Gretzky NHL 2006 Review

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Graphics: 7.0
Sound : 8.0
Gameplay : 7.0
Multiplayer : 7.0
Overall : 7.0
Review by Stevie Smith
With EA’s and SEGA’s more recognizable NHL franchises so far without an entrant for the new handheld format, Gretzky NHL 06 currently occupies the PSP’s only dedicated ice hockey slot. So how does the PS2’s Gretzky NHL 2005 handle after the developmental scale down to Sony’s sexy little beast?

In short, it’s a labor of love—for the creators and consumers alike. From the creators’ point of view, Gretzky NHL 06 arrives as a somewhat stripped version of its source material. The game modes are deprived of a franchise option (perhaps unsurprisingly given the hardware), and a single season stands at the game’s only tangible mode of longevity. There are no player creation tools, no in-depth management, no progressive drafts, and no ensuing nurture of rookies to all-stars. In terms of presentation, the on-ice visuals are consistently impressive, and player animations are always solid and well crafted. Again, power demand may well have contributed to a lack of accuracy in facial models, but the PSP’s reduced screen sizing largely forgives any generic blushes. Arena crowds are disappointingly flat during camera sweeps and cut scenes, which does sully the authenticity somewhat, but the rink action generally keeps player eyes firmly fixed on the ice.

For the consumer, Gretzky NHL 06 is likely to appeal to the more discerning hockey fan, the kind of fan who enjoys battling against unfailingly stiff competition and superhuman goaltenders…a more realistic experience, if you will. If you’re hoping to emulate EA’s NHL 06 and slam the goal count into double figures as though every game is a pathetic exhibition exercise—then Gretzky NHL 06 will leave you ripping hair clear from your scalp. Gretzky’s gameplay is lightning fast, its opposing defensive units are merciless, and genuine scoring chances must always be earned. Nothing in Gretzky NHL 06 is handed to you on a silver platter. However, though the learning curve is initially steep, once your eyes have acclimatized to the relentless pace, and your gaming brain settles into a steady processing rhythm, the necessary finger speed, one-timer precision, pass fluidity, and check positioning will becomes second nature. Moreover, after suffering some shocking defeats at the opening of a season, you will learn from your mistakes, you will hold back on the rush to better protect your blue line, and you will adapt to the game’s demands. Despite the hardware compromises, Gretzky NHL 06 offers up an authentically difficult sporting representation not seen in quite some time.

Those not well versed in the world of ice hockey, or looking for a more immediate action fix may well point accusative fingers at the seemingly lax positional A.I., the occasionally clipped frame rate, or the extreme inertial demands…but they’d be wrong to do so. As the proverb states: A bad workman always blames his tools. Committing players forward in attack leaves your defense exposed to the odd-man rush should you lose possession—just as it does in real ice hockey. There’s an awful lot of frenetic action on the ice, and the pace is constant; sporadic clipping is certainly forgivable and doesn’t detract from the experience. And, inertia is something that not even professional players can fully control, but prolonged playing time does render it manageable to those gamers willing to invest the effort.

Beyond the required level of patient curve, there are a few obvious glitches that do stand out against the game’s more considered plus points. The play-by-play and color commentary—while being impressive for a heldheld device—does struggle to keep up with the action. The emotive delays do damage the overall atmospheric sensation, especially after scoring, when you often hear the commentators react while watching the scoring player already busy celebrating. The somewhat restrictive camera views are not particularly strong, and most of those on offer leave distant action almost impossible to fathom, and close-up plays equally difficult to master. The ‘old school’ top-down angle is likely the camera of choice, allowing for decent rink coverage and minimal loss of distanced puck vision—though the general transition to the PSP’s small screen is perhaps not best suited to the tiny burnt biscuit in any event.

Gretzky NHL is a thoroughly decent hockey simulation. It makes no attempt to be an arcade experience, and those looking for quick and easy thrills are best advised to seek out NHL Hitz, or NHL 06. For players prepared to risk finger cramp, wrist lock, eye strain, and cracked patience in order to make the transitional skill demands laid down by the merciless gameplay, the experience is never anything less than rewarding. Throw in wireless multiplayer capability, Gretzky challenge modes, and gameplay-related unlockable features and Gretzky NHL 06 quickly becomes a diamond in the rough. Whether it can survive against the likes of SEGA’s 2K series—when and if it arrives on the PSP—remains to be seen, but for now it’s a perfectly fulfilling hockey edition, far outranking some of the sport’s more recent home console releases.