When visiting EA Canada, it doesn't take long to become immersed in hockey culture. A simple cab ride from the airport to the publisher's offices in Burnaby (just outside downtown Vancouver) is all you need to confirm that, yes, the Canadians are in love with the fastest game on ice. There's off-season trade talk on the sports-talk coming from the car radio, the cabbie wants to talk about not only his Canucks but whatever NHL team you call your own, and there's memorabilia everywhere. With the upcoming release of NHL 07 for PlayStation Portable, hockey fans, whether in Canada or abroad, will have more access to their favorite sport than ever before. The series is making its long-awaited debut on the Sony handheld, and we got a chance to see how the game is progressing during our recent trip up north.
The portability of NHL 07 for PSP is an undeniable advantage for hockey game fans, but the development team at EA Montreal is also trying to make sure that folks have a reason to purchase both the handheld version of the game as well as the traditional console version. The big hook is the "link" capabilities between the PSP version of the game and the PlayStation 2 version of NHL 07. Players who own a copy of both games will be able to synch up their data between the two versions of the game to make sure that wherever they are, they're playing the most "recent" version of their dynasty season. As one producer put it, for example, folks will be able to play the games when they are at home on their PS2, then deal with the GM duties on their morning commute on the bus or train.
That NHL 07 will include a full dynasty mode is another hook for the puck faithful--there's even a slightly simplified form of the NHL salary cap you'll need to be mindful of when building your team from the ground up or continuing it on its winning ways. Team chemistry will also play a part in how your team performs on the ice, and each team will have individual expectations from ownership that you will also need to keep in mind. According to producers, the goals are randomized for each team so that each season, you'll have a new set of expectations to meet. As your team succeeds you'll earn "trust" points with your team, which you can then use to purchase upgrades for your team. Furthermore, when you create your virtual general manager, you'll have to choose a GM profile, which will include a specific advantage and disadvantage that you will need to take into consideration. Finally, you won't be restricted to simply running an NHL team in dynasty mode; you can also play dynasties in Elite League, such as the Finnish Elite League and the newly added Czech Elite League.
The dynasty mode, salary cap, and owner expectations aside, you can only spend so much time in the GM's office "pushing papers"; eventually you're going to want to hit the ice in NHL 07. In terms of gameplay, producers told us that the development team had three main areas of focus when tackling this year's on-ice game. Goalies were first and foremost--the desperation saves introduced in last year's Xbox and PS2 game have been toned down a bit, meaning netminders won't necessarily be flopping all over the crease when events don't warrant it. Secondly, the defensive artificial intelligence has been adjusted as well; now, players in the defensive zone tend to stick to their prescribed zones when defending, as opposed to getting out of position all the time and giving up easy goals.
The final big area of focus involves the right analog stick in the current gen console versions of NHL 07. Last year's game introduced the skill stick, which let you easily pull off an array of deke moves when moving the puck up ice. The general tone of player feedback, according to game producers was that this addition made the game feel "too arcadey," so the skill stick has been tossed in NHL 07. Instead, the right analog stick will be used for passing the puck in the PS2 and Xbox versions of NHL 07, while shots will be controlled with the trigger button. Of course, because the PSP doesn't have a second analog stick, the handheld version of NHL 07 will be more familiar to series vets.
This isn't to say that everything is the same in the PSP game, however. For one thing, player types have been expanded in all versions of NHL 07 including sniper, playmaker, grinder, dangler, power forwards, offensive defenseman, and defensive defenseman. Each of these player types obviously have quite different abilities--a sniper won't be crashing guys into the boards, for example, as that's the defensive defenseman's job. A dangler is the guy with the puck weaving through traffic and making the jaw-dropping shot, while an offensive defenseman is a defender with a cannon shot from the blue line. Icons underneath each player on the ice will identify which role a particular player has, as well as whether or not he is a "star" player.
From a presentation standpoint, the PSP version of NHL 07 holds up well against what you've come to expect from the console versions of the game. Player models are well modeled and relatively detailed, and the PSP is capable of showing off small detail touches, such as skate trails and player shadows falling across the ice. Best of all, the game runs at a quick clip, too--whether playing five-on-five or checking out the new shootout mode, we didn't notice any obvious slowdown in the game's performance. If you're on the go and looking to hook up with fellow PSP hockey fans, NHL 07 should fit the bill; the game will include both ad hoc and infrastructure wireless play for head-to-head multiplayer matches.
NHL 07 is looking to make a strong debut on the PSP, with gameplay and features designed to both stand on their own and complement the PlayStation 2 version of the game through the two systems' linking capabilities. We'll be following the progress of all versions of NHL 07 in the coming months leading up to its September release, so stay tuned for more.