EA graced the launch of the Xbox 360 with Tiger Woods 06, FIFA 06, NBA Live 06 and Madden 06. The company decided to give the NHL series a rest and NHL 07 is the first time we've seen an EA hockey title on next generation consoles. Typically, EA sports updates are minor updates with roster changes and the occasional feature update. Commendably then, EA has broken the mould here by completely reconsidering the controls, and in turn giving the player a greater sense of control over their players. It makes for a much more realistic game of hockey. The controls in the game have changed from EA's previous hockey titles, and truthfully, we see no reason to go back.
The newest feature in this sense is the skill stick. On the default control scheme, you use the right control stick to control your shots. Push the right control stick down and then up, and you'll perform a slapshot, while pushing it straight forward will see you taking a quick shot. Passing is executed with the right trigger, and a through pass can be performed with the right bumper. You won't need to use the face buttons at all, unless you want to change tactics in game. The new, stick-only control system is so satisfying and fluid that every goal feels like it's been executed entirely by you - whereas previously you'd be pushing buttons, now you actually need to guide the puck where you want it to go.
It's pucking frustrating though, and the actual learning curve for mastering the new controls is high. If you've played the previous NHL titles from EA, then you're probably at a disadvantage, simply because you'll be so used to using the face buttons to shoot. If you're new to the NHL games, you're still going to have a bit of trouble getting used to the controls, but after a few hours it really does feel like second nature, and pulling off the shots is so satisfying that it's worth the patience.
Defending isn't quite as up to scratch as the attacking. The old system has been recycled from previous titles, a little disappointing given the advances made on the attacking side of thigs. Indeed, there aren't really any tactics required to defend; all you have to do is basically try and check your opponant at the correct time. If you miss, then you hope another defender will crunch them. The goalies are pretty reliable though - occasionally, an odd goal will sneak through unconvincingly, but for the most part they act realistically. Sometimes, the AI opposition has a tendency to avoid the puck when it's right in front of it, which basically gives you a free ticket to come in and skate away with the puck. This doesn't happen too frequently, but it's worth pointing out, if only because it does subtract from the realism of the game.
In the way of features, NHL 07 feels a tad undernourished. The obligatory Quick Play option is available of course, as is a World Tournament mode which places the top teams together in a massive play-off. The game begins with the Dodge Shootout (advertising gone wrong?), which serves as a quick introduction to the new controls. The main mode is the Dynasty option. You can play up to ten seasons in this, and, as with most EA titles, you can recruit the best players and try to concoct a dream team. If you can't be bothered playing ten seasons then you can just simulate, and if you prefer a mixture then you can intervene through a match if you see your team is losing.
The game also includes an online component but it hasn't been thought out very well. There's not a wide range of modes, and all you can do is basically take part in a ranked or an unranked match, whilst finding people in a time zone other than Australia or Europe is a quest in itself, thanks to the timezones. It's simply not good enough that EA keeps taking a quick way out when it comes to online play, and more people would be likely to play online if there were more appealing multiplayer options.
The achievements have been laid out well however, and there's a lot to unlock. Some of the basic achievements include scoring a hat-trick or winning your first match, but later on there are some really tough goals that are designed to test you. Getting all 1000 points will take a lot of effort, although simulating is sometimes an easy way to unlock some of the points. The achievements aren't automatically unlocked though - you need to actually finish the game before they'll be awarded.
EA games are often criticised in the past for not looking truly next-generation, but NHL 07 looks fantastic. All of the players are impressively detailed, and the faces for each of the players have been realistically recreated. The physics are impressive as well. The puck moves realistically, the animations of the players look truly authentic, and the cut-scenes and replays are literally the icing on the cake - it really feels like you're watching the game on the television. The commentary is provided by Gary Thorne and Bill Clement (who used to do the commentary for the 2K series), and the pair sound great together, although after playing through a few years of the Dynasty mode the commentary does become a little bit too repetitive. The crowd noises are fantastic, and, in a nice touch, it's really noticeable if you're playing a home game or an away game, just because of who the crowd is supporting. The soundtrack? It's okay, but nothing to get overly excited about.
If you have the patience to play through the entire Dynasty mode, then it's going to take a long, long time. You'll probably get a little inpatient and simulate a few matches, but aside from the title's meatiest mode, there's no other real reason to come back to the game. The multiplayer could have kept the game interesting once Dynasty had been completed, but instead you're left with only the Quick Play or World Tournament as the modes that are any good.
NHL 07 leaves room for improvement in the features department. It seems EA was really focused on the skill stick, and basically forgot to include many game modes. Despite this, the game is still a lot of fun, and the revamped controls are as likely to set a precedent for hockey games as Tiger's game did for golf titles. It genuinely feels like you've got more control over your players now, and scoring goals is oh-so-satisfying. If you're into hockey, this is probably a must.