Score = 3 out of 5
I'll cut to the chase right away. If you're looking for the best hockey game on any platform, then NHL 2K6 for Xbox 360 is it. Unfortunately that doesn't say much.
The ice is a work of art. It starts off all wet, shiny and reflective, and slowly get scratched and less reflective. The puck casts a shadow. You can see the scoreboard reflected in the ice and it's beautiful. The crowd is more realistic and more 3D. They react when players get close to the boards or better yet checked into the boards. Players themselves are more realistic with better player models and better physics where players are now broken down into limbs and body instead of just body so they sprawl appropriately when checked. Because everything is more realistic and in better 3D it's possible to pick and choose holes to pass through and openings on either side of the goalie. One of the coolest effects is the whip of the stick when a shot is made, and the snow that flies when someone stops is pretty cool too. And the goalie animations are frighteningly convincing.
The Xbox 360 version plays exactly like the Xbox version in terms of pacing and precision control of players. The major addition is Crease Control, a Marty Turco idea. This allows gamers advanced control as they can switch to the goalie's point of view and alter their positioning based on where the puck is played. As the opponent shoots the puck, the game goes into a dynamic slow-motion action perspective where the gamer must position the goalie's save cursor in the right location to stop the shot. It sounds confusing, but it isn't. The end result is that this is the first hockey game where it is fun to play goalie.
OK, sounds great, doesn't it? The problem is that once you get past the cloth physics and pretty animations there are some really stupid aspects to gameplay. First and foremost is the lack of acceptable defensive AI; if you opponent skates past you it's as good as a goal because your computer defenseman won't do a damn thing except screen your goalie. I'll give 2K Sports a pat on the back for fixing the rediculous ease with which the wraparound could be scored, but there are still a ton of garbage goals. I can't remember the last time I saw the real Marty Brodeur skate away from the net and stand in the middle of the face-off circle until the other team put the puck in net. I'm not sure the real Marty has EVER done that. I've also never seen the real Marty gather the puck with his stick and put it through his own 5 hole and into the net. And while I'm talking about the Devils, Scott Gomez's stats are accompanied by Peter Elias's photo.
The commentary is just plain wrong most of the time. There are things like showing that a guy has 3 hits and then saying, "Look, he's playing very physical today with 6 hits" or the announcer gets the score wrong or says the wrong team is on the power play. 2K Sports, if you can devote the time to make the players' clothes ripple as they skate, then put the game through another round of QA and stop the announcers from saying inappropriate things.
If you're like me, then you need to play hockey. If that's so, then NHL 2K6 is the best there is. If not, then go shoot hoops and wait until 2K Sports fixes the bugs. Hopefully, we won't have to wait too long.
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