Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Fall of NHL2k

I missed this last week but it culminates a complete reversal of fortune for a company that at one point had the best hockey game around. For me around the time NHL 2003 and it's slapstick commentary and loose arcadey controls arrived is when the balance of power tipped. I was disappointed in EA, they seemed to be mailing it in, there were few new features and the gameplay was slipping badly. It was hockey in name only.

EA had no competition until this upstart company 2k released several competitive sports titles for the Dreamcast including a couple of iterations of their hockey game NHL 2k and NHL 2k2. I had not played either extensively but both got pretty good word of mouth. NHL 2k3 came out in fall of 2002 and looking for a change I picked it up for my Xbox. It was a revelation. It looked and played like real hockey. It wasn't perfect but it was far better than NHL 2003. Defensemen would cover the points so you could drop it back to them on the power play. The controls were tight and the speed of the game was right on. I was sold. 2k had by far the better game and I was not looking back.

For the next three years 2k innovated adding great new features like lift passes, online co-op, and online leagues with web based stats tracking. The basic gameplay was tweaked and refined while EA seemed stuck in the mud. 2k5 was one of the best hockey games ever made and sold for a bargain basement price of $20. 2k6 slightly tweaked the formula but was good as well. 2k was on top and it seemed they could do no wrong.

Meanwhile EA was losing market share in a big way. I don't know the exact numbers but it was bad enough that when the Xbox 360 came out EA did not put NHL 06 on it. They took a year off to regroup and revamp the franchise.

In the fall of 2006 2k released NHL2k7. It was a prettier version of 2k6 and an all all around solid hockey game but really not much different than 2k5. Was 2k getting complacent? EA apparently thought so and answered with the Skill Stick in NHL 07. The Skill Stick was a new way of controlling your hockey player. The left stick moved the player and the right stick controlled the stick. It was revolutionary and dynamic and most importantly intuitive. As it turns out NHL 07 was a middling game but with an incredible mechanic that made it fun to play. As the season wore on I found myself drawn to NHL 07 over 2k7.

In 2007 both teams readied their yearly releases and rumors were that 2k had put in their own skill stick like controls. But when the demos hit 2ks skill stick system was cumbersome and unintuitive while NHLs had been even more refined. Also, the overall gameplay, graphics, and animations for NHL 08 were much improved making it the clear winner. At the point it was released I called NHL 08 the best hockey game I had ever played.

2k was in pretty bad shape heading into 2008 they were clearly chasing EA again and there were no rumors of any killer features for their new version. Meanwhile EA was poised to go for the jugular. 2k9 may have been a decent game I am not sure anyone knows because for NHL 09 EA launched the EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL). This allowed you to create your own player, form your own teams, and play against other teams of human players in up to 6 vs. 6 play. This was the dagger in 2k's chest. EA had managed to take the best hockey game of all time and take it to an entirely new level. In one year.

In 2009 EA released NHL 10 and added a bunch of microtransactional bullshit to the game but improved gameplay again. Meanwhile 2k with NHL 2k10 did nothing to counter the EASHL, signed Alex Ovechkin to be the cover star, and were the only company to release a game for the Wii. It was clearly not enough as next year they will just release a Wii version of the game and skip the 360 and PS3.

Is this the end for the NHL 2k series? I would like to think no. They are certainly at rock bottom. Being relegated to the the Wii is like being kicked to the kiddie table at Thanksgiving. Despite this I believe there are opportunities in the online hockey league space. EA certainly garnered some ill will from adding almost mandatory microtransactions to NHL 10. Players mostly put up with it because the game is good but if there were an alternative without microtransactions I am sure a lot of players would at least take a look. I for one am hoping 2k is revamping much like EA did for NHL 07 and that NHL 2k12 is something special.