2K Sports' NHL 2K franchise made its next-generation debut a couple of months back on the Xbox 360 with NHL 2K7. If you want to get technical, NHL 2K6 was on the 360 as well, though that game was a glorified port of that year's Xbox game. 2K7 finally delivered a game that felt like it belonged on the new generation of consoles, especially in the realm of presentation. Now, 2K7 is on the PlayStation 3, and for all intents and purposes, this game is identical to its 360 counterpart. A couple of amusing Sixaxis control functions are the only real bonus to the package this time around, though they're certainly not anything special enough to make you consider the game again if you've already bought it this year. But for hockey fans that were holding out for the PS3 launch, NHL 2K7 is worth adding to your launch purchase list.
The biggest, most elaborate change to this year's game involves the excellent new on-ice presentation system. Titled "cinemotion," this optional feature strips away the normal game-time TV broadcast setup and audio commentary in favor of a more dramatic interpretation. A rousing orchestral score pipes up from the moment the game begins with the coach delivering his opening pep talk to the team. From there, it moves to the ice, changing distinctly in tone depending on what happens. If you're well behind in the game, the tone is more somber. If you're on the comeback, the music kicks in to higher gear. And if you win, you get the sort of happy, inspirational score you'd expect from the end of a good hockey movie.
While the music might sound a touch cheesy, it's added subtly enough that it never seems over the top. It's more Miracle than Mighty Ducks in its tone and delivery. In fact, if anything, it could stand to be a little more in-your-face. The default audio levels for the music are rather quiet, and sometimes it's tough to hear the music over the din of typical on-ice action. It's not a volume issue so much as understated musical sequences. But when it swells up at the key moments, you notice it, and it's an interesting and cool change of pace from the typical TV broadcast. It makes the on-ice cutscenes more entertaining, too. If for some reason you really miss the commentary but don't want to give up the music, you do have the option of turning the commentary back on via the options menu.
On top of the cinemotion feature, 2K7 also includes a new default camera angle that might just be the best one ever put into a hockey game. This parametric camera comes down at more of an angle than the typical top-down camera view, and turns and zooms ever so subtly depending on where you are on the ice, and what's happening. It's the sort of thing that casual fans might not even notice or take note of initially, but dedicated players should certainly appreciate this change, since it gets you just that much closer to the action without sacrificing any level of control or visibility.
These are all great changes, but from there, the additions begin to get fewer and further between. On the gameplay front, just about every feature from last year's game, including the crease control, icon passing, enforcer, and on-the-fly play-calling systems return once more, and they're all basically the same (save for some PS3-exclusive control options, which we'll get to momentarily). The few additions to the gameplay engine include a new drop pass button, and the new pressure control scheme. The drop pass is assigned to the R1 button, and by pressing it, you'll pass the puck back through your legs to a nearby player. With the pressure control system, if you find yourself having particular trouble with on individual opponent, you can order your teammates to pressure them by holding down the L1 button and pressing the right analog stick in the direction of that opponent. You can set the level of pressure via taps of the L1 button. A single tap applies light pressure, a double tap applies more physical pressure, and repeatedly tapping sends your players in for a very hard check. You can cycle through opponents easily enough by simply tapping the right stick around while holding the button.
These new controls, much like many of the previously mentioned gameplay control systems from last year's game, aren't exactly amazing by themselves, but when combined with the wealth of other available options, they help make NHL 2K7 one of the smartest games of hockey around, if not the flashiest. The basic gameplay engine hasn't really changed dramatically in the last couple of years, and those familiar with how 2K hockey plays will find yet another game of 2K hockey in this year's offering. Of course it's hard to call that a bad thing, since the depth of play, especially in the defense and core strategies of the game of hockey, is unmatched by any other available hockey title on the market. But when it comes to some of the faster and more exciting aspects of hockey, like scoring, offensive moves, and fighting, little has changed, and these aspects of the game engine are starting to show their age.
If you're wondering how the PlayStation 3 version of the game differs from its Xbox 360 counterpart, it's the addition of a couple of Sixaxis functions that give this version a bit of extra oomph. When playing defense, you can shove the PS3 controller forward to check another player. The timing is a bit strange at first, and for the first hour or so of play, you may wonder if it's even working. The trick is to line up your check very carefully and then time the push forward to lay it in. When it works, it's satisfying, though it isn't any more fun or useful than just pushing the check button on the controller. However, the crease controls are considerably more fun. As was the case in NHL 2K6, by pressing down on the R3 button, you can switch to a behind-the-back camera view and take direct control of the goaltender. The same functionality applies in this version, but with the PS3 version, you can move the goalie back and forth and pull off the various goalie moves simply by turning and tilting the controller. Again, it's not necessarily a better option than the previous analog stick movements, but this does work considerably better than the checking. The movement sensitivity is also just right.
2K7's feature list is quite familiar. Party mode returns with a familiar roster of hockey-based minigames; mini rink and pond hockey provide similarly goofy yet enjoyable distractions; and the skybox once again houses all sorts of unlockables, statistics, and other fun things. All the usual in-game skybox challenges are still on hand, as well. Franchise mode returns with most of the same great features introduced last year, as well as a few small additions. A hard salary cap has been implemented for all teams in the game, though it's not detailed in the ways of the NHL collective bargaining agreement. It is still displayed as a basic budget, and there isn't a realistic contract system in the game with regard to sending players to the minors or letting them go. You can't sign two-way deals, so you can send a player to the minor leagues or cut him outright, without having to put him through waivers.
On the plus side, the franchise mode still has an excellent rookie scouting system, a solid free-agency interface, and a minor-league roster to keep track of as the season progresses. Trade logic is still solid, if a bit overly frequent in its offers. Though you get plenty of offers right near the trade deadline, you also get a lot of offers throughout the season, perhaps a few more than is realistic. Injuries occur mostly in a realistic fashion, though you'll sometimes find a proliferation of minor injuries, like broken hands and bruised faces, and they sometimes take overly long to heal.
Other additions include a more-emphasized rivalry system that creates statistical bonuses and takeaways depending on how players play in games against their rival teams. We all know how much the NHL loves its rivalries, and with this system, players are physically affected by how they play in rivalry games. Another addition involves messages from the team owner. Along with receiving the typical day-to-day e-mails, you also have an option called "opportunity knocks." Here, you'll get specific bonuses and takeaways for various players based on news delivered to you by the owner via a cell phone call. For instance, if one of your players just got a sponsorship for a new energy drink, his attributes will go up for the next few games. Or, conversely, if one of your players looks ragged and tired, his attributes will go down for a few games. It's sort of random as to which way a call will go, and the only way to avoid bad ones is to not receive the calls at all. Of course, if you do that, you won't get the good ones either, so it's up to you to decide whether it's worth the risk. The bonuses offered are rarely significant enough to make it worthwhile to take time out of your schedule to check the feature.
The online-play setup is very much how it has been the last couple of years. Basic competition is available for two to eight players (four to a console), and you can engage in competitions of varying difficulty levels, with or without the crease control turned on. The party games and minirink modes are also available online. Most importantly, online league play is once again available for tournaments or full seasons and involves anywhere from four to 30 teams. The options for leagues haven't changed much, though with so many options available for scheduling and stat tracking via the 2K Sports Web site, it's hard to complain, considering there's still nothing else like it available in other hockey games for consoles. But it would be nice if in the future some little features could be included, like fantasy drafts, free-agent pools, and the like. As far as how the online modes play, our experiences playing the game online yielded little to no lag. The frame rate definitely dips below the near 60 frames per second that the game typically runs at offline, but for the most part, it still stays steady at around 30.
The PlayStation 3 version of NHL 2K7 looks on par with the Xbox 360 version's graphics in just about every way. The player models are great, with great-looking faces, body builds, and jerseys. Animations are also excellent, and the skating engine in particular looks fantastic. The flow of the players on the ice is much better than ever before, and they move with more realistic momentum. Some holdover animations, such as dekeing and checking, could stand a similar revamp, but they still look good. However, there are also some clunky-looking animations, specifically some transitional animations that appear missing at times. Players will sometimes go from being doubled over to raising their arms cheering with no in-between transitional movement. Sometimes they'll instantaneously go from standing to being practically upside down when checked. These aren't frequent issues, but they're noticeable. If you've got an HDTV, you'll get the best of the graphical experience. But even on an SDTV, you'll notice the improvements to the game's visuals. The player models look just a touch more aliased on the PS3 version when running in HD than they did in the 360 version, but the effect is relatively minor.
Apart from the cinemotion music, NHL 2K7 goes through a lot of the same audio motions as previous games. Bob Cole and Harry Neale are on hand again for commentary duty, and functionally, it seems like much the same commentary as in last year's game. It's sometimes informative, but it mostly serves as background fodder. The on-ice effects, however, sound excellent, especially the on-ice dialogue by the players and coaches, shouting to you and other players on the ice as the game goes. The game's indie-rock-heavy soundtrack is better than the average indie-rock-heavy soundtrack, if only by a small margin. It consists exclusively of bands from the Sub Pop record label and has songs by The Postal Service, Mudhoney, Hot Hot Heat, Band of Horses, Sealter-Kinney, and more. It's unusual to hear something like Band of Horses or The Postal Service in a hockey game, but you could do worse.
NHL 2K7 delivers an experience on the PlayStation 3 that's entirely comparable to what it delivered on the Xbox 360 just a couple of months back. From a features standpoint, no concessions have been made here, and the visuals are still great. The new Sixaxis controls, while nothing overly spectacular, are also a neat bonus. If you already bought the game on the 360, there's nothing here that makes it worth buying a second time. But if you haven't already made your hockey game purchase for the year and want to get some hockey going on your new PlayStation 3, NHL 2K7 is absolutely worth checking out.