Even in retirement, Wayne Gretzky continues to make headlines in hockey. Not only is the greatest player of all time looking to take the coaching reigns of the Phoenix Coyotes (the team for which he is currently managing partner), but he's also back making his presence felt in video games, with the Sony-published Gretzky NHL series. The debut of the series launched with the release of the PSP, but Sony is hard at work on the next version of the sequel, dubbed Gretzky NHL 06. We had a chance to check out a demo of the game--in both PS2 and PSP formats--to see what's new this time around. In addition to a standard exhibition mode, the mode we were most interested in seeing was the brand-new "Wayne vs. Wayne" mode. On the surface, this mode appears like your everyday five-on-five hockey. The key difference in this mode, however, is found in something called "99 time" (a reference to Gretzky's number 99 jersey ). Practically any action you pull off on the floor during a game will either add or subtract from your 99 time. Spreading the puck among your teammates, landing big hits, and, of course, putting the biscuit in the basket will add to your 99 time, while taking hits, making bad passes, and getting scored upon will subtract from your total. Once your 99 time reaches the magical total of 99, Wayne Gretzky will appear onscreen and be available as a player on your team for a limited time, giving you the benefit of not only a six-on-five situation on the ice (a modified power play, so to speak), but also the skills of the Great One at your fingertips.
On the ice, the simulated Gretzky appears slightly larger the normal player model, and the icon that surrounds the player model is more intricate, making it very easy to spot Wayne on the ice. Once your bonus time runs out, your point totals will reset, and you'll need to work your way back up. Stringing together combos on the ice--such as a nice interception followed by a snappy one-timer goal) will give you even more bonus 99 time, letting you access Wayne in a quicker fashion and more often. Of course, the computer-controlled team (or a human competitor) will also have access to Wayne, too, so it's possible to have six-on-six matches with two versions of Wayne on the ice battling each other. If you manage to enlist Gretzky five times in a game, you'll earn a super-Gretzky bonus that will give you five playable Waynes on the ice for a brief time. Surely you'll be able to score a goal with that lineup.
In terms of the game's look, Gretzky NHL 06 has a slicker presentation package this time around, with flashy lighting effects on big hits and text notifications flashing onscreen when you pull off a 99 time-worthy play. Player models still look a bit rough around the edges, but considering the game is only approximately 50 percent through development, we're holding out hope that things will improve on this front.
Though the playable demos only featured a slimmed-down version of Gretzky, the PS2 version of Gretzky will feature things like a rivalry system that will keep lifetime stats from every game played in that rivalry stored and viewable every time the rivalry is revisited. Meanwhile, a new chemistry feature will find your team gelling on the ice the more it plays together and works as a team. Additionally, online functionality will support up to 64 team tournaments. Add to the game's feature list an expanded franchise mode, downloadable rosters, and the inclusion of 30 AHL teams to the mix, and you have the makings of a much bigger version of Gretzky than last year.
The PSP version will include both a quick game and a season mode, online play via ad hoc or infrastructure mode, and all-new commentary. We're still waiting to hear whether you'll be able to share your PS2 Gretzky season information with your PSP version, for when you want to take your hockey mobile (a feature that's been rumored on). We'll have this answer and plenty more information on both versions of Gretzky as we head toward its release later this year.