Last year marked a landmark occasion for Sony's sports division: It managed to make a hockey game that wasn't unplayably bad. Throwing the development duties to classic hockey developers Page 44 Studios and digging up the great one himself, Wayne Gretzky, for cover-boy duty, Sony came out with Gretzky NHL 2005, an entirely playable game of hockey that simply didn't stand out amid the competition. Just under one year later, Gretzky NHL '06 is out, and lo and behold, it, too, fails to make a distinct impression. Suffering from the same not-quite-arcade, not-quite-simulation brand of gameplay as its predecessor, Gretzky '06 only manages to fix a few key issues, and tosses in some new ones for good measure. Hockey fans will be able to play Gretzky '06 without much frustration or duress, but that's really about all you can say for it.
Gretzky '06 retains many of the mechanics and concepts of last year's game, including nifty touches such as the manual aiming target icon that pops up in the net whenever you're about to take a shot, as well as a strength meter that builds up the longer you hold down the shot button for a slap shot. Control is generally a bit tighter, and it's a fair amount easier to get quick wristers off than it was in last year's game. The defensive artificial intelligence has also become more intelligent, though almost to a detrimental level. It seems like the developer went and played an awful lot of NHL 2005 after its game came out, because you'll see a whole lot of defenders kind of sucking themselves into you as you get closer to the net. No poke checking, no moderate defensive moves--just cold, hard checks that send you flat to the ice nine times out of 10. Then again, that is a little more forgivable in a game like Gretzky, in which realism seems about as far-flung a thought as Wayne himself coming out of retirement to center for the Coyotes.
Gretzky '06 is far more comparable to something like NHL Hitz than any of the simulation games on the market. The game is extremely fast paced on the default settings--almost too fast, really. The checks are big and overstated, the goal scoring is high, and everybody moves around the ice like a herky-jerky robot. That would be all well and good if Gretzky were simply resolved to being an arcade hockey game. Unfortunately, it takes a decidedly NFL Blitz Pro approach overall, throwing in a lot of simulation aspects that just don't gel well with the lighting speed and ridiculous checking. The game just refuses to lean far enough in one direction or another to really be appreciated on either level.
Goalie artificial intelligence, for instance, is terrible. It's way too easy to launch backhand shots from the blue line and have them magically go in, because the goalie stood up instead of jumping to the side. OK for an arcade game, perhaps, but not for a simulation game. But on the other side of the coin, penalties are called quite frequently. Not exactly overmuch, but because of all the checking, lots of penalties will get called throughout the course of the game. Fine for simulation play, but in a game that moves this fast and requires quick pacing to succeed, this just breaks up the action obnoxiously. And then there's the passing... Computer-controlled players can pull off incredible strings of passes that go between all five players in eight different directions for up to 10 to 20 seconds in what feels like an insidious game of keep away. You, on the other hand, will have trouble pulling off single passes to your teammates, because the auto-passing mechanic will sometimes just throw the puck to the least favorable player, or because your forwards simply refuse to come across the line into the offensive zone quick enough. You basically have to use the icon-passing system to play effectively. This isn't a criticism of the game's inability to pick a side and stick with it--it's just something that flat out sucks.
The one big new aspect of the gameplay in Gretzky '06 is also the one that suffers most from this wishy-washiness. The game employs something of a line-chemistry system, not unlike that of its competitors. Unlike those games, however, chemistry isn't determined by player typecasting, but rather by how much work a given line gets with one another, as well as by specific chemistry ratings given to each individual player. If you've got a guy with a lousy chemistry rating put on a line with two guys with great chemistry ratings, then he'll limit exactly how high the chemistry of that line can go. But, as with real hockey, the more you work a trio of forwards or pair of defensemen, the more comfortable they'll get with one another. Scoring goals, delivering big hits, and other such tasks will build it up even further.
The problem with it all, however, is that because things like scoring and hitting are so easy to do, if you're playing through a season or a franchise, it's incredibly easy to build up chemistry with any line to ridiculous levels, provided you have a halfway-decent roster. Chemistry does not automatically equal wins, mind you, and it's not like you're guaranteed a Stanley Cup simply because you have phenomenal chemistry. But it does beg the question of exactly what the usefulness of building chemistry is. It doesn't seem to earn you more goals or bigger hits or anything of that nature on a game-by-game basis. Ultimately, it's a great idea that simply isn't perceptively interesting or useful enough for you to ever care all that much about.
Featureswise, Gretzky is a marginally deeper package than it was last year. The franchise mode is certainly better than it used to be; it does a better job of keeping you up to speed on the financial aspects of the team and where you stand with the owners. It's also got the full AHL license, meaning you can use and play as authentic minor-league teams, complete with accurate rosters, if so inclined. Unfortunately, no salary cap is present in the mode, and apart from possibly enraging the team's owners, you can basically spend as you please for free agents.
Also, the mode does have some glitches. Specifically, they seem to center around issues with minor-league and main-team rosters. If you ever release a bunch of players or do anything that leaves you with incomplete lines or an incomplete AHL roster, the game will prompt you, asking if you want it to autosign players or autofill lines. For the love of God, say yes, because if you opt to manually edit and somehow do something the game doesn't like, it will refuse to simulate the season any further, and will never give you another error prompt to let you know exactly what it doesn't like. It's also easy to miss this at first, because the game takes a ludicrous amount of time to simulate a season (something like 20 minutes to a half-hour if you ask it to simulate every game and the playoffs); but in this case, it will actually stick on one day, and it won't move until you fix your roster. We actually lost one franchise save simply because we could not figure out what was hanging up the sim.
One new mode addition to Gretzky '06 is the Wayne vs. Wayne mode. If simply unlocking Wayne Gretzky for free-agent use wasn't enough for you last year, now you can actually put him on your team, in a special arcade-inspired mode. Here, you pick any two teams, as you normally would, and jump into a game, again, as you normally would. The game itself is even faster here, and decidedly light on the rules--again, making for a much more arcadey feel. You'll notice a couple of meters designated for each team. These meters are built up by performing combo passes, big goals, big hits, and all that other fun stuff. Once you get the meter built up to a proper level, you will enact 99 time!
No, this isn't some kind of lame spin on bullet time (though it does use a lousy motion-blur effect). Rather, Wayne Gretzky himself will traipse onto the ice for the amount of time you've built, acting as a sixth man on the ice. It's like a power play, but with an extra man on your side, instead of one down on the opposing team. 99 time is not a guaranteed goal or anything like that, but it makes all your players a lot harder to stop (and also ridiculously large compared to your opponents). OK, so it's a horribly self-indulgent concept, but actually, Wayne vs. Wayne mode is the one part of the game that seems willing to commit to one style of play, and it's the most fun you'll have in the game, hands down.
The rest of the modes are basically holdovers from the last game, including rivalry mode, a largely superfluous mode that simply lets you pick a couple of teams and call them rivals, tracking stats across a whole lot of games. Otherwise, the game offers the predictable tournaments, practice mode, and, of course, online play. Online has a lot of fringe benefits, like in-game message boards and other such features, but the core online play doesn't transcend basic head-to-head matches and tournaments, which, incidentally, don't work all that well right now. The basic online performance is there, though, and you won't notice more than marginal lag when playing against someone with a reasonable ping time.
All the Gretzky challenges are back yet again, and by achieving these challenges throughout the course of the game, you can earn points to unlock a bunch of jerseys, some goofy cheats and alternate play styles, and, of course, a few versions of the great one himself for your own nefarious use. Sadly, the overall list of unlockables is a bit fleeting, and it won't take you more than a handful of hours to get enough points to unlock the bulk of the good stuff.
Graphically, Gretzky retains the same bland, stiff look of the last game. The player models are actually reasonably well put together. Faces for the major players are accurate, and the basic body builds and jersey modeling is pretty good. Unfortunately, the animation is at best, stilted, and at worst, robotic. The game has just about the most awkward skating animation we've ever seen, and while some of the checks in the game look absolutely brutal, the transitions between them are practically nonexistent. There are times when you'll see a guy go from standing up right to flying through the air, without a point in between. It's just weird. Thankfully, the frame rate holds up solidly throughout the game--but it'd be hard for it not to, given how low-res all the ice and crowd graphics look.
Commentary is once again delivered by Mike Emrick and Darren Pang, and once again, they're pretty much useless. They do a better job of calling the correct actions on the ice, but if you're looking for actual insight, look elsewhere. It's also worth pointing out that hearing Pang commentate during the Wayne vs. Wayne mode is unintentionally hysterical. The way he calls out "They've loaded up on 99 time!" is just damned funny, for no especially good reason. The rest of the in-game audio is basically serviceable. The licensed music of last year has disappeared in favor of some harmless, if unremarkable, electronic beats, and the on-ice effects are merely OK, if a bit recycled sounding.
While Gretzky 2005 got by last year largely on the merit of it being a Sony-published hockey game that wasn't awful, Gretzky '06 gets no such pass. If Page 44 is going to continue producing hockey products for the platform, it has to acknowledge that it can't be both simulation and arcade at the same time and deliver a successful gameplay experience. It also has to step up its game and learn from what the competition is doing, rather than just make fringe additions that emulate but don't equal what competitors have brought to the table. Hell, this game doesn't even have even moderately updated rosters by default, despite coming out weeks later than the competition (there is an online download, but unless you have a network adapter, you're boned). Any hockey fan with a PlayStation 2 would be better served with NHL 2K6 or NHL 06 this year; once again, Gretzky is best left on the bench.