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.