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.
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).
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.
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.