Version tested: PlayStation 2
When last seen on these shores, the 2K hockey brand came complete with the ESPN name, so seeing 2K6 without the glamour and glitz of the ever-enthusiastic sports channel is a disappointment. It doesn't help that the presentation that's replaced it is straight-up ugly and a jarring reminder that EA does presentation like no other. Still, it may be regrettable that EA has bagged the ESPN name for itself, but the gameplay that makes the series stand out like polished black ice is still very much in effect. And with this year's tweaks and additions to play, NHL 2K6 is one of the best sports games on the current generation. You'll forget all about nasty menus and bland music as soon as you glide onto the ice.
The real highlight of 2K6 is that it throws in some well-designed new control methods and options that significantly evolve the gameplay. From the off there's a fluidity to play that we haven't felt before. By right-clicking the analogue stick, button icons appear over your team-mates, and a tap of the corresponding button passes the puck to the player. It's a simple and smart mechanic that allows for real control over your team as they string multiple passes together instead of relying on an awkward combination of luck and skill that we've become accustomed to in lesser hockey titles. This sport is fast, and it's needed this quick and easy solution for some time.
AI players work well, with the goalie in particular grafting hard for his tea. It's a fine line between being good and being unrealistic, but your team manages to perform well and still make human-like errors. Using the new On The Fly Coaching method during a match is another cracking feature of NHL 2K6, where the d-pad is used to increase or decrease aggression during play. When you can clearly notice the difference in the way your team changes their tactics on the ice, it's obvious the AI is working - just watch those boys crash the net like rabid Vikings.
Setting your style of play before a match is crucial, and one of the outstanding features of the 2K6 series. Set your team as aggressive and they'll check more in defence and crash the net more in offence, but the downside to that is they're more likely to pick up penalties, over-commit and risk cocking-up the defence. Set the Dump and Chase parameters and your buddies will either thwack the puck towards the goal to try to recover it or skate and pass across the ice. With many more options beside these, it can almost feel overwhelming, and anyone new to the sport could be easily put off. But then this isn't an entry-level game and when you can feel and see the difference your play styles are making during a match, it's worth spending the time and experimenting with your set-up for the best reward.
Breaking the ice
It's not just the game mechanics that are crowded with options, as a variety of different modes make NHL 2K6 swell to bursting point. The main Franchise mode is where you'll find a full season, which this year includes new additions in the fields of chemistry and practice. Chemistry divides your players into specialists in a field, such as skating or scoring, and the right combination improves your teams overall stats. Practice is self-explanatory and bags extra stats, but overwork your players and they'll under-perform on the ice due to fatigue. For those looking for something in addition to the main Franchise, Party Mode is a collection of mini-games that work well as a throwback to the times before we all went online for multiplayer action. Mainly frantic and occasionally daft, these mini-games can help the player refine some of the more complex actions, or just be an excuse to talk trash and doss about on the ice.
For a sports game, the motion capture is impressive and makes up for the fact that NHL 2K6 doesn't look as superior as it plays. The PlayStation 2 isn't going to croak just yet, so it's a shame to see it look barely better than last year's 2K5. Whatever you think of EA's relentless yearly sports updates, it's always set a standard in terms of graphics and overall presentation. NHL 2K6 drops the puck at this particular benchmark with menu systems that are nothing more than glorified spreadsheets. We never thought we'd mourn the day a game dropped logos and branding, but sometimes being a corporate whore is a good thing.
When scoring a goal is as satisfying as getting that last-bullet headshot in Resi Evil 4 or nailing a perfect insane stunt in GTA, you know you're playing a great videogame, not just a great sports game. The loss of the ESPN brand is a blow simply because the gameplay has managed to evolve where the visuals haven't. But despite this, NHL 2K6 is still the most complete, technically impressive and immediately thrilling hockey game on the current generation of consoles.
8 / 10