The 2K Team's last NHL entry on the 360 left us a little wanting. While NHL 2K6 introduced a snazzy new feature, Crease Control, the game didn't do much else to separate itself from its current-gen counterparts. NHL 2K7 steps back onto the ice after an intensive overhaul - it sports all-new animations and a host of new presentation and gameplay features. It's all great stuff in principle, but how does it all hold up on the ice?
There are hundreds of new animations - not only have old animations been replaced, but new transitional animations have been added to smooth out those quick turns and fast stops. The physics have been modified to more realistically simulate the skaters' momentum - no more spinning on a dime - it takes a moment to slow down and start moving in another direction. The more weighted players add a nice touch of realism, giving you more to think about when you try to turn into an opponent to deliver a big hip check.
Despite the new animations, the graphics still don't seem as good as they could be. Take, for example, the cheering fans; they all appear to have had their fingers chopped in half. But we can forgive the sideline shortcomings - during gameplay the new athlete animations look great, and an array of little graphical details, from the dynamic snow that builds up on the ice to the players' frosty breath, come together to complete the experience. It's only when the close-up cut scenes play that things feel lacking.
The 2K Team didn't just upgrade the animations; they wanted to invent a whole new way to experience hockey games, and they've dubbed it "Cinemotion." Cinemotion refers to everything related to their new presentation - camera angles, cutscenes, music, and sound effects.
The new camera dynamically follows the puck down the ice, keeping you close to the action without ever obscuring the bigger picture, so you'll still be able to see open players to target passes. It never hinders gameplay, and helps make some of the little graphical flares more apparent as you play. We never felt like flipping over to one of the old ¾ or overhead views - the new camera felt just right.
"Cinemotion Music" refers to dynamic music which changes in intensity and volume to reflect what's happening on the ice. In overtime, for example, the music crescendos and picks up pace, while during lulls in the game it fades into the background. We wouldn't blame you for turning off the dynamic music - while it's an interesting idea, the orchestral vibe makes the game feel more like a battle from The Lord of the Rings than hockey. It's another reason we're glad we can mix and match commentary, existing music or a custom soundtrack. Meanwhile, players, coaches, and even fans can be heard shouting across the rink in various accents as they react to events on the ice. It's especially effective in surround sound.
Also considered a part of Cinemotion is the overall presentation of the games. The idea is to get you pumped up - the game begins with the coach addressing his players in the locker room, and then follows them out to the ice where lasers fire and lights flash. Unfortunately, the whole thing feels more embarrassing than exciting, especially since the generic coach looks more frightening than he does compelling.
Last year's Crease Control feature put you between the pipes to make those big saves by matching up targets in slow-mo. Crease Control is back, of course, along with a couple of new features. Pressure Control allows you to select an opponent during gameplay and sic your teammates on him. As you increase the pressure, your teammates will check your targeted opponent more vigorously. You can also execute drop passes with the right bumper, sliding the puck between your legs and on to the stick of a trailing skater.
With the return of all the old features, such as On-the-Fly coaching and Pro Control, we hardly felt like we had time to pay attention to Pressure Control. Serious strategists, however, may enjoy the added complexity. For the clueless, there is a series of tutorials designed to familiarize you with all these features.
All of the old game modes are back, including three new mini-games for quick and accessible multi-player challenges. Franchise mode has been updated to reflect the changes made to the NHL by the CBA. Also new in Franchise mode are rivalries. Each team has three major and three minor rivals. Games against your team's rivals are more intense - the fans are more pumped up and the players are more physical. Beating your rivals ups you're team chemistry, so it's worthwhile to focus on those games. Rivalries will change throughout the season, or throughout multiple seasons, as tensions either increase or decrease.
While there is nothing specifically wrong with any of these new features, it feels as if piling feature on top of feature will only hold up for so long. Cinemotion includes some wonderfully intuitive changes and we like having the ability to perform sneaky drop passes - but how much before it's too much? NHL 2K7 is a solid game and the new animations help to make it feel more next-gen worthy than last year's entry. However, despite the sheer number of new features, nothing feels particularly groundbreaking.