With the expectation of a new hockey season starting any moment, the buzz around the newest ice games from both EA and 2K Games is pretty high. NHL 2K6 continues the tradition of being an all around great sim of the sport, perfect for players who take their game seriously. Very seriously. In previous years EA's hockey franchise has muddled around the middle ground trying to appeal to every jockstrap wearing poser who doesn't know that their videogame systems can play other genres. "What's a FPS?" is their battlecry why waddling to the fridge for another beer. I'm here to tell you that things have changed. EA's game has gotten tighter and competition will be fierce.

New to both games and pro hockey are some new rules that will change the strategy involved both off and on the ice. Two-passes (beyond the center line) are now completely legal which effectively renders the red line useless. The idea behind this is to create a faster, more action packed game of hockey with a lot less interruptions and downtime. Players aren't allowed to interfere with the opposition in their zone if they don't have the puck - meaning you shouldn't be seeing a lot of meddling with players who are setting themselves up for a pass. Once the player has the puck, any slashing, grabbing, yanking or other methods that involve removing the stick from the ice or using a free hand to obstruct the player will be penalized, while the player with the puck cannot use force to remove opponents out of the way. The elimination of obstruction tactics is a major one which will also decrease the number of slashing incidents while hopefully increasing the number of shots on goal. Goalies have also taken a hit in that they won't be able to roam all over the back ice to set up plays for their teammates, which could result in a lot of forwards taking hits they wouldn't have in the past. That is as long as players are still allowed to make any physical contact without first requiring a note from their coach.

At this point I've only been able to see the effect the new rules have on the digital game of hockey and I'm having a hard time remembering them. I think it will take at least a season before players get the hang of them as well. Some great teams will have their tried and true tactics completely changed by the new rules so it will be interesting to see how this impacts the league overall. Interestingly enough, since Visual Concepts didn't have any previous history with the new rules either, NHL 2K6 seems a little unsure of itself as well when it comes to implementing the elimination of the center line as AI controlled players will still hang around there waiting for a pass more often than not.

Besides the new rules, NHL 2K6 sports a shiny new ProControl passing system. This new system is hit and miss (excuse the pun) simply due to it's on-again / off-again nature. To initiate ProControl passing you must click the R analog stick. This brings up icons underneath your players. Pressing the circle button (B on the Xbox) will allow you connect a pass to your Right Winger, Triangle (Y) shoots to the Center, Square (X) to your Left Winger etc. Once you become mentally equipped enough to get the hang of it, you could effectively set up all sorts of intricate passing patterns, culiminating in a one-timer shot on the net (double tap). The only drawback to the ProControl is that it always has to be turned on each time you gain possession of the puck. Half the time I forgot to do it and relied on the tried and true method of wishing on a wing and a prayer when I passed.

For the first time in a hockey game, players are given the ability to select from some coaching on the fly. Set up on the D-Pad, both offensive and defensive plays can be implemented at the touch of the button. I found these to be a little too much too soon as I fumbled with the new rules and new passing, but I'm sure I'll spend more time getting acquainted very soon.

Last but not least NHL 2K6 gives Enforcers, those big bullies of the iceworld some screen time. Denoted by the "E" underneath their icon, Enforcers play the role in the game as they do on the ice. They attempt to intimidate the center and anyone else unlucky enough to be in their sites. True to form, if the E's do their job the opposing players will lose stats resulting in missed shots, loss of power etc. Unfortunately due to the new rules, I think E's will become extinct over time in this next generation of pro hockey, since they can't effectively harrass players with pokes, checks, slashes etc. What are they going to do now: make scary faces? In NHL 2K6 E's can still effectively make some dramatic hits but you'll have to know when to implement them.

The core of 2K6 remains fundamentally unchanged and can be tweaked and altered to play as realistic or as "arcadey" as you'd like. The lines are realistic, but if you chose manual changes you'll have to be speedy as the game doesn't afford you a lot of time to get it together once the whistle blows.

Visually the game is starting to show its age; not that it looks bad. Perhaps I'm just itching to see what the next gen systems will be able to pull off in the eye candy department, so I'm blinded by future expectations. The presentation has taken a hit for the worse as the ESPN license has been lost to those folks over at EA. In the void left behind we have Harry Neale and Bob Cole from Hockey Night in Canada and whle they do an admirable job, it just doesn't seem the same. I feel very unCanadian saying that, but it's true. Something is missing.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, EA's NHL 06 is now a serious contender with this years effort. 2K6 is as strong as it ever was and while it might take vets awhile to get a grasp on the ProControl and other injections, it's still incredibly solid and has lost nothing from last years game. Since both games are value-priced (2K6 is $19.99, NHL 06 is $29.99) it might just be a toss up as to which game you'll hang your skates on. For the cost of one full price game, you can own both. For those who have pledged allegiance to Visual Concepts you'll find an engaging and thanks to the new rules and ProControl an almost entirely new game of hockey once you lace up and hit the ice.

System: Xbox, PS2
Dev: Visual Concepts
Pub: 2K Games
Release: Sept 2005
Players: 1 - 8
Review by Vaughn