If you look at all the major US sporting leagues, the NHL is definitely towards the bottom of the list when it comes to recent success. With the 04-05 season locked out, North America's premier Ice Hockey league is still on the path to recovering its former glory. The virtual NHL scene, on the other hand, is not quite as tender, as both 2KSports and EASports have maintained their respective NHL video game series throughout the turmoil. As with most of the sports games from 2KSports, the 2K NHL series has made its mark with the enthusiast crowd, and this won't likely change with NHL 2K7 for the Xbox 360.
Gamers disappointed by the general lack of gaming modes in some next generation sports titles will be pleased to know that NHL 2K7 is well supplemented in the area, featuring the usual Quick Game, Season and Tournament modes, as well as a bunch of other sub modes, including a fully interactive "Hit the Ice" mode to introduce new 2K7 gameplay features, "battle" and "elimination" party modes, "mini-rink" which is 2 on 2, and "pond hockey" which is 4 on 4. The variation on offer is quite in-depth and should have casual and hardcore NHL fans alike busy.
As with any self respecting sports game these days, NHL 2K7 also features the usual 'franchise' mode of play, which labels you as the coach/GM for any of the 30 NHL teams. This mode plays more or less how you'd expect it to - you play the season out (you can choose 41 or 82 game seasons) by either simulating or actually playing each game, with duties maintaining the roster via editing the lineups, signing free agents, making trades and so forth. To spice this mode up a bit, 2K7 has a few side elements, such as phone calls from the team owner you can choose to take or ignore, and a few practicing drills you can do on any day without a game scheduled, both of which can influence either the whole team's or a certain player's fatigue and chemistry. Unfortunately though, while the franchise mode is enjoyable, 2K7 is still yet to add the newly introduced real life league wide salary cap to the game so dealing with player salaries is not nearly as challenging as it should be. With salaries aside though, player management is still quite involved, as the amount of ways you can form a team is well featured in NHL 2K7 - you can trade, sign and draft players as expected, but you can also monitor your minor league roster and bring up and put down players on demand, as well as scout international talent during the offseason. Like with NBA 2K7, NHL 2K7 also features the ability for up to 4 teams to be under human control in franchise mode. It would be great to see a 30 human team franchise possible, but 4 should be enough to tide most house holds over.
Once in game, NHL 2K7 can play just about any way you like it. If you want to enjoy arcade gameplay with a lot of fast paced action, then all you have to do is enter the game's options from the main menu, and select the "Arcade" settings preset. On the other hand, if you want a more realistic/challenging experience, then the "Sim" preset will probably fit best, however the serious gamers will definitely want to invest some time in customizing the gameplay sliders for the most realistic experience possible. NHL 2K7 has to have one of the more comprehensive slider sets I've seen in a sport game - there are 4 different sliders for goalies alone, plus sliders for ice and puck friction, fighting frequency, checking success and game speed to name a few, including a bevy of the usual offensive and defensive specific sliders.
With this in mind, there really is more than one game in NHL 2K7, as the gameplay settings have a huge impact on how the game feels and flows. On settings tilted towards arcade gameplay, it becomes an insanely fast paced game with huge hits every two seconds, with a lot of goals and generally a lot of action, which will definitely be a lot of fun for gamers looking at this game from a less serious point of view. On the other hand, when you tweak the sliders and up the game difficulty, it becomes a very good simulation of the real thing, with players moving at far more realistic speeds, scoring in more realistic fashion, with a larger emphasis on "scrappy" play rather than skating over everyone like a mac truck on ice. Perhaps the best part is, since just about every gameplay element is available to customize, it's possible to blend realism gameplay with arcade gameplay in almost any combination, so the best setting for you is more than likely in the game somewhere. If I had to offer any criticism to the realistic play in NHL 2K7, it is that on more challenging life like settings, the amount of ways you can score seems severely limited, for example, if you're not exceptionally good at setting up one timers, you will probably struggle to score at times. This means when you do pull off an exceptional goal, it is far more rewarding, but those can be very scarce even over a lengthy season.
Visually, NHL 2K7 looks great - the large amount of reflective surfaces in an ice rink allows the Xbox 360 hardware to show off, and while the players aren't the most authentic in the 2KSports 2K7 lineup (that goes to NBA 2K7), they look pretty good too, although given all the gear and the helmets, player models aren't nearly as impressive when you're playing in an ordinary camera view as they are close up, as most players look more or less the same during gameplay. One area of the visuals less impressive however is the animations - they look fine most of the time, but with sticks and limbs flailing everywhere, you will see quite a lot of clipping issues with the animations. While it is understandable to see maybe a stick go through the toe of a defender to smack the puck, unfortunately it is a tad more severe than this - sticks and arms will go through entire bodies at times to get the puck, and on a few occasions, I even saw the puck go through the stick and pads of a goalie on its way to a score. This isn't a game killer by any means, but it certainly isn't what I expected out of next generation ice hockey gameplay. The player physics in NHL 2K7 is generally good, particularly during collisions, but it needs a lot of work to make sure realistic physics outcomes occur at all times during gameplay. In NHL 2K7's defence, this is more or less an issue in every sports game to date next gen or not, it's just exposed a little more in a hockey simulation.
When you think about it, if you don't compromise realism, there really isn't any other mainstream sport as playable in video game form as Ice Hockey. For the casual gamer, it can be as simple as racking up goals, knocking people on their back, and getting into the occasional fight - all of which are part of the real thing. On the other hand, for the enthusiast fans, it can be as complex as tweaking gameplay sliders for optimal CPU AI, composing lineups, maintaining a roster, and executing lineup changes with complex play orientated offenses and consistently tough defenses on the ice at the speed of light. NHL 2K7 from 2KSports combines both the casual mainstream appeal with the more hardcore features very well, and should definitely be picked up by any hockey/sports games enthusiasts with a 360. Unfortunately, some elements leave the game somewhat short of what I'd call my personal "next gen" gameplay standards, but overall, NHL 2K7 is still a great game.
Check out 2KHockey.net for NHL 2K7 discussion and sliders.