This franchise lives and dies by its gameplay, and on that front, it does not disappoint.
- Gameplay engine continues to be the most realistic out there
- New passing and play-calling systems are fantastic additions
- Great in-game visuals
- Franchise is the deepest and most enjoyable it's ever been
- Game's still only $20.
- Menu systems are confusing and ugly
- Commentary is a big step down from previous years
- A few bugs and glitches mar an otherwise excellent experience
- New goalie controls aren't useful.
Fans of the 2K brand of hockey have gotten pretty used to the franchise consistently pushing upward in terms of quality in recent years. The series hasn't really had an off year since 2K2, and the last two games--the first and last two to bear the full ESPN license--were absolutely superb. As with all things, though, change is inexorable. ESPN has gone the way of EA, and the NHL itself is something of a different animal now, with new rules, largely different rosters than the ones people were familiar with before the lockout, and an air of uncertainty going into the newest season. Perhaps because of all these fundamental shifts, NHL 2K6, 2K Sports, and developer Kush Games' latest game also feels a little bit off. The lack of the ESPN license and an aging graphics engine leaves the NHL 2K6 lacking its once-heralded presentational components. Plus, only the new NHL rule changes made it into this year's game. The roster changes did not. But as we've said before, this franchise lives and dies by its gameplay, and on that front, it does not disappoint.
For 2K6, the developers have actually thrown together quite a number of new gameplay features. We say thrown together, because in some ways the gameplay feels more chaotic due to all these new components, some of which are excellent, and some of which are not. Starting with the positives, the best new aspect of the game is the new pro control passing system. One of the problems with setting up good plays in hockey games has been trying to accurately pass to all the right players in a proper succession. This has been nearly impossible with the standard passing mechanics. Here, you can simply click the right analog stick, and button icons will appear above each of the other four players on the ice. You need only press the corresponding button, and the pass will be sent to the right player. This gives you the ability to create lengthy strings of passes that can be especially effective on power plays. The defensive artificial intelligence won't just let you pull these plays off easily, of course, but if you can get past them, you can pull off some extremely satisfying goals. The one annoying thing about this feature is that you have to reclick the button to bring up the icons after every shot attempt. Maybe an option to just leave them on indefinitely would have been a good idea. But, even with this one minor gaffe, the feature is great.
Another great idea added into this year's game is on-the-fly play-calling. The D pad is utilized here to let you tell your team exactly what you want it to do. This works on both offense and defense, and by pressing specific directions you can have your team do everything from crash the net and screen the goalie to clearing the front of the net and collapsing. When these plays work, they're immensely effective, as the AI does pretty much exactly what you tell it to do. We did run into some instances, though, where it seemed like defensemen in particular weren't quite doing their part on offensive plays, like crashing the net. They definitely come in closer when you ask them to, but they still hover very close to the blue line inside the offensive zone, and trying to utilize them without controlling them directly can be a hassle. But apart from these hiccups, the new play-calling system is a welcome addition.
Yet another good idea that isn't perhaps as well-put-together as it could have been in this year's game is the new enforcer system. Every NHL team has at least one serious tough guy who loves to intimidate the other team's players through rough play and occasional brawls. NHL 2K6 calls these players out by slapping a fat E icon on them that's impossible to miss while you play. If your enforcer does his job especially well while he's on the ice, then opposing players may become intimidated, which is denoted by a big I icon for said player. Intimidated players will also take hits to their stats, most noticeably speed, for some reason. It's kind of odd that a player frightened by the presence of an enforcer would suddenly slow down--if anything, you'd think he'd want to speed up to stay out of the enforcer's way. Apart from that weird bit, the mechanic makes sense and works. The unfortunate thing, however, is that there's never any recourse. The enforcer from the team with the intimidated player never comes out and tries to start a fight--at least, not on the default settings. Fights are incredibly rare in the game, and when they do happen, they aren't much fun. Then again, 2K's fighting model has never been very good, although fights should still happen with far more frequency than they do in 2K6.
The last big change to 2K6's gameplay is the most incidental, which is interesting, since it involves the new goalie controls. It's a feature that seems like it ought to be a bigger deal, since Marty Turco is on the cover, and he's the first goalie to be on an NHL cover in ages. As it is, Kush has managed to make the act of playing the goalie manually much easier; it just hasn't made it more fun. The new goalie controls are highly simple. All you have to do is tap the right analog stick right or left to dive, tap it down to drop into the butterfly stance, tap up to poke-check the puck, and do a single button press to simply drop into the best save stance for the situation.
Control-wise, these functions do precisely what they're supposed to do. But ultimately they're defeated by the unwavering truth, which is that no game has managed to make playing a goalie useful, since no camera angle in the game does a good enough job of letting you actually see what's going on. Yes, the control functions are more fluid and useful here, but that's all completely negated when the camera isn't even close to being on the goalie. For example, an opposing forward rips a slap shot from near the blue line, and gets it in just because you couldn't even tell where your goaltender was on the ice. Yes, you can hold down the right trigger button to make the game auto-position your goalie, but this function isn't quick or intuitive enough to handle rebounds or quick one-timers. And any time you regain possession of the puck, you automatically transfer to the puck-handling player. It takes half a second of reaction time to switch back to the goalie if you want to, which leaves you seriously vulnerable during that time. Maybe it's time for Visual Concepts to bring back the old NFL first-person mode for the purposes of goaltending, because that seems like the only way it could be done well. What has been done here is an improvement from the utter uselessness that was goalie control previously, but it's still not a huge improvement. Fortunately, this is also the most easily ignored new feature of the game, as semiautomatic goalie control is still on by default, meaning you never have to touch it if you don't want to.