Ah, the skill stick, the most innovative addition to video game hockey since the inclusion of the one-timer in NHL 94. Think about it: Now when you score a goal, it's not a canned animation that got the puck in the net, it's your skill with the stick. By manipulating the right analogue stick, you can do circles around your opponents, deke the pants off any goalie, and take the shot. In fact, kiss those face buttons goodbye as NHL 07 opts for a completely revamped control scheme that instead takes full advantage of the Xbox 360 controller's two sticks and four shoulder buttons. While the skill stick, stunning visuals - even on a standard TV - and robust dynasty mode, are easily reason enough to send hockey fans racing to their nearest game store, NHL 07 sadly suffers from a number of issues, both new and old to the series, which prevents the game from truly standing out in the limelight.
First and foremost, NHL 07 has a steep learning curve. Every hockey game prior to EA's latest has traditionally used the face buttons to pass, shoot, check, and switch players - not the case with NHL 07. Instead, those functions are mapped out to the right analogue stick and four shoulder buttons. For example, passing is now delegated to the right trigger, replacing the speed boost, which has been dropped in favour of individual player stats; the better the stats, the faster the player. The poke check on the other hand, which for the record causes more penalties that it does successful turnovers, is now activated by pressing the right bumper, with shooting, deking, and checking taking residence with the right analogue stick.
It's like trying to learn how to write with your left hand after years of writing with your right - it's awkward - and during your first few games, you're fingers will naturally gravitate over to the face buttons far more often than not. However, those of you out there who just can't come to terms with the new layout can breathe a sigh of relief; EA had the foresight of including the option to play the game using the classic controls. Personally, I prefer a combination of the two control types, using the analogue stick for deking and regular shots, and the face buttons to pass, poke check, and take wrist shots - wrist shots with the analogue stick require you to rotate the stick in a similar fashion as throwing an upper cut in Fight Night, which can be a costly manoeuvre to try and perform when things get frantic around the net.
So what's the big deal with the skill stick anyway? Essentially the right analogue now acts as your hockey stick. Pushing the stick in different directions performs different actions. On the offence, flicking the stick to the left or right moves the stick in that direction. If you're looking to take the shot, simply press forward, or press back then forward to perform a slap shot. This opens up a completely new level of freedom on the ice, and best of all, every goal made is a goal earned. Forget having to rely on canned animations - EA's skill stick gives you more control over your player than ever before. So when you manage to sneak past the defence and find the open ice, there's nothing more satisfying than deking around the goalie and dumping it in the top shelf. What about one-timers though - the preferred method of scoring since it debuted in 94? Well, they're back, but hardly as effective as before.
You see, NHL 07 is an extremely sloppy game of hockey, even after you've played through a few dozen games. Where as in previous years, if you passed the puck, it glued itself to the intended receiver, in NHL 07, that's simply not the case. You have to carefully aim the puck, pass it, then quickly switch over to the next player to receive it. If you don't, chances of the pass connecting are slim, and often results in crucial turnovers, not to mention dozens upon dozens of icing calls. In other words, those of you who have relied on one-timers in the past might find yourself having a bit of trouble getting the puck in the net early on.
To make matters worse, your opponents' AI in 07 is at times, god-like in its abilities. It's like playing against five Ovechkins at once. Checked players can get up quicker than you can snag the free puck, they make picture-perfect passing plays, and like most EA NHL games before it, perform miracle plays in the final minutes of the third period to either win the game or push for overtime.
As frustrating as that might sound, those gripes pale in comparison to the number of shoddy goals that plague each and every game. I don't consider myself a hockey expert, but I don't think Dominik Hasek has ever just watched a puck slowly - at a snail's pace - trickle into the net. Nor do I think Martin Brodeur has ever passed the puck into his own net. Silly goals like these occur in almost every game, and to make matters worse, some goals that should be counted, aren't. Last time I checked, if the puck crosses the goal line, and the goalie snags it, then brings it back out from the net, that's still a goal.
Fortunately the skill stick isn't the only factor keeping the game in our consoles as 07 features a robust franchise mode, replete with the option to tinker with the team's finances, purchase upgrades, alter your team's strategy, and edit lines with the emphasis being on line chemistry to help boost your team's performance. It's not necessarily as meaty as 2K's franchise mode, but it's not half bad either
Having been an outspoken supporter of the create-a-player option, I'm happy to report that EA has included the blessed feature once again, well, sort of. You can create your player in the sense that you can choose his name, background info, one of 10 or so pre-made faces, and ship him to the team of your choice, but you can't choose your player's equipment or meddle with his facial features, leaving create-a-player fans, like myself, feeling especially cheated.
Much like the create-a-player feature, NHL's online mode has been stripped down to the bare essentials as well. EA seems to be completely ignoring the online component of its games as of late, and considering the number of Live users, that seems like a strange move to make. Instead of having seasons and tournaments like in 2K's series, we're left with the option to play both ranked and unranked games, and that's it - pretty standard stuff here unfortunately.
While EA missed out on the online component, it certainly nailed the visuals. NHL 07 is absolutely stunning, with fluid player animations, exceptional lighting effects, and player models sporting even the finest details, right down to the stitching embedded in each jersey. Some players are even given their own signature moves, like Brian McCabe's butt check, for example, that sends forwards flying across the ice. Sadly, 07's visual flair doesn't come without a price. NHL 07's frame rate has one heck of a time trying to keep up with the action. It stutters, it skips and it begs for you to turn the game speed down a notch.
Although I'm a Bob Cole fan through-and-through, the Thorne/Clement combo certainly makes its presence felt in the commentary booth. Their delivery is top-notch, despite repeating lines frequently and often proclaiming that the game might be headed to a shootout, even when it's late in the game and one team is up by a handful of goals.
NHL 07 has its glaring flaws, particularly with its lousy AI and shoddy online play, but the skill stick breathes new life into a sport that hasn't seen much innovation in over a decade. The eye-candy visuals and terrific puck physics don't hurt either. A few improvements here-and-there and we could have a true classic on our hands next year.