The multitude of sports ports available for the launch of the Xbox 360 has had the curious effect of widening the division between competing publishers EA Sports and 2K Sports. EA Sports has opted in most cases to focus on improved graphics while, for reasons unknown, paring down gameplay options. They have even gone so far as to drop some of the more popular features from titles like Tiger Woods and NBA Live. 2K Sports, on the other hand, has chosen to expand gameplay options, make only moderate improvements to graphics and presentation, and eliminate their competitive price point.
What swings me toward 2K Sports, however, is their attention to both the hard core and casual sports gamer. They understand that for every aficionado who has learned all of the plays, mastered all of the controls, and seeks refinement in every possible detail over hours of gameplay, there is a party gamer like me that just wants to sit down and play with his buddies. NHL 2K6 plays both sides of the ice.
For the hard core hockey fan (anyone out there proudly missing teeth after being hit by a slap shot from their favorite player?), there is a deep Franchise Mode. In NHL 2K6 you are able to build your team, participate in player trades and free agent bidding, and create formations according to personality and style compatibility. You can even control your players' practice schedules and game time in order to raise their stats and improve their performance while managing fatigue. There is also a Dream Team Mode where you can create a fantasy team and go head to head against teams created by some of the most renown players in the NHL, as well as a Skills Competition.
The control system goes beyond simple skate-pass-shoot button mashing. The pro control passing system allows you to determine forward progress on the ice. By clicking the right analog stick, then pressing the buttons corresponding to each player, you can string together a series of passes that, if successful, will lead to a masterful goal shot. On-the-fly play calling enables you to rally your team to clear the front of the goal, crash the net, screen the goalie, and more, by pressing the D-pad. The enforcer system distinguishes your most intimidating player. By passing the puck to him, you better your odds of overcoming your rivalry for the puck. Through this show of presence you actually manage to temporarily lower your opponent's stats.
All of this works pretty well. The pro control passing element takes some practice, but once mastered it allows a deeper sense of control within the game. On-the-fly plays suffer from all the usual AI foibles, but can save your butt when executed properly. The enforcer system is a little vague, however. I can't really say that I noticed any difference during gameplay.
One thing that is new to the 360 version of NHL 2K6 is the ability to defend the goal from the point of view of the goalie. By clicking the right analog stick you position the camera behind your goalie. Your goalie's field of vision is represented by a triangle extending forward on the screen. When you are in a good position relative to the puck, it is green. Otherwise, it is red. The puck itself is highlighted, and after the shot is made the game slows down to a sort of goalie bullet time. This aids in your ability to block the shot, although it is not as easy as it sounds. Unfortunately, it is a little interruptive to the flow of the game, especially when playing with a friend, as it is played through the use of a pop-up window. It does, however, give you more control over goalkeeping, which will be welcomed by many players.
All of this shouldn't discourage the casual gamer, however. Each of these elements can be adopted after you have gained a mastery over the basic control scheme. The game contains not only quick game and multiplayer options, it also has a Party Mode with various, easily accessible mini-games for up to four players. Games include things like scrambling to shoot pucks into a net guarded by an animatronic goalie that rises at random. These games are quick and fun and need little practice in order to compete. It is a touch of Mario Party style fun for hockey fans and their friends. These things may not seem like a lot, but they make a difference. After all, you definitely won't find this kind of gameplay in any other hockey title.
One thing that casual gamers may not appreciate as much as hard core fans is the reduced emphasis on fighting in this title. Hockey highlight reels and past games have many of us expecting hard hits and toe-to-toe fistfights. The reality, of course, is that a serious fight is the exception in the NHL. You will certainly get knocked around on the ice, and occasionally even get into a tussle while playing NHL 2K6, but it is hardly a focus in the game, and it isn't really all that fun when it happens anyway.
The graphics are good, especially when it comes to reflection mapping and character models. The ice in particular is impressive enough to convince you that you are looking at the real thing. They are not so vastly improved as to be called the next generation of gaming, however. And you will definitely need an HDTV in order to experience all of the little touches like the improved lighting and the spray that kicks up off of your skates. Otherwise, the presentation is no different than you would experience on the previous generation of game systems.
Which brings us to the real question: is it worth the upgrade to the Xbox 360? While the goal defense system and the improved graphics are nice, this is essentially the same game that was available before, with one major downside: the price. Whereas NHL 2K6 was priced under $20 on the previous systems, this version will set you back the full price of $59.99. If the title was available on the 360 at any kind of reduced price, $39.99 perhaps, I would say go for it. But as is there just isn't enough going on in the 360 incarnation for me to recommend spending three times the amount of the original. Should hockey fans own NHL 2K6? Yes. Must they own the Xbox 360 version? Not necessarily.