• Pucks are flying, shots are slapped, and bodies are being broken. Yes, it’s that time of year again, as the start of the NHL season signals the release of the latest incarnation of the 2K ice hockey franchise, NHL 2K7 from 2K Sports.

    The sequel to last year’s NHL 2K6, NHL 2K7 sets out to improve on the former in almost every way possible, by refining and polishing all aspects of the game to perfection, whilst adding a few obligatory new features for good measure. I’ll be the first to admit that my experience with ice hockey games in the past has been brief at best, so to be completely honest, I had very little idea of what I should have been expecting from this game. Having looked into the sport, read up on the official NHL website, and studied the rules on wikipedia, I thought I was ready to enjoy a nice, leisurely skate around an ice rink, gently pushing a small, black disk from end to end, before calmly slotting it in the back of the net, and shaking the hands of the opposing team, in a typically chivalrous manner. Oh, how wrong I was.

    From the moment the ref drops the puck, right down to the closing seconds of a game NHL 2K7 is a non-stop adrenaline rush. Taking your team to one of a number of accurately recreated arenas, you’ll find yourself on a natural high as your virtual skater bolts from one end of the arena to the other, shoulder-barging anyone who dares get in your way, before letting off a blistering shot past the unfortunate keeper. This, my friends, is what gaming is all about.

    NHL 2K7

    Graphically, NHL 2K7 is stunning. You’ll be forgiven for shivering a little when you first see the ice, as it looks that real, even down to the slight mist that hovers above it during a particularly heated game. Your skaters also leave trails behind them as their blades slice a path through the surface of ice, which shimmer and shine during the close-up replays, as the multiple layers of texture combine to amazing effect. The arenas and players have also all been well modelled, providing a respectable likeness to their real life counterparts(although NHL 07 does have a slight advantage here), but when push comes to shove, you won’t have chance to notice any of the graphics, as NHL 2K7 hooks you in with its defining feature – the gameplay.

    As I mentioned earlier, when I first sat down with NHL 2K7, I was a complete novice with ice hockey games, and I didn’t have a clue what to expect. Thankfully, NHL 2K7 is one of those games that can be picked up and not just played, but enjoyed by anyone. The sheer visceral thrill you get from ploughing down the field, taking out an entire team in the process, before hooking a shot into the back of the opposition’s net is immense, and made all the more enjoyable when you’re joined by a friend. A key element of NHL 2K7’s gameplay, at any time during a match, you can have a friend lend a helping hand on your team as you try to scrape a victory against a particularly tough opponent. Matches tend to play out as real end-to-end stuff, with both teams almost taking it in turns to make attack runs on each other’s goal, as the defence frantically scrabble to intercept you from all angles and get it away. For those of you not familiar with ice hockey, “intercept” can mean anything from stealing the puck from under your feet with a well-timed hockey stick swipe, to ramming you head first into the plate glass that surrounds the arena. You won’t be getting up very quickly after that. Thankfully, the impressive level of AI on offer here means the opposition are more than able to successfully defend against the majority of shots, making each goal scored a result of an incredible amount of effort and persistence on the part of the player, leaving you with a real sense of satisfaction when you scrape a win.

    All other moves, such as passing, body checks, and guarding the puck are easy to pull off, and beautifully animated, with a response time that’s just as fast as is needed in a high speed game such as this. Collision detection is also spot on (at least for the puck), and watching the replays will often show how shots only went in after taking a minor deflection after clipping the goalies boot (or in my case, more often a defenders head). Fast-paced and furious, the sheer arcade-like speed and action on offer here will give NHL 2K7 a certain amount of appeal outside of the core NHL fan base, at times making the game feel more like the Blitz Brothers’ classic Speedball than NHL.

    Luckily for me (and all other novices to the franchise), NHL 2K7 thoughtfully includes a mode called “Hit the ice”, which takes you by the hand and leads you through a series of training objectives, helping you to get to grips with the all new features for this year’s edition. Although it would certainly be better if this mode could take you through all aspects of the gameplay, rather than just the new ones (pro control, pressure control, crease control, and on the fly coaching are available to practice, along with the shootout mode, and free skate), it goes without saying that this mode is certainly a welcome feature for all novices to the sport.

    The majority of your time will undoubtedly be spent in the game’s trademark franchise mode, which provides one of the most in-depth hockey experiences we’ve ever seen. Letting you adjust practically everything about your team, from their initial line up, to their management and coaches, this is the NHL aficionado’s mode of choice, and the level of depth on offer here is staggering, and can often prove daunting to a novice like me (luckily, there is an option to let the computer choose everything for you – a much valued time saver). Your team will take part in a full season of NHL action, taking on bitter rivals (each team has 3 major rivals, and 3 minor rivals), as you work your way up the league, and try to win the Stanley Cup. In-between games you can manage your roster, check on reports from your scout, manage your e-mails (your team owner will often warn you of important games you need to win, and your scouts will offer you feedback from the leagues), and choose whether or not to take incoming phone calls. This works a lot like community chest cards in Monopoly, where sometimes you’ll get a good thing happen, other times you’ll get a bad thing. The reasons for the good or bad things happening are nicely varied, ranging from some good news for the team, resulting in your teams morale going up, to the coach losing a set of training jerseys, leading your budget will be cut next year by $35,000. That’s an awful lot of jerseys…

    Although the franchise mode certainly provides the majority of the gameplay, there are plenty of other features in NHL 2K7 that are sure to keep you busy. For one, in each and every game you play, there are a range objectives that you can unlock, such as scoring a breakaway goal, or forming a chain of three consecutive passes. Achieving these objectives will provide you with points, which can then be spent in the skybox and used to unlock everything from alternative jerseys, to classic teams, to new arenas. The skybox also plays host to three time wasting mini-games; a trivia challenge, which can be played by up to four players, a game called Shuffleboard which works a bit like curling, and the brilliantly distracting Air Hockey.

    However, these three mini-games aren’t the only distraction you’ll find on offer here. Almost poking fun at the sport it’s based around, NHL 2K7 has chosen to include a “party mode” in its repertoire, which sees you and up to three friends playing against each other in a series of bizarre, slightly hockey related competitions, which range from racing up the rink against a never-ending stream of barrels, to launching pucks at your opposing team’s base in an effort to destroy their crates before they destroy yours. Hockey it ain’t, but with a few friends round, this can be a perfect way to introduce them to NHL in a fun, and easy to handle way, providing many extra hours of gameplay.

    But still, there’s more! I haven’t even had chance to mention the peculiar pond hockey mode, the tournaments, the season mode (just like franchise but without the hassle of negotiating contracts) or the numerous other little intangibles that make NHL 2K7 such a great game. 2K Sports even has the presentation down to a T, providing a rousing mix of rock music and images of the ice to get you in the mood before the match.

    However, as fantastic as NHL 2K7 can be, it saddens me to say that it certainly isn’t without its flaws. On the higher difficulties (from Pro upwards), it can be far too easy to go to a goalless draw, with both keepers deflecting all shots with ease. Sometimes though, the computer will randomly seem to favour your opponents, letting goals into your net that their keeper would block. When will games learn that they don’t need to cheat to be hard? If you do manage to scrape a goalless draw, the game will then move on to penalites, and whilst your computer opponents can do all sorts of fancy tricks with the stick to send your keeper the wrong way, for you, scoring remains impossible, and losing to a team on penalties after holding them to a goalless draw all the way through robs the game of enjoyment, preventing this game from scoring any higher. Achievements are also quite poorly done and uninspired, requiring a substantial investment of your time to get anything back.

    However, the penalty fault aside, NHL 2K7 still manages to do an incredible amount right. A game which relies on sheer gameplay over graphical brawn, NHL 2K7 can be enjoyed by ice hockey fans and novices alike, and for a game that takes its NHL heritage so seriously, that’s an incredible achievement on its own. A non-stop adrenaline rush on your own, and laugh-a-second fun with your friends, this game can only come as a highly recommended purchase for everyone, which will provide hours of enjoyment for your money.

    Buy it. Now.

    Score: 8/10

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