NHL 2K6 PS2 Review

Despite being invented nearly 150 years ago by a bunch of British soldiers on a frozen Canadian harbour, not many people in the UK have any idea what ice hockey’s all about, so Take 2’s NHL 2K6 might take a bit of working out. Newcomers unfamiliar with a world of slap dumps, dekes, flip passes, and poke checks, where teams are called franchises and games are played with a two inch thick chunk of frozen vulcanised rubber, could struggle to stay on their feet.

For returning fans, the first and most obvious difference between NHL 2K6 and previous versions is the loss of ESPN as a sponsor – a casualty of last year’s labour dispute in the National Hockey League. While everything else in the game – all 30 NHL teams, their rosters, kits and logos, and even the sticks – is fully licensed, the familiar ESPN branding has disappeared from the menu screens. Despite now looking distinctly ropey, they have been carefully reorganised, making navigation through the numerous game options a breeze. And there are a lot of options: exhibition matches, tournaments, shoot outs, a skills section, party mode, and, of course, the full simulation, in which you control everything from transfers right the way down to the chemistry of your forward line.

But it’s on the ice where the game really takes off. Smooth animation and fluid game mechanics give a real sense of speed and momentum: you can sense the ice beneath your team’s skates. Gameplay is smooth and varied, from frenetic goalmouth scrambles to swift and fluent passing through the opposing defence. And new innovations add even more polish: skate backwards, control the goaltender, coach on the fly to breakout, crash the net or call for help in offense or defence, or use the Pro Control: press R3 and each player is assigned an icon. Simply tap the corresponding controller button to pass to that player and build up a whole string of perfect, seamless passes.

A new Enforcer system lets you use the hard men in your back line to do what they do best: holding, checking and generally leaving the opposition flat on their backs on the cold, hard ice (and possibly crumpled against the boards). Scare your opponents enough and their confidence, and level of play, will plummet.

This is typical of the game’s AI, which quickly adapts to what you’re doing. There are no easy ways to win games: if you repeatedly try and use the pro control to set up one-time shots, or skate behind the goal cage to set up a hook shot, the opposition get wise, alter their positioning and block you off.

Of course, all these extras add even more complexity to an already massive set of controls (the in-game manual devotes dozens of pages to covering it), though you can get by without knowing half of what’s actually possible.

While everything runs smoothly on the ice, the rest of the game feels a bit half-hearted: the flat-looking crowd make noise at the right time but add nothing to the atmosphere; Bob Cole and Harry Neale’s commentary often barely suits the game, never mind what the other has just said; and it’s not helped at all by a soundtrack made up entirely of flimsy emotional rock.

Priced at just $20 in the US, NHL 2K6 is a bargain bin steal, but a standard £39.99 on this side of the Atlantic seems an awful lot for a game that’s happy to stay well within the capabilities of the PS2. Combined with a release date that coincides neatly with the end of the domestic hockey season, it may be asking too much to expect NHL 2K6 to attract many new fans to a sport that’s barely talked about in the UK.