, NHL 2006 has craptastic penalty simulation. 30 games into a season, I've had 18 powerplays, while I've had to kill 102 penalties of my own. Holy lopsided Batman.

Not only is it lopsided in the numbers of penalties called, what's supremely more furstrating is the penalties that are not called on the opposition. The other team always gets away with hooking and interference galore, while your team will be sent to the sin bin as if they were trying to meet a quota. What gives with that, EA?

Given the huge defensive deficiencies that I talked about earlier, you can probably guess that my penalty killing is pretty bad. In fact, at a horrific 46% efficiency, my penalty killing would set world records for ineptness. But as I said before, there's not much you can do to stop the computer team from moving the puck around at will in your own end, especially down a man.

Which brings me to my next point - the goaltenders. Now, I will preface this by saying that I like it that the game is harder. In fact, harder scoring has long been a desire of mine. However, the agility of the goaltenders in the game is ludicrous. It is common for goaltenders to flip flop and sprawl their way to impossible saves time after time. After a while, it becomes extremely laughable - and irritating. Sure, there are always spectacular saves in hockey, however in NHL 06, there are spectacular saves up the wazoo. It gets to the point where you feel like giving up because the goaltenders routinely can and do stop shots that 99 times out of 100 in the real world would be a sure thing. I'm all for great goaltending, but this is beyond ridiculous.

And good luck trying to score on a slap-shot from the point (although the computer manages the feat). I've yet to score a goal from any further out than the hash marks. Even defensemen with cannon shots do not seem to tangle the twine. Gone is the use for the powerplay quarterbacks - and what fun is that?

Another glaring flaw - which has always been a complaint of mine - is that the AI is incredibly stupid. My own teammates will often stand completely still when the puck is directly in front of them. It doesn't matter where on the ice you are, the offensive or defensive zone, you pretty much have to constantly switch player control just in order to get the players to do what would come naturally to them in the real world. Has anyone ever seen a player in an NHL game just stand there and watch the puck slide past his feet as he stands in front of the wide-open opposition net? Or can anyone recall a defenseman instead of clearing a rebound, just standing motionless in front of his own net as the puck sits directly in front of him after his goalie made a save? I didn't think so. It's hard to believe that AI flaws like this still exist after this many years of development.

While the on-ice graphics are stunning, the user interface leaves much to be desired in some cases. Cycling though player and team stats is a chore. And why is it that there is only enough space to see the top 4 or 5 player stats on your team (before having to scroll down)? That's idiotic. I miss the good old days when an entire team's player stats would be displayed on on page without scrolling. Putting together trades is also very clunky and time consuming. They really could take a page from the Microsoft point and click system.

The Conclusion

Overall, EA Sport's NHL 06 is a small step up from 05, but that isn't really saying much. The presentation is impressive, as usual, but you know what they say about not judging a book by its cover. If style over substance is what you are after, then go ahead and dish out the cash, because EA does deliver graphically. However, if the great gameplay is what you seek, I don't think there's enough changes from last year to recommend buying it.

I have to shake my head again at EA Sports. They just seem to fly so far from the mark that it blows my mind. NHL 04 was a great game - it simply needed some minor tweaking to make it harder. Instead, EA has enhanced tha graphics (which is a good thing), but has strayed so far from realism, or fun, for the on-ice action, that I can't believe that we keep coming back to it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Can the defense hack it?

I know it's only September, and narry a game has been played. But I have this sinking feeling in my gut. The Vancouver Canuck defense looks, well, thin to me. The top 3 compare well to any other top 3 in the league. But after that, the pickings are slim.

Alot of weight will be placed on the shoulders of Bryan Allen, a thought that makes me nervous.
"He's (Allen) the wild card in all this," Head coach Marc Crawford said. "We're going to be asking him to play 25 or 26 minutes a game."
Wow. 25 or 26 minutes a game from a guy who's never been asked to check the other team's best lines and still wound up a -10. Adding ten minutes/game of ice time is a serious request (he averaged roughly 16:30/game last season) and I have doubts about his ability to effectively punch in for almost half a game.

The fifth and sixth spots will probably be filled by McCarthy and Butenschon/Baumgartner, which is fine, because most teams depth chartys will be fairly thin at these spots anyways.

But in my opinion, the Canucks need one more solid defenseman to be a serious contender - someone of the ilk of Brendan Witt. I'm not a huge Cloutier fan, and I believe that he will need all the help he can get in front of him, and the current edition of the Canuck's blueline likely won't strike fear into the hearts of many.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Datsyuk heads home...

According to TSN, Pavel Datsyuk has turned down a $5 million contract offer from the Red Wings to play in Russia. Datsyuk thinks he's worth in the $6 millio/season range:
"I think I am worth at least what (Dany) Heatley or (Joe) Thornton got from their deals," Datsyuk told the Russian media.
There's a couple of things wrong with his logic. First, why would he think that his NHL career total of 53 goals matches up with what Joe Thornton has done? Right, it doesn't. Also, his totals in Russia last year were less than impressive.

Secondly, I believe that Dany Heatley is slated to make $3.5 million this year. I realize that over the life of his contract, he will average around $5 million/season, but reportedly the Red Wings have already offered Datsyuk that kind of cash. So what gives with that, Pavel?

I'm so sick of the nature of the modern athlete. Datsyuk is over-estimating his value on a massive scale. There's no way that he's worth that kind of money. I'm frankly shocked that he was offered $5 million. That's a ton of cash for a guy who has really had one solid season - at 27 years old. So you know what? Let Datsyuk move to Russia. Let him leave the cozy confines of a Stanley Cup contender to go play in Siberia.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Something Cooke-ing in Vancouver?

Canucks GM Dave Nonis and veteran forward Matt Cooke are apparently quite a ways apart on a new contract - and the fight is getting messy. Nonis and Cooke's agent, Pat Morris, have excahnged verbal shots through the media in the last few days. According to Nonis, the Cooke camp is looking to be #4 or #5 on the pay-scale for forwards - adding that "If he [Cooke] was looking for Sedin money ($1.25 million per), he would be signed already."

On the other side of the coin, Cooke's agent steadfastly disputes the claim that he is looking to be paid excessively, but refuses to say what Cooke's asking price is.

My question is, what is Matt Cooke doing? Yes, he is a popular player, but in no way is he irreplacable. Does he deserve to make more than the Sedins? I don't think that's the case at all. I may take some heat for that, but truly, Cooke is a 3rd line player - a very gritty and hard working one at that, but he is not indispensable.

If his gamble does not pay off, that leaves Cooke with limited options. If he is not signed by December 01, he won't collect a paycheque for the second straight year. How attractive is that? Considering that Nonis has publically stated that he would have signed Cooke for the Sedins salary, why would he risk that guarantee over an extra couple of hundred thousand dollars?

Sounds petty to me.

The ball is firmly in the Canuck's court here, and Nonis has options. The most likely is to trade Cooke for a decent defenseman. Will that happen? Who knows.

Today Nonis signed goaltender Brent Johnson, and I sort of scratch my head. When will Alex Auld get his shot? He's been waiting in the wings for quite some time and to get pushed back to Manitoba for Johnson this year can't inflate the ego much. If Auld isn't in the Canuck's plans, why keep him around at all?

Personally, I think he deserves a shot at the full-time backup (oxymoron extraordinaire!) spot, regardless of his minor league struggles.

Given the fact that the Canucks are on the verge of passing the cap limit, something has to be brewing here in Canuckville. What that is, we shall see.