NHL 07

PlayStation 2
Released in 2006 by EA Sports
Grade: A-

Once you learn its unusual control scheme, NHL 07 is blast, hitting a near-perfect middle ground between sim and arcade. It requires strategy and finesse but still moves fast and wild.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the seventh of nine editions on PS2. The series jumped to Xbox 360 the same year, so you might think EA didn’t give this game much attention, but it’s completely redone with new graphics, AI, and controls.

Praises and gripes

You pass with the right analog stick, shoot with the right triggers, and speed burst with L1. You switch players with X, body check with triangle, and poke check with the right thumbstick. If you’re having trouble imagining how that would feel, I can tell you that it definitely takes some getting used to, and it’s unlike the controls in NHL games that came before or after.

EA was wise to make the medium difficulty setting pretty easy though, and it didn’t take too long for me to compete with the CPU on the hard setting, where the challenge feels just right.

Games have a speed and frantic feel similar to previous PS2-era NHL games, but there’s a newfound smoothness as well. It feels more organic, with players that look and behave more like humans. I like how contests are usually fairly high-scoring — you’re properly rewarded for crafty one-timers, finessed one-on-ones, and crashing the net aggressively for rebounds — but every now and then I end up in a real nailbiter, where goals are precious.

Body checks are still overpowered, with players hitting from any angle, but that too is more natural, allowing for a less rigid flow of play.

The fun of hockey shines through. Playing this game requires skill without being tricky or frustrating. It’s at an odd place in the PS2 cycle, right as the next-gen was coming on, so it probably never got the attention it deserved. I’ll take this over any previous PS2 NHL game though.

Annoying Postscript!
Can I tell you something? Before I played this game, I checked out other reviews of it, and the stupid reviews on so-called reputable websites claimed that it was nothing but a shameless remake of NHL 06. They must have just been looking at the menus or something, because the gameplay is completely redone. What a crock!

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NCAA Football 2005

PlayStation 2
Released in 2004 by EA Sports
Grade: A-

Using Madden’s great football engine, this game is exciting, deep, and easy to play.

Where it falls in the series

PS2 versions went from NCAA 2002 to NCAA 2011, but the focus was on the next-gen starting with the 2007 edition.

Praises and gripes

Before this review becomes a “why this isn’t as good as Madden” spiel, let me tell you what this game does right.

The action has a great sense of fluidity and speed. Twenty-two dudes dash around the screen with sound football logic. They clash realistically and create natural looking chaos, but the control is tight, responsive, and easy to handle.

The plays are very well engineered. You should mix up your play calls, know the situations, and counter your opponent’s tactics. There’s a deep array of strategic nuances, like hot routes, defensive adjustments, and hurry-up offense. On the downside, the playbooks are smaller than in Madden.

The game has enough depth to feel like a simulation, but EA was smart to dial back some realistic elements that are annoying, like bad snaps, missed calls, and certain penalties. Only an uptight jerk would complain that there aren’t any penalties for illegal procedure in a video game, right?

To recreate college football, there’s a lot of variation in players’ skills. Quarterbacks are less precise than the pros in Madden. Passes often miss their mark, but defenders aren’t as disciplined, so you can often pick up big yards with dumb luck, heaving the ball way down the field.

There are of course college-style pitch and option plays. These are nicely designed and easy to grasp, but they’re also pretty dangerous, leading to fumbles a little too often. You should learn your team’s specific playbook to avoid catastrophic mistakes.

Kicking field goals is also much harder, especially with lower tier teams. In fact, playing with lower tier teams can be pretty tricky overall. There are almost 200 teams!

In theory, this should result in the wild unpredictability that gives college football charm, but I don’t think that’s the case. I played quite a few games, and most were low-scoring and methodical. The engine is precise and fair. It’s a good thing, but if you’re hoping that Madden’s college brother would be seem like a wild child by comparison, you might be disappointed.

There’s other college-focused stuff, like mascots and cheerleaders and pep band songs. There’s a “pump up the crowd” function that makes the screen shake to disorient the visiting team, but you’ll probably turn this feature off quickly.

I’ll admit that I prefer NFL football over college football, but this game is a legitimate step behind Madden, with slightly less care in the game design and polish on the presentation. The game logic that makes this more like college football also takes it further from that perfect balance seen in Madden 2005.

NHL 06

PlayStation 2
Released in 2005 by EA Sports
Grade: B+

This one takes some getting used to, but its exciting gameplay can’t be denied.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the sixth of nine NHL games on PS2. The series jumped to Xbox 360 for 07 and PS3 for 08.

Praises and gripes

This year’s innovations result in an odd mix. To make things more realistic, goalies are tougher than before. Crafty one-timers are the best method of scoring, but I like that “ugly goals” sneak through often enough too. Players push the puck ahead when skating fast, so you should be more careful handling the puck. But the gameplay still has an arcade feel. It’s fast and frantic, and defenders can easily knock opponents to the ice from any angle.

The control initially feels jumpy, and the skill stick is more confusing and spastic than ever. Automatic line changes aren’t done well, but luckily you can just turn line changes off altogether.

And despite all that, this game is simply a blast to play. Once you get the hang of the control, you’re in for an exciting round of hockey.

Skating is fluid. Passing is crisp. Goals are scored in all kinds of different ways. The AI is tenacious and causes a healthy level of chaos on the ice. The puck has a way of taking unpredictable bounces. Strategy settings help mix up the action. The graphics got a nice, sleek upgrade, and the sound is solid as usual.

NHL 2004 seems to be the most popular of the PS2/Xbox generation, but I might give NHL 06 the edge in terms of raw fun.

Important Post Script!
This game comes with an emulated version of NHL ’94 on Sega Genesis. I’ve read scathing reviews saying it’s not true to the original, but in my opinion, the gameplay is 99% of the way there. (The sound is off and the rosters have goofy made-up names, though.) If you’ve never played NHL ’94 and you don’t have a Genesis, this is a convenient alternative.

NFL Blitz Pro

PlayStation 2
Released in 2003 by Midway
Grade: C-

Who thought this was a good idea? Let’s take away the fun parts of Blitz, and add the tedious, difficult parts of simulation football.

Where it falls in the series

In the PS2/Xbox generation, there’s NFL Blitz 2002, NFL Blitz 2003, NFL Blitz Pro, and Blitz: The League, an unlicensed title that came after EA snatched the exclusive NFL license.

Praises and gripes

Forget Blitz’s classic 7-on-7 action. This is 11-on-11 football with bigger playbooks and more elaborate plays. The field is bigger, and you only need the regulation 10 yards for a first down. It’s almost like Midway tried to make a genuine simulation. Almost.

The problem is that players still have a machine-like quality, turning and stopping on a dime. And there are no penalties, so defenders knock receivers down before the ball gets to them. Quarterbacks can’t sling the ball as fast as before, but their throws aren’t gracefully realistic either.

The playbooks are deeper, and you spend more time on the clumsy playcall screens. The plays are more complicated, but they’re not realistic; they still have those goofy routes from early Blitz games. You can’t view your playcall at the line of scrimmage, and you can’t even zoom out and see the passing icons before the snap, which was standard in football games by this point.

And what’s the cherry on top? Those stupid, repetitive late hits are back … after every single play. Once the thrill wears off, those late hits just slow down the game.

Who did they think they were appealing to? If you wanted a genuine football game in 2003, there were a handful of better titles to choose from. As an arcade experience, this is clearly a step down from classic Blitz. Smh.

MLB 2006

PlayStation 2
Released in 2005 by Sony Computer Entertainment
Grade: B+

With rich baseball logic, smooth action, and clean graphics, this game is highly playable despite the fact that it’s two generations old.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the third of nine editions on PS2. It’s the last baseball game with a one-year-ahead title, released prior to the 2005 season. Sony introduced “The Show” name on the next edition, MLB 06: The Show, to get the years right. This game’s direct competitors are EA’s MVP Baseball 2005 and 2K’s Major League Baseball 2K5.

Praises and gripes

The sharp graphics and lifelike animations are immediately obvious. Looking out from the catcher’s eye view, you have a user-friendly view of each pitch, and swinging feels intuitive. Aside from a “guess pitch” mechanic that influences your chances, hitting is simple as can be. Point the thumbstick and hit X.

On the mound, this game is the first in the series to use the pitching meter (heavily influenced by EA’s baseball games), where three presses determine power and accuracy. What I love about the pitching meter is that you can purposely mistime your release to get subtle pitch variations. An early release on a change-up makes the ball hang longer in the air. A late release on a curveball makes the ball dart suddenly at the last moment.

Pitchers have an energy gauge and confidence gauge, but the gauges for individual pitch types didn’t come until later in the series.

In the field, the action looks lifelike and plays fair. Batted balls are sprayed all over the field, and fielders go after them realistically. The baserunning controls could be more intuitive though. The first time I played, I accidentally put two runners on second base, resulting in a (gasp!) glitch, where the CPU tagged me out but the play continued until the end of time … or until I sent a runner to third and he was thrown out. (Luckily, I played more games and didn’t experience any more glitches.)

Some of the graphical and presentation elements aren’t quite up to snuff with later versions. The ball sometimes disappears instead of landing clearly in the catcher’s glove. And when you hit a home run, the camera view is supposed to add drama, but actually adds confusion. I once thought I hit a foul ball but actually hit a home run.

The game is fleshed out with plenty of gameplay and presentation options. “Fast play” cuts out almost any extra moment of time, which I love. There are three difficulty settings, but you can tweak the sliders to your specific skills. I can’t imagine ever getting so good that the CPU couldn’t keep up.

It’s a fantastic game. But I don’t think you’ll play it today, even if you have crazy PS2 nostalgia. Each game in the series seems to have minor improvements without messing up anything good from previous games, so you can do better. But playing this game right after playing other baseball games from the same year, it’s no wonder that The Show is the king of baseball today.

*Last little note* This is the first version with Matt Vasgersian on play-by-play instead of Vin Scully.

Major League Baseball 2K5

PlayStation 2
Released in 2005 by 2K Sports
Grade: D+

This game makes a strong first impression that’s full of flair, but it has gameplay bugs that will drive you mad.

Where it falls in the series

The series started with World Series Baseball in 1993 on Sega Genesis, and there are some confusing naming conventions along the way. There’s World Series Baseball 2K3, followed by ESPN Baseball, followed by this, and they even made a “World Series Edition” of this, released during the 2005 postseason. The series made it to 2K13 before calling it quits and leaving The Show as the only MLB video game franchise, despite the fact that it’s only on PlayStation consoles.

Praises and gripes

At first this feels like a promising baseball sim: great-looking ballparks, lifelike pitching animations, and a sweet crack of the bat. There’s so much ESPN-infused pizazz that I had to dial it back in the options to get a swift ballgame that didn’t overload my senses.

There’s an inventive pitching system using two crosshairs and little moving circles, where your bad timing is punished with inaccurate throws. If that’s too much, choose from four simpler pitch systems, and while you’re at it, you can dumb down hitting a few different ways too.

Some pitches have unrealistic movement, like a curveball swooping too far from side to side, which is fine in video game context but will bother baseball purists.

The action in the field also misses the mark, as fielders don’t move with grace, and sometimes the extra moment to stitch together animations costs you outs, which is frustrating.

But here’s where it really comes unglued. The ball gets past the catcher all the time. Several times a game. Not just on wild pitches. It could be any pitch. Nothing looks odder to a baseball fan than a pitch an inch off the plate that zooms to the backstop, as if there were no catcher. It’s a horrendous, inexcusable bug.

It even happens on the bases occasionally, with fielders suddenly forgetting how to catch and letting the ball fly through their legs. Instead of tagging a guy out at third, you’re watching him run all the way home.

This game has about a hundred thousand ways to customize the gameplay, yet nothing can fix these mistakes, making it basically unplayable. Sigh.

MVP Baseball 2005

PlayStation 2
Released in 2005 by EA Sports
Grade: B+

Although it’s certainly aged, this baseball sim plays great and is full of depth. It would make a good companion for a baseball nut back in 2005, and if for some reason you don’t like The Show or 2K’s more modern baseball games, you could conceivably go back to this and fall in love with it.

Where it falls in the series

EA’s Triple Play series jumped to PS2 and Xbox in 2001, and the first two games were so bad they changed the game and the name. MVP Baseball 2003 is much better received, and it introduced the pitching meter that’s seen here. Sony’s The Show series starting using a very similar pitching meter for its 2005 edition, titled MLB 2006 (I know, what a bogus title).

This is the last MLB edition in the series. The 2K Sports company got revenge on EA for buying the exclusive rights to the NFL (see ESPN NFL 2K5) by buying the rights to MLB games (although Sony was free to continue making MLB The Show because it was specific to PlayStation consoles). EA followed up with two college baseball games MVP NCAA Baseball 06 and 07, before they called it quits. Ironically, Sony put 2K’s baseball series to bed by simply making better games, and 2K got the upperhand on EA by putting out superior basketball games. Damn, that was a lot of crap to explain. Here’s your review:

Praises and gripes

This game provides a full baseball experience that baseball junkies can sink their teeth into. The gameplay is meant to recreate big league baseball to a T, with genuine physics, pitch movement, batting logic, frequency of hits vs. outs, and errors.

The pitch meter is great, giving you intuitive control over the power and accuracy of pitches. Hitting is a real challenge, and it’ll take many games for you to hone your eye at the plate. The default settings favor pitching — it’s not difficult to be precise with your location — but there are sliders for just about everything on a 100-point scale.

The pitching/hitting strategy is nicely fleshed out with hot-cold zones, pitch history, and handy replays showing how late or early your swing was (unfortunately, they don’t show you this when you’re pitching). When you miss on the pitch meter, the location is “tipped off” to the batter. Also, there’s a “hitter’s eye” feature where certain pitches make the ball a certain color as they come out of the pitcher’s hand, but I found this hard to exploit.

The action in the field is swift, smooth, and easy to control. A throw meter above the fielder’s head is helpful in showing you exactly how long to hold the button. Fielding is forgiving; you won’t miss a fly ball for not being in the precise right spot, and you can start your throw a moment too soon with no repercussions. Baserunning, a potential misfire for baseball games, is also easy to pick up. And the game moves from pitch to pitch quickly, which I always appreciate.

On the downside, even with my limited baseball sense, I thought there were too many lineouts to infielders and too many high bouncers. Also, I prefer the pitching system in The Show, where you can purposely misfire on the release to add a bit of “nastiness” to your pitches.

Visually, it’s definitely dated, with jagged edges everywhere and hiccups in the presentation, but the animations have lifelike fluidity, and the ball is easy to track as it comes hurling to the plate. In the sound department, both the announcers and menu music are godawful, but you can turn those off and the ballpark sounds are just fine (although the crowd never shows extra enthusiasm on big plays, which is a bummer).

There’s a deep franchise mode with a full minor league system, which was state of the art in its time. The abilities and tendencies of players have a big impact on the action; each pitcher has a different arsenal, and better hitters not only hit harder, but have better luck hitting balls where the fielders can’t get them. This makes the management stuff pretty rewarding for those who put in the time and effort. I’ve heard glowing reviews of the ballpark editor, but it’s pretty underwhelming.

There’s a pitching practice mini game designed to hone your timing with the pitching meter. And there’s a really funny batting practice mini game, where you’re in a public park decked out with mechanical ramps and weird space-age sounds. You can’t fault them for trying to add some sizzle to the steak.

All in all, it’s a fantastic game, but would you play it today? It’s not even the best baseball game on PS2. I’m pretty sure every installment of The Show (2006 though 2011) is superior.