September 27, 2006

When AI Attacks

Nothing's more infuriating in sports games than when hyper "artificial intelligence" wrecks you. Let's say you're ahead by two goals in the last period of a game in "NHL 2K7." Then, "2K7's" internal AI rushes to score two quick goals to tie the game. All your previous hard work: meaningless.

It seems like people who make sports games must figure we gamers might stop playing their creations if we cruise to victory too easy or too often. But these miracles on ice — the ones that beat me, not the other way around — make me want to slam the game against the boards.

Even the otherwise fun "Madden NFL '07" robs me. I'll be ahead by a few touchdowns, and I'll make my ball carrier dive to the ground to avoid being tackled, but I'll fumble without even being touched by the other team. Are you kidding me?

Getting cheated could make you sad. Not me. There's an expression that anger turned inward is depression. When artificial intelligence attacks, I keep anger turned outward and beat the stuffing out of "NHL 2K7" and "Madden."

Revenge must be carried out calmly. Anger can make one overreact and play poorly. So the key, grasshopper, is to forgive and forget, work smart, beat the thing, and only after victory is it time to taunt little dances of victory at the TV.

Keeping anger in check is something video gamers and real athletes have in common. When athletes run into trouble, the best response is to ignore them, or to "quickly refocus on the game and move forward," says the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology, in its study guide titled Resilience: Bouncing Back Quickly.

"Successful athletes may experience disappointment, anger, or frustration associated with adversity but rather than being overcome by these emotions they find ways to quickly bounce back," the AAASP says. "Resilient athletes do not allow these emotions to linger."

That sounds painfully obvious, but it takes meditation to carry it out. That is also good advice if you play two new hockey titles — the excellent "NHL 2K7" and the very disappointing "NHL '07."

"NHL 2K7" is the best hockey title of the past few years. The basics are clear: you run down the ice, pass the puck and score. But "NHL 2K7" nails these elements without messing them up, as does the new "NHL '07" and some of "2K7's" predecessors.

"2K7" also comes with a new cinematic look called "Cinemotion," the best visual innovation in a hockey game I've seen. The camera follows the action in a way a movie director might. In past hockey games, such fancy camera angles have sacrificed game play for visuals. Not this year. It looks cool and plays fun.

This year's "NHL '07" is a mess. My Xbox version of "NHL '07" doesn't play in widescreen mode; that's absurd. When I race down the ice, my men lose control of the puck; that's annoying. Some of my own men accidentally bump me and make me lose the puck; that's aggravating.

Yet, it's too easy for offense and defense to score.

What's better about "NHL 2K7" is everything, including plenty of good artificial intelligence — when the game inspects your patterns and puts up tailored defenses. AI is definitely not all bad. But bad AI is all terrible. Spot the difference. Take a deep breath. And knock that AI into next week.

("NHL '07" for Xbox 360, Xbox, PS 2, PSP — Plays dull. Looks dull. Lightly challenging. Rated "E 10+" for mild violence. One and one-half stars out of four.)

("NHL 2K7" for Xbox 360, Xbox, PS 2 — Plays fun. Looks great. Moderately challenging. Rated "E 10+" for mild lyrics and mild violence. Three and one-half stars.)

Used Game of the Week

"Black" has just dropped to $20 and less in used game stores. It's riddled with clichés and yet it's very fun. It's also timely. You kill terrorists like there's no tomorrow. It looks great, but it can be pretty hard. It's available for Xbox and PS 2. It's rated "M" for strong language and violence.

(Ratings: "E" for "Everyone;" "T" for "Teen;" "M" for "Mature 17+"

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