The only game in the next-gen hockey line-up last year was NHL 2K6, but EA Sports jumps into the fray this year with NHL 07 - and they didn't spend two years developing it for nothing. Don't be deceived by the sleek presentation: NHL 07 is full of complexity, but it's all been honed into an experience that looks and feels as close to actual hockey as ever.
The wonderfully detailed player models may not be the spitting images of their real-life counterparts, but a lot of effort has been made to be accurate. The reflections in the glass, ice, and player's visors are fantastic - these are the best graphics from any hockey game to date. Our only critique is that the sheen on the ice is a little too perfect - it looks more like glass than ice.
The biggest gameplay change is the new "Skill Stick" control. The left analog stick can be thought of as the player's skates and the right functions as the player's stick. Trace a circle with the right stick and your player will perform dekes and spins. Flicking it forward performs a wrist shot, and drawing it back raises the stick for a slapshot.
It all feels very intuitive and it's much more gratifying to score on a shot that you actively controlled as opposed to one defined by a button press and canned animation. The only button you really need is the right bumper for passing, which feels like a hassle once you're used to the analog controls. But it's either that or a third analog stick...
The controls do take a while to get used to, but the first time you run the game you'll see a little tutorial and be thrown directly into a shootout. You may be robbed quite a few times before you hit the back of the net, but once you do it'll feel good.
The improved goalies do their best to frustrate. With improved puck physics, however, it won't be lame scripted saves that frustrate you. The puck is an unpredictable little creature, and will often trickle past the goalie and over the line even after the commentators have called the save.
Another new addition is player roles - each player has a specific designation such as sniper, power forward or defensive defenseman. You'll obviously want to use your snipers to fire those long range lasers; meanwhile, your power forwards may be more apt at muscling away the puck, crashing the net and putting in those sloppier goals. In Dynasty mode, players who see lots of ice-time and have success will improve and change roles as the season progresses.
The player-roles are completely invisible on the ice - in fact, the only thing marking your selected player is a red icon that floats above him. We like the look of this stripped-down design, but wonder if we're expected to have every team's roster memorized.
Gary Thorne and Bill Clement of ESPN provide the commentary, and though it's nice to hear them again after ESPN dropped hockey, the repetitive and sometimes incorrect calls, especially in shootouts, get to be annoying.
Despite a few minor flaws, the wait was worthwhile - EA Sports has delivered a very solid hockey game. Everything feels smooth and refined, and while everything could be refined even further, this lays the groundwork for next-gen hockey.