Version tested: Xbox 360
All those guns and muscles and pumped-up shouting and macho tactics - honestly, sometimes games are embarrassing. The more mature they try to be, the more they look like kids' fantasies. It's tiring. Give me a tough and exhilarating sports game any day. Hockey, that's where it's at. Checking opponents, slamming the puck, weaving in and out, landing flat on your arse and grinding you teeth in last minute tension. Man's stuff.
After last year's hanging port of the Xbox version of NHL 2K6 to 360, this year we've got the real deal - the best ice hockey game on console, complete with all the beauty we expect from this new-fangled next-gen.
What we don't get is a leap in innovation, like we've experienced with the right stick control in EA's NHL 07. We can't have it all. Playing 2K's effort after getting used to EA's Skill Stick (where the analogue stick is used as the hockey stick, in a similar way to Fight Night's sticks-as-arms control method) is actually a bit of a shock at first, but give it an hour and you'll forget you've experienced a glimpse of the future.
Back to the game on hand. NHL 2K7's big change for this season is a curiosity, which actually begins to endear itself quite quickly. The Cinemotion presentation drops TV commentary and features in favour of upping the drama to sports movie levels. With an orchestral score, poor play is accompanied by sombre composition, while any comeback or white-hot skills are rewarded with a rousing soundtrack.
It's a trick that was first pumped out in SSX, with a customised soundtrack that reacts to play. Although it sounds off-putting, it actually grows on you. Not innovation then, but nice to see some developers are willing to approach presentation a little differently. Especially in a sports game. It's like when the BBC Orchestra scores highlights of a football match and completely goes off on one with noodling guitars and dramatic strings. Or at least they used to in the '80s, back when I were a lad. Nowadays it's all Hot Chip, RjD2 and Mark Ronson soundtracks on yer sports TV.
Control-wise it's as responsive and slick as we've come to expect. There are a few new moves, the most useful of which are the drop pass (back through the player's legs) and a pressure control where tapping the left bumper instructs team-mates to apply a little pressure to troublesome opponents. Tap it once and it's just a case of bothering your opponent, like a fly at a picnic. Tap it three times and your boys will check him hard, like a damn rhino just sprinted across your sandwiches.
During Franchise mode there's a little more emphasis on rivalry between players, with bonuses added to player stats for competing successfully against a rival team. It's nothing major, but it's a smart addition. As is the phone calls from your team owner. In a similar method, players can utilise bonuses depending on recent news, so sponsorship will boost a player's performance for a couple of games. You don't have to take the calls either, so bad news won't affect your team if you ignore it. Of course, you have no idea whether you're going to receive good or bad news, so there's a few nice little gambling opportunities to consider during a season.
Online mode is what many will be picking the game up for. Compared to its rival EA effort, it's a monster. Tournament and season for between four and 30 different teams is the big draw, with stat tracking via the 2K Sports site. There are mini-games and single matches for between two and eight different players too, and with little or no lag, you can expect to put a serious amount of time into online games.
As I said at the beginning, NHL 2K7 is a beauty to look at, which helps bring the matches to life on the ice. Animation is realistic and smooth, with character models and their clothing flowing as they glide, check, deke and slam the puck into the back of the net. Motion and inertia feels much more relevant this year, so there's no chance of changing direction radically, which actually makes the player consider space and positioning on the ice much more tactically. With players shouting while in the match, and the coach hollering throughout a game, there's a real vibrancy in the stadiums. Switch that commentary off though, it's just background chatter. Oh, and there's a mad Sub Pop soundtrack, which might not be to many people's tastes, but is actually pretty appropriate to the rowdy atmosphere.
So NHL 2K7 hasn't leapt forward this year, but it has smartened up its act. It looks top-bollocks, and plays as good as it always has done. The way I see it is that for 50 quid I want the best experience from my game, whatever the genre. I don't want novelty or an eight-hour campaign that I won't play again. Nor do I want just above average or something to pass the time. Like Eric Roberts, I want the best of the best. NHL 2K7 represents the best value for money out there, and it plays like a dream. Seriously, you're doing yourselves a disservice by buying all those guns-and-tits games that get hyped. That's nonsense. Get yourself a proper man's game, and grow a pair of balls while you're at it.
9 / 10