You've heard of pitchers in baseball or linemen in football who show up to training camp too fat - usually they get benched or put on a brutal regimen until their overpaid butts can cut it. That's exactly what went down with the hockey game NHL 2K6. The PS2 and Xbox versions that came out in September suffered from all kinds of problems, but the Xbox 360 version (a launch title) makes a solid return to form and even - get this, EA - adds a dazzling, innovative new feature.
If you played the Xbox or PS2 versions, you'll notice right away that Visual Concepts responded quickly to the feedback. Wraparound goals are no longer money shots, skating has been tightened down, and the AI plays better defense. All of these small tweaks have a huge impact on the ice, restoring the sense of authenticity and realism. A roster of other strong returning features backs that up, including icon passing, useful quick-coaching options, and a sturdy franchise mode.
Even more impressively (especially if you've played a scaled-down EA Sports 360 game), this version of NHL 2K6 adds an innovative and downright fun new feature: playing goalie. In "crease control," you sweep a cone of vision around the ice from a behind-the-goalie view, tracking the puck. When a shot comes in, time slows, and you line up two targets to make the save or flick the stick for a desperation attempt if you're out of position. It's a lot of fun and often a welcome change of pace.
Unfortunately, NHL 2K6 barely seems like a next-gen game. The graphics are cleaner and slightly prettier than the last-gen versions, but there's no wow power here - you wouldn't be surprised to see this game running on Xbox. And the announcing remains terrible; not only is the pacing choppy, but the calls are often inaccurate, and the guys mispronounce the names of players. Mute button, please.
So NHL 2K6 won't blow you away with next-gen razzle-dazzle, but some of us just have to get our hockey on, and if that's you, you won't be disappointed that it's the only game in 360 town.