I have before me the Xbox 360 versions of EA Sportsí NHL 07 and 2K Sportsí NHL 2K7. For years, I have preferred the Sega/2K product over what EA has offered. The last EA hockey game I played, NHL 2004, has a bad interface, ridiculous scoring (especially in sim mode, where even regular star players break Gretzkyís records), and poor AI. In NHL 2004, defensemen charge into the offensive zone inappropriately and far too often. The goalies are made of stone and cannot be affected by any physical play, and on top of that they are hopeless at stopping the puck. By comparison, the NHL 2K games were realistic, easy to manage, and simulated realistic results.
EA held off on releasing a few of its sports games for the Xbox 360 in the first year, in order to create them from scratch rather than building on new technology. Madden and NCAA Football are already out, and now so is NHL 07. The newest version of the NHL franchise has brand-new animations and generally new gameplay, though we can still see a few hold-overs like immovable goalies.
First, letís cover the good Ė and this will be painfully brief. NHL 07 plays more like hockey than any other hockey game out there. Itís not nearly perfect, but itís good. The removal of speed boost, improved defensive AI, and totally re-worked goalies have done wonders for the title. In NHL 2K6 and 2K7, no matter what the difficulty level, I take a forward, streak up the wing, and either set up a centering pass for a one-timer or fake the defender out of the way and try to maneuver for a shot from the slot. NHL 07ís defense is much more aggressive and better about rubbing the player off the puck. In fact, thatís not the only reason why itís hard to get a good shot off in NHL. Previous games from both series, moreso in 2K than EA, allowed skaters to shoot through defenders. That doesnít mean that they didnít block pucks, but if a defender was off your left and you were a left-handed shot, your stick could travel through him. In NHL 07 itís difficult to hold onto the puck when in reaching distance of a defender, never mind shoot.
The NHL 07 defense does an excellent job of blocking passing lanes and collapsing upon the net. Though their per-game ďHitsĒ are remarkably low, AI defenders present a competent and worthy challenge. There are exploits to be used against them, but fewer than in previous titles and none that Iíve found so far are nearly as consistently effective. The goalie, especially, is quite believable. Goalies tend to give up more garbage goals than before, despite being so close, and theyíre excellent at stopping long, clear shots. No longer will you wonder why your Martin Brodeur is letting in wristers from the blue line like Garth Snow. It happens, of course, but with nowhere near the same consistency.
NHL 07ís graphics are good but they have some of that EverQuest II plastic doll feel to them. The 3D faces are quite reminiscent of most players, but the animations on them are somewhat odd. When they yell in celebration after scoring a goal, the mouths move in an unrealistic manner, straight down with little change in the rest of the face. Otherwise, however, the artwork is clearly half a generation ahead of NHL 2K7. Character models are highly detailed and the animations are quite varied and complex. Goalies especially have received an overhaul from their weak predecessors, now surpassing the NHL 2K series.
The management options in NHL 07 are atrocious in general, and weíll get to that later, but one area where the game succeeds in is in evaluating the worth of its players. NHL 2K7 will trade Alexander Ovechkin for a good older player and a couple of draft picks, depending on difficulty. NHL 07 wonít give him up for anything, as far as I can tell. In 2K7, by seasonís end, I tend to be amazed if a non-player roster is still half what it was at in October. Though NHL 07 is perhaps somewhat conservative on the trades, it is far more realistic in this respect than NHL 2K7.
NHL 07 offers the player the choice to play with the cap or without it. Unlike NHL 2K, the cap is in real dollar figures and so are the salaries. So you inherit Alexei Yashin and his ridiculous contract, rather than a moderate abstraction, which is what NHL 2K7 offers.
Finally, thereís the much-touted Shot Stick. NHL 07 offers the player the option of controlling his shots with the right stick instead of buttons. A slapshot is pulling down and then pushing up on the stick, a wrister is pushing up. Aiming of the shot is done with the left stick, the same one used for skating, and the right trigger passes. Of course, you can continue to use the buttons to shoot. Initially, the stick feels weird and itís too easy to make a mistake with it. The aggressive defensive AI makes it difficult to get off the kinds of shots you want, especially if you try to aim. It gets better as you practice, but many people seem to prefer to stick with the buttons rather than the shot stick, if our online experiences and discussions on forums are to be trusted.