Tuesday, September 26, 2006

NHL2K7 (360) and NHL 07 (360): The Polar Opposites Club

The short version is that I wouldn't recommend buying either of these games--I'd suggest renting them first.

What's strange is that I've never played two simulations of the same sport in the same year that are such mirror images of each other.

I need to do this in table form, which I have no idea how to do in blogger, so here come the ...

...................................NHL2K7....................NHL 07
A.I. ............................Excellent....................It doesn't have any
Skating animations ....Fantastic....................Weak
Goalie animations.......Weak.........................Excellent
Physics.......................Solid..........................Let's just say "not solid"
Control Scheme..........Circa 1950..................Outstanding

A few notes. First, when I said NHL 07 didn't have A.I., that's not a joke. On Superstar difficulty (the highest level), you can skate into the offensive zone with the puck and frequently make two or three complete circles of the offensive zone with with almost no opposition whatsoever. And on offense, if the CPU makes more than two passes before shooting, consider yourself as the witness to an improbable and miraculous event.

Am I kidding? No. As a test, I wrote down how many passes a team made when it skated into the offensive end before taking a shot (if passes were intercepted, etc., and a shot was never taken, there was no tally). Look at NHL 07:

Ah--the 3,3,3,2 days. How I long for them to return.

25 shots. 19 passes. This is the kind of A.I. I like to call "The Shitties." Just over .75 passes per shot after skating into the offensive end.

How much does this resemble real hockey? It doesn't, and to a laughingly bad degree.

That's on Superstar difficulty level, by the way--the toughest in the game. And if you're wondering, it's a combination of bad offensive A.I. and bad defensive A.I., because you wouldn't believe how stupid your defenders are. In a word--"very."

Here's NHL2K7 in comparison:

29 shots. 74 passes. That's just over 2.5 passes per shot. And when guys stopped and ripped a shot without passing, it was almost almost always due to a defensive lapse of my own, because defenders know how to play in NHL2K7. If you try that "skating around in a circle" crap in the offensive end, you'll either lose the puck before you even go behind the net or your teeth will wind up in the stands.

Oh, and that wasn't even on the highest level of difficulty--it was just All-Star (which is second highest).

Here's how EA's hockey producers would answer a question about their A.I. in an interview.
Q: We've noticed that offensive and defensive players have no A.I.
A: Well, we're redesigning the NHL series from the ground up for the 360. Stage one, which I'm proud to say we completed this year in spite of severe time constraints, was to get all players to acknowledge two things: one, that they were on ice, and two, the location of the goal. Next year, we plan to use this "goal-centric" approach to A.I. to further refine our marketing campaign.

Seriously, how do the people who review these games fail to point out mind-blowing flaws like this? It took all of five minutes to realize this was happening. They're playing the same game. Do they not have a checklist they work through? It's a sports game--it's supposed to simulate the sport.

All right, back to the comparison list. Let's move on to skating. The new skating animations for NHL2K7 look fantastic, and they look even more fantastic because the game runs at an unbelievably high framerate with no hiccups or slowdowns. NHL 07, in contrast, runs like molasses. Is EA ever going to put out a next-gen sports game that doesn't have framerate issues?

NHL 07 has very cool, very impressive goalie animations. 2K7's animations seem far more canned and far less responsive.

The puck physics in NHL 07 seem to have come from long and extensive observations of a superball. That's all I can figure. Absolute rocket slapshots traveling at mach two--and that's after you turn the shot speed slider down to zero. Plus the puck, in general, doesn't seem to move at the right speed.

It's not all good news for NHL2K7, though. NHL2K7's announcing is an embarrassment to the genre. I'd rather listen to Joe Montana Sports Talk Football on the Genesis any day. NHL 07's announcing, on the other hand, is fantastic--Gary Thorne and Bill Clement sound just about perfect. Announcers may not seem that important, but believe me, Thorne and Clement are so good that they really, really add to the immersion.

Here's the last thing. I guarantee you that there was a faction of people at Visual Concepts (and Kush) who have been asking for right analog stick shooting control. It's too obvious and they're too smart. But someone else, someone higher up, said "I don't think we need analog shooting--let's add an ORCHESTRAL SOUNDTRACK instead and call it Cinemtion!" That man should be fired and walked out to the parking lot by Security immediately.

Cinemotion: flat as a pancake. A disaster.

2K7 does do some nice things with additional controls (particularly on-ice team controls), but you know what? Nobody gives a damn if you can't shoot with the analog stick. And NHL 07 really nails the use of the analog stick, which makes the control scheme of 2K7 seem totally clunky and outdated in comparison.

Here's a general principle: every single action in a sports game that resembles a swing, should be mapped to the right analog stick. Kicking in football. Shooting in basketball. Passing and shooting in hockey. Batting in baseball. The golf swing. The tennis swing. What in hell's bells are you guys doing using buttons for any of these things anymore?

Like I said, both games do some things really, really well. What they do poorly, though, they do so poorly that neither game made me want to keep playing it beyond a few hours. And what really kills me about NHL 07 is that like almost all EA Sports games, the core of a really, really excellent game is there. There's a ton of potential.

Unfortunately, like almost all EA Sports games, it's potential that goes unrealized.

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