It's only been about seven months since the Gretzky NHL franchise made its inauspicious debut on the PSP hardware to coincide with the system's launch. A port of Sony's first semi-decent PlayStation 2 hockey game...well, ever...Gretzky NHL Hockey on the PSP suffered in translation. The game was saddled with a near unplayable frame rate, a lack of particularly interesting play modes, and puck-handling mechanics that fell squarely on the weak side. Now Gretzky NHL '06 is here, as yet another port of the latest Sony PlayStation 2 game. For this latest game, Page 44 Studios has made a couple of improvements here and there. But for the most part, this is still a fairly lackluster game of hockey that doesn't really need to be in your PSP collection.
Gretzky '06 retains many of the mechanics and concepts from the last 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. Shot control is generally a bit tighter, and it's fairly easier to get quick wristers off than it was in last year's game. However, the passing and puck-handling mechanics here are still sloppy as all get-out. It's still much too easy to just skate right over the puck without actually picking it up, and passing is generally all over the place in terms of accuracy.
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. This is mainly an issue with all the difficulty settings above the default one (which is basically the bottom rung), but you'll certainly want to choose one above that level, since scoring gets pretty ridiculous on the default setting. 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. In fact, it's almost too fast. 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 by 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. This is 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. They're not called overmuch, but because of all the checking, lots of penalties will get called throughout the course of a game. This is 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 autopassing mechanic will sometimes just throw the puck to your least favorable player. And sometimes your forwards will simply refuse to come across the line and in to the offensive zone quickly 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 then 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. Rather, it's determined by how much work a given line's members get with one another, as well as by specific chemistry ratings given to each player. If you've got a guy with a lousy chemistry rating on a line with two guys with great chemistry ratings, then the guy with the lousy rating will 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 a pair of defensemen, the more comfortable the members will get with one another. Scoring goals, delivering big hits, and other such tasks will build up chemistry 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 it becomes 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 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 isn't perceptively interesting or useful enough for you to ever care about all that much.
Features-wise, Gretzky is a marginally deeper package than it was earlier this year. There's still no franchise mode, but there is a full season to play through. We say "play through" because you're not going to want to mess with simulating much of it. Simulation times are painfully long, so you're better off just playing all the games. There's also still no salary cap or anything to that effect, so have fun cherry-picking all the free agents you'd like to have on your team. At least trades are realistic...
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 then you can jump into a game, again, as you normally would. The game becomes even faster, and it's decidedly light on the rules. Again, this makes for a much more arcadelike 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 rink 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 fewer on the opposing team. 99 time does not guarantee a goal or anything like that, but it makes all your players a lot harder to stop (and it also makes them 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. There is also a progressive version of the mode that puts you up against team after team. It's not exactly brilliant, but hey, at least it's something to do.
Apart from these additions, there's not much new in Gretzky '06. The game is online again, and it's just head-to-head play for ad hoc and infrastructure connections. However, good luck with the infrastructure. During the course of our testing, we ran into a copious number of connection errors while trying to play. Half the time we couldn't even get a game started, and once we did, the server lag was pretty heinous.
It's also worth mentioning that Gretzky '06 does feature the most up-to-date default rosters of any hockey game out there right now. Just don't expect to get any online roster downloads or anything. To combat this, the developer shoved in a bunch of generic rookies that are clearly supposed to represent some of the big names, like Crosby, Ovechkin, Phaneuf, and Carter. Sadly, it doesn't appear that you can edit any of the names or numbers of these players. So you're basically stuck with "Pittsburgh Rookie" rather than "Sidney Crosby."
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 upright to flying through the air, without a point in between. It's just weird. The frame rate is also a pretty ugly mess, once again, though it's a slightly less-atrocious mess than in the first game. Everything just looks choppy and stilted on the ice, and it's not pleasant.
Commentary is delivered again by Mike Emrick and Darren Pang, and they're pretty much useless again. They do a better job of calling the correct actions on the ice, but if you're looking for actual insight, look elsewhere. Also, for some bizarre reason, the commentators always seem to be a minimum of five seconds behind what's actually happening. You'll score, then five seconds later you'll hear the excited "Goal!" 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.
Maybe the game's middling quality is a result of Page 44 only having seven months to work out the kinks from Gretzky's first PSP outing. Or maybe the game just represents a bad omen for any future hockey offerings on the PSP. Whatever the case, Gretzky NHL '06 is merely a half step forward from the drudgery that was the first game, so it's tough to recommend to most anyone. There are parts of the game that some hockey fans will appreciate, but there aren't enough of them to make it worth the retail price. Wait until this one hits the bargain bin, or just don't bother with it at all.