Next-generation consoles were supposed to change the way games were played. History will show that – at least in the first year – they’ve only really changed the way sports games are played. Both Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Nintendo’s Wii have opened new, yet dramatically different doors for sports fans to bring their dreams to life.

If you’d told me at E3 that the most innovative hockey game of the next year would be released on the 360 and not the Nintendo Wii, I’d have laughed at you. After all, Microsoft was releasing a glorified Xbox with a PS2 controller, and the Wii was making a device clearly designed by a sports fan. Surely, Nintendo had this round wrapped up? EA showed me how wrong I was with NHL 07 for the 360.

As a sports fanatic, I was oddly anti-console. Sports games thrive on consoles, and I even had a PS2-style controller for my PC, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t purchased a new console since the Sega Genesis. I was a PC guy and never stopped to consider the ramifications of the “next-gen war” on my beloved sports games.

At first, all the hype about the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii centered around the shape of their boxes, who would be doing exclusives for them and how many pixels they could fit on your screen. I didn’t care – and wouldn’t care – until I actually got my hands on a 360 controller.

The 360 controller was not, as I had assumed, a PS2 clone. They swapped the positions of the d-pad and the left analogue stick and subtly placed the right analogue stick in a more convenient position. At a glance, who cares, right? Not so. The move has fundamentally altered the sports genre just as much as the Wii’s innovative wand has.

The beauty of that change is most apparent in two EA Sports titles: Fight Night Round 3 and NHL 07. In Fight Night, the punches are no longer just mashing buttons. For a right uppercut, I move the stick down and to the right, then trail it up in the motion of that form of punch. For a left hook, I move it out and swing it up, just like a left hook. In a way, I am doing exactly what my boxer is doing. That’s a phrase people have thrown at the Wii, but in its own way, it is true of the 360 as well.

Things got even better in NHL 07. As I skate around the ice, I stick handle by moving the right stick back and forth, I fire a snapshot by pulling back the stick and pushing it forward, and I take a wrist shot by rolling the puck out to my forehand, then gliding it forward. All the while, I aim with the left stick. I was never a boxer, but I was (a rather terrible) hockey player, and this just feels right to me.

This design change has actually made me dislike some of their other offerings. Madden 07 bores me to tears; having to tackle your opponents by using the left stick (or “hit stick” as they call it) has been in the franchise for years and it just doesn’t cut it anymore. Plus, actually getting the tackles off – which is a rather important part of football – is much harder than checking is in hockey. The experience is at best an exercise in frustration. Potentially, the actual throwing motion could be mimicked with the stick. Rather than simply hitting a face button to throw, the player would have to look around (like a real quarterback) and face the person they want to throw to. Whomever they’re aimed at is where the ball goes when they perform the back and forth motion with the stick. Now, not all plays in football are that black and white, but the play could easily be modified using a trigger. So, for example, when facing to the left, if the player holds down the right trigger and performs the throw motion, he might turn at the last second and toss it to a receiver he knows to be running a route on the opposite side of the field. The advantage is surprising the defense, while the disadvantage is throwing it blind.

This could then be extended to the running game as well. Like “deking” in NHL 07, the stick could easily replicate stutter steps, spins, straight arms and the other moves pulled in football. Madden 07 took some baby steps with the hit stick – although that is now a few years old – and the use of the stick for kicking, but they didn’t even begin to exploit the potential of the 360 controller.

EA Sports isn’t the only one to use or abuse the skill stick in the realm of sports. THQ was similarly unimpressive in their shoddy WWE: SmackDown vs. RAW 2007. In this game, players can use the “skill stick” to grapple and perform moves, but again, it is almost exclusively limited to simple one-directional taps. THQ’s only bow to the power of the stick was the inclusion of custom moves, where an on-screen prompt gives you an option that usually consists of either pressing the stick up and down very quickly or rotating it. With a little more forethought, the developers could have realized they had a title perfectly suited to the stick, and by letting players choose their moves through a series of motions, they would have left oceans of content for players to uncover as they wrestle.

If the 360 got me excited about sports again, the Wii put me right over the edge. Wii Sports is packaged with every system to show people the power of the controller. For those living in a cave, players use a wand-like device to perform actions on the screen. Thus, if you’re playing tennis, you just swing the stick as you would a racket. The same goes for bowling and the other sports in the game.

Although hockey was not included in the sports pack, it’s a sport ripe for the Nintendo to take to the next level. With his left hand a player could use the analogue stick to skate around the ice, and with his right hand, he could easily mimic the motions of stick handling, deking, passing and shooting.

If a Wii hockey player wanted to fire a pass to the right, he would just need to make a short smooth motion in the direction of the player he wanted it to go to. If he wanted to do a slap shot, he’d wind back with the wand-hand and bring it down underhanded to fire. The speed at which the player moves could determine the strength of the shot, while the use of the D-Pad – which is located at the top of the remote – lets him aim. To do a saucer pass instead of a direct one, all he would need to do is flick his wrist at the end of the passing movement. Deking could be performed by simple, delicate wrist motions.

The possibilities of Wii hockey are endless, just as the golf and bowling in Wii Sports have made fans out of many who didn’t previously care about those sports.

Both the Wii and the 360 have opened the door to innovation in the one area I had thought innovation was becoming impossible. The 2008 crop of sports games should include brand new ways of playing the games, rather than just new rosters and higher poly counts. It’s up to EA Sports, THQ, Take2 and anyone else making a sports game to ensure that their products take full advantage of the technology provided to them. For the first time in a long while, I’m looking forward to seeing if they do.

Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for MMORPG.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.

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