Making its debut on the Xbox 360 this year, EA's NHL franchise finally got off the schneid and delivered a hockey experience that not only compared very favorably to the competition but also forced you to rethink how you play offense in a hockey game, thanks to the brand-new right analog stick-based skill stick. Unfortunately, the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and PC versions of NHL 07 weren't quite so lucky. Innovation and updates are few in these latest iterations of the franchise, probably due in no small part to EA's focus on the 360 version. For those without the benefit of an Xbox 360, these other versions of NHL 07 do manage to provide reasonably updated rosters and a couple of tweaks here and there, but if you want more than that, you'll be disappointed.
To be fair, the older console and PC versions of NHL 07 do include a version of the skill stick, but it's not a very impressive one. Rather than shooting and dekeing, the stick controls passing: moving it side to side passes normally to nearby teammates, pressing forward throws a saucer pass, and pressing backward does a quick drop pass. Mechanically, it's sound enough, but it feels like a tacked-on change. There's nothing special or unique about the way the stick handles the passes, so you're left with a new control scheme that's been changed for the sake of having a new control scheme. It doesn't improve the flow of the game or the offense to any real effect. It also bears mention that if you have the PC version of the game, make sure you've got a good dual analog control stick, otherwise you won't see the benefit of this mechanic at all.
Of course, that's not to say the game still isn't quite a bit of fun. Though it's an overly speedy and periodically unrealistic game of hockey, the pace of the action makes for some crazy plays and hard hits that are highly enjoyable to watch. The only problem is that it's much the same brand of crazy hockey that it's been for the last few years. Defense doesn't play any better, goalies still make some boneheaded moves, and the offensive game feels relatively unchanged. Sure, there's that newfangled skill stick, and a greater emphasis on role-playing makes players of certain categories (snipers, power forwards, grinders, and the like) play their roles a touch more stringently, but again, it really doesn't change the feel of the game from what it's basically been since NHL 2005.
Every mode that was in NHL 06 is in NHL 07, and there are a couple of small additions to boot. The Czech Elite league has been added to the ever-growing list of European leagues available in the game, and now there's even a European dynasty mode to take part in. Granted, about nine people in the North American market probably care about that, but hey, it's there if you're into it. As far as the typical NHL dynasty mode goes, you're looking at a carbon copy of NHL 06's dynasty mode, which in turn was a copy of NHL 2005's dynasty mode. Owner goals still annoyingly charge you with tasks varying from winning the Stanley Cup (do we really need to be told to do that?) to getting the first overall draft pick in the following draft (bad teams ask you to do this, and it's not as easy as it sounds). There's also a slightly different twist to the owner feature, with the new trust system. Owner trust is now what affords you upgrade points for your dynasty, rather than cash, and what type of GM you pick (they range from boastful types to penny-pinchers to somewhere in the middle) directly affects how your trust is gained and lost throughout a season. It's a slightly more interesting risk-versus-reward take on the mode, but it doesn't fundamentally change the lame nature of the owner-goals system and ultimately makes getting upgrades a bit more of a pain.
One other notable addition to the dynasty mode is the proper salary cap, though it comes without the benefit of the 360 version's realistic minor league contract management and waiver system. You don't get the option to sign players to one- or two-way deals, so you can send whoever you need to the minors without any consequence of that player being plucked off waivers.
Outside of dynasty, there's a single season mode, exhibition games, the world tournament, a shoot-out minigame, and the free-for-all minigame. Free-for-all is a decent bit of fun if you've got four players to play, but considering that the competing NHL 2K series has had a much longer list of minigames for years now (including one that's just like free-for-all), it's hard to get too excited about just one minigame that hasn't really changed in a couple of years. There's also online play, with much the same roster of online features that just about every EA Sports game has these days, including basic head-to-head competition, leaderboards, lobbies, and the like. Though the PC version has the typical EA Sports online features, like tournaments and clubs, the Xbox and PS2 versions have nothing of the sort. Considering that the NHL 2K games have had online seasons and tournaments for a good long while, 07 feels decidedly behind the curve. At the very least, most of the matches we played seemed relatively lag free.
Given what's been written thus far, it will probably come as no shock to you that the presentation has gone unaltered across the board. NHL 07's graphics look functionally identical to NHL 06's graphics. You might see a few new goalie and forward animations here and there, but for all intents and purposes, you're looking at the same graphics engine. That's not all that bad, mind you. NHL 07 still has excellent-looking player models and animations, and though it may be an aging engine, it still looks great on each of the respective platforms. The menus and interface, however, have aged less gracefully. The menus in the game look downright crusty, and navigating a few of the in-game and dynasty menus can be confusing at first.
The game's audio also hasn't changed, and that's less to the game's benefit. Unlike the 360 version, these versions of 07 don't have the dynamic commentary duo of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement; rather, they feature the far less engaging pair of Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson. In fact, the commentary sounds like it's a precise recycling of the same lines from last year's game, periodic wrong calls and bugs to boot. The soundtrack includes another roster of hip-for-the-minute emo bands that neither entertain nor offend, and if you can tell the difference between the sound effects in last year's game and this year's, you're officially lying to yourself.
The one nice thing EA Sports managed to do with NHL 07 on the PS2 and Xbox is price it down to $29.99 (the PC version has been $29.99 at release for a couple of years now), but it seems like a necessary step given how much of this game feels like a patch of NHL 06, rather than a new game. EA's focus is squarely on the next generation of consoles, and if yours isn't, you're going to be left out in the cold if you want solid progression in your hockey games. If you own an Xbox 360, you are hereby excused from purchasing any of the other home versions of NHL 07. If you don't, and can stand buying a roster update with perfunctory tweaks and not much else new to its name, NHL 07 is still a fun game, if not an altogether different one.