After a long stint of dealing with nothing but lockouts, salary caps, and empty hockey stadiums, puck fans are all smiles after some recent bits of good news. The NHL and NHLPA have decided to stop being foolish and give hockey fans a 2004/2005 season. What's even better is that the upcoming hockey games are just around the corner, including the most recent game in EA Sports' perennial hockey series, NHL 06. We've been smacking the puck around with an updated build of NHL 06 lately in an effort to see how much progress the game has made since last year's disappointing entry.
First, let's talk defense. If you remember our review of NHL 2005, one of the biggest problems with the game was the "magnetic" defensemen that ate up nearly every scoring opportunity you had, and basically negated any chance of you pulling off a fast break. The defense in NHL 06 has been toned down a bit. In fact, once you learn the intricacies of how the defense plays this time around, you'll find a much more wide-open game on the ice and one that can get a bit score-happy if you're not careful. NHL 06's defensive artificial intelligence, at least in the build we played, still plays pretty tough in one-on-one situations, but, with a little effort and some careful passing, can be exposed to one-timers with passes from just beyond the blue line with relative ease.
While playing defense, we noticed some tangible size differences between defensemen, like Mike Rathje and Kyle McLaren (we're Sharks fans, so sue us), and the more lithe forwards in the game. That bulky size translates to skating ability, too. We got deked by our share of Iginlas, Sundins, and Modanos in one-on-one situations, and as such we learned the best tactic on defense is holding back, keeping your body between the puck and the net, and letting the offense come to you, otherwise you're just setting yourself up to get owned.
On offense, the most notable additions are the skill stick (which is tied to the right analog stick on the PS2, Xbox, or GameCube controller) and the new deke system (tied to the left stick). The skill stick lets you pull off some special trick shots that, if aren't always effective, are at least impressive to look at. Only those designated as "stars" on your team will be capable of these offensive moves, and they'll be noted as such on the ice with an illuminated star icon when that player is highlighted. There's also the shot-targeting system, the concept of which is borrowed from the Gretzky NHL series. This system lets you put the puck exactly where you want it by aiming with the left analog stick before you wind up for a shot.
Dynasty mode is where most NHL 06 fans will hang their hat in the single-player game, and this year's game enjoys many of the same features as its predecessor. Starting off, you'll be customizing your league as you see fit--choosing period length, season and playoff tiebreak options, setting rules like penalty and fighting frequency, even choosing whether or not you wish to award teams a point for an overtime loss (and if you are a real puck fan, the answer should be a resounding no). After setting up the league, it's time to pick the team you wish to take to Stanley Cup glory. New for this year is the ability to substitute your created team or an elite league team into dynasty mode, so if you think the Columbus Blue Jackets should be replaced with your Baton Rouge Swamp Spiders (or the Finnish SM-liiga Espoon Blues, for that matter) you can make it happen.
Just like last year, whichever team you choose in dynasty mode will have a set of owner expectations that are unique to each team. The Atlanta Thrashers, for example, are expected to finish the regular season with the top power play percentage in the league. The Tampa Bay Lightning's goals are a bit more ambitious: win the Stanley Cup and be among the top five profit-earning teams in the NHL. Along with these team goals is a pie graph that indicates the team's priorities in three specific areas: ambition, profit, and team. Once you've chosen the team you wish to captain in the dynasty mode, you'll be able to choose one of several different management styles that will alter those priorities accordingly. How you choose to manage your team will also give you bonuses in particular areas of team management. A "shrewd" manager, for example, puts an emphasis on profit over ambition and, as such, will receive a discount when it comes to upgrading his or her accounting and legal departments. Conversely, an "ex-coach" GM puts the team first, his ambition for Stanley Cup silver second, and profit a distant third, and will receive discounts on assistant coaching and gym upgrades.
These upgrade discounts can prove extremely valuable as your season progresses. After all, successful roads to the NHL playoffs are paved with more than great skaters and brick-wall goalies. It takes an entire staff of dedicated pros to propel a team to greatness, and, though you won't be hiring your coaches directly, you will be able to choose exactly how much cash you wish to sink into every single aspect of your organization. The better your assistant general manager, for example, the better chance a team will accept a trade, and having a skilled assistant coach gives you an additional bonus at your scheduled practices. You can also upgrade your marketing department to increase home attendance and your merchandising revenue. Upgrades start out cheap and get more expensive as you go. Your revenue will increase after each game (at least, that's the idea) and you'll be able to sink more cash into your organization.
Running Hot and Cold
Once your season kicks off in earnest, you can expect to see players go on hot and cold streaks, or be sidelined with injury or illness. Because of these up-and-down vagaries, you'll want to keep a close eye on your lines in order to make sure each one you put on the ice is at maximum efficiency. Chemistry plays a part in each line's effectiveness, and you can either set these lines manually or choose to have your assistant coach set the lines automatically for optimum efficiency. After all, the higher a line's chemistry, the bigger the bonus you earn when you're on the ice.
Just like last year, scheduled practices play a role in this year's dynasty mode. You won't be scheduling every single hour of your team's practices. Instead, you'll be choosing from a number of preset practice templates--light skate, up-tempo, tactical, no contact, and so on--all of which will have specific benefits to your players, such as improving your penalty kill or power plays, increasing your face-off odds, or giving you a better chance at a comeback. On game day you can check out details of your next matchup, including breakdowns on each goalie's weakness and your opposition's typical tactics per line.
In terms of day-to-day management of your team, dynasty mode in NHL 06 will provide breakdowns of your team finances and allow you to tweak things like ticket and concession prices in order to up your bottom line or to bring more fans to the rink. A dynamic fan loyalty meter will gauge the response to your financial tweaks from your team's supporters, and you can compare how your team's bottom line is doing against any other team in the league. If you're curious about your roster, you can break down how each player on your team is doing, take a look at the player's overall and potential ratings, and learn more about his specific contract. If you're looking to add talent to your team, scouting reports give you a quick glance at all of the available talent in the league, including letter grades for attributes such as offense, defense, strength, and potential. Those letter grades are further broken down by their degree of reliability (if you want better scouting accuracy, you'll need to upgrade your scouting staff accordingly).
Outside of dynasty mode, NHL 06 has a Tiger Woods/Fight Night-inspired player- creation tool, which even gives you the ability to create your own team from scratch. You can whip up both your home and away jerseys using a number of different preset logos and jersey templates. The world tournament returns in NHL 06, where you take the national team of your choice against seven of the best countries in the world. Speaking of the cosmopolitan hockey scene, three Elite League series make their way into NHL 06: Sweden's Elitserien, Germany's DEL, and Finland's SM-liiga. Just as in the dynasty mode, you can substitute any team found in the game here in order to create the league of your dreams.
In addition to online play, the party game "free for all" mode returns--pitting up to four players on the ice at the same time as they attempt to perforate a goalie in either a set amount of time, or to a set amount of goals. Just like last year, it's a quick and fun mode that will serve as a nice alternative when the grueling 82-game regular season schedule begins to wear you down. Finally, NHL 06 players on the PS2 will get a special treat: a fully playable version of NHL 94, which looks and plays pretty much exactly like you remember it--blue ice, clunky menus, and all.
We had a good time with this preview build of NHL 06, fueled partially by our excitement that the real NHL is on its way back to a fan base that's missed the sport. Still, the game itself is aiming to correct some of the problems in last year's game. Will NHL 06 overcompensate for the offensive drought in last year's game, or will it return the NHL series to the quality path it began with NHL 2004? We'll have our answers later this year, when the final version of NHL 06 reaches store shelves.