Well lookee here. EA's designers have got busy with the right analog stick again, and served up a blinding control method for NHL 07. It's simple, it's obvious. The right stick is your hockey stick. Tap up to shoot, jab left and right to deke, and pull back before slamming forward for a blazing slapshot. Later, you'll discover more intricacies, such as rolling the stick in one direction and back a little to flick one off the wrist. Obviously, all of this sounds like wanking euphemisms. Ignore that, the Skill Stick - as EA is branding it - is very satisfying.
At least it is once you've got to grips with it. Just like the 'total punch control' that EA introduced with the Fight Night series, initially the right stick can be hard to get your head around. It's fumbly and awkward and the temptation is to jab it in any direction in the hope of blasting the puck somewhere near to the goal.
But give it a little time and it starts to feel comfortable, then useful, and then it feels like you're in real control. You're faking out the goalie, because you're directing the stick exactly as you like. It's like ducking low for a right uppercut in Fight Night and then swapping tactics to jab a couple of cheeky lefts. Against a human opponent it's a really satisfying feeling because it masks intentions in a way that starting a pre-set animation can never do.
It's not perfect yet, but it's likely that NHL 08 will be able to nail the right stick control in much the same way as Fight Night Round 3 has made us all forget about those silly face buttons. That's if Electronic Arts decides to surprise us all and make NHL 08. I can't see it myself.
So the right stick is ace and the saviour of the game. Because the rest of the controls are still not tight enough for an excellent hockey experience. The right trigger is used for passing, but at times it can appear spongy, which can cause the player to miss-time a set up. I don't mind if my timing's off, I'll take it like a man and admit I'm not perfect every day. But don't expect me to accept unresponsive controls. The sponge feeling never seems to go away entirely, and when it cocks-up a shot, I can feel my soul glazing over, ever so slightly.
So offensive controls are generally good. But defensive moves are more hit and miss. Defensive moves still use the right stick, but you don't have the control you do in offence. Pre-set animations are used in defence, and it feels at complete odds to what EA is achieving in offence. It seems manic, with unexpected results, and is the complete opposite of the precision required when you do have the puck. With defence being just as important (admittedly, it's not as sexy) it seems a disservice to the achievements elsewhere. The control method isn't entirely finished in this respect.
And then there's the goalie, which is perhaps the worst part of NHL 07. Is it random or did I have control? You'll be asking yourself what happened on a regular basis. Sometime your skill is rewarded, other times the puck will slide right underneath the keeper when you thought he was sitting on it. It's too random.
Still, that right stick control for offensive moves is really sweet. Concessions, eh? We all do it. That's why Kristan gave Gears of War an 8 instead of the proposed seven...[joke alert! -Ed]
NHL 07 looks good on the ice, and apart from the occasional ropey animation, players look slick. I won't pretend to know whether they look like the real deal, but they do look human, which is something to be applauded. Audio is a treat too, and the foley effects and incidental sounds are as much a draw to the ears as any well-produced soundtrack. This is EA remember, we never get tired of praising its production values.
Dynasty mode is deep, and the World Tournament is sufficient, but NHL 07 also suffers from scrawny online options. With no seasons or tournaments on offer, NHL 07 just coughs up ranked and unranked matches, stat tracking and leaderboards. That's fine, but it's not enough. We'd like to be hit up with some nice surprises online, not the bare minimum. Although we experienced some minor lag issues, it's nowhere near as bad as in NBA Live 07, a problem that made online b-ball unplayable. Occasionally they'll be a buckling stutter, and it'll leave you pissed if it comes at a crucial time, but it's not a game-killer.
The most impressive feature of NHL 07 is the Skill Stick control, but it's not enough to save a game that is light on content and slack in other areas. The way things are going, the Skill Stick is probably something that will stay in hockey games for years to come. But there's not enough content, there's not enough work been done on the defensive moves and AI, and there are too many niggly technical issues that scar the gameplay for it to be deemed an essential sports game.