EA's NHL series is one of the most unstable and unpredictable sports franchises in gaming. Some years it attempts to hearken to its glory days of the mid-'90s with more of an arcade flair, the kind of game you can enjoy with a few buds and a few beers. The next year it attempts to challenge 2K's hardcore sim sports brand. But even then, the offerings tended to feel "sim lite." If you look at the history of this series, it's hard to imagine that it could ever deliver a true knockout. That's why this year's iteration comes as a total shock. It's not just marketing talk, it's not just hype; EA has finally delivered an NHL title worthy of a standing ovation. Wow.
For NHL 08, EA Canada decided to drop its legacy of fastbreak hockey and create a game that so closely mimics an NHL game, you may swear you're watching the real deal. To achieve this, EA created a brand new skating engine and built a dynamic AI system. Either of these alone would have been seen as a nice improvement over NHL 07, but together they create a feeling of being on the ice in an NHL game.
The new skating engine is one of those subtle things that you might not notice at first. But compare it to last year's model and suddenly it becomes clear just how much of an improvement has been made. Speed is completely analog, so if you want turbo, just push forward on the Left Thumbstick and your player will skate as fast as possible. But ease up just a touch and you can see the gradual shift in speed. Put the stick in neutral and you will glide along the ice on your momentum, a very useful tool, particularly on defense.
The On the Fly AI is the real star of the show and will both thrill and frustrate gamers. The AI plays a real game of hockey and never feels as if it is running some pre-programmed scenario. On offense, the AI sets screens, spreads the defense, and charges rebounds. On defense, the AI tries to cut off passing lanes, gets physical down low, and clears the puck when things get too hectic. And just when you think it can't get any tougher to score, the AI adapts.
The dynamic AI is adjusting throughout a game, just as a real NHL team would do. If you stick to one strategy, the AI will find a way to shut you down. Or at least will do its best based on the skills of the players on the ice. If you play hockey the old EA NHL way, by driving down center ice and looking for one-timers, you are going to get creamed. The defensive AI can be rough. That doesn't mean it's impossible to score (in fact, you will still have the occasional blowout game), but to do so will require more imagination and smarter play. The real test will be to your skills on defense.
If you're the type who, on defense, likes to charge at the puck and lay down a big hit to gain possession, please bring a Scantron and No. 2 pencil to class -- you're about to be schooled. Sure, from time to time you will manage to get a lick on the puck handler, but usually being over-aggressive will cost you. Watch an NHL game. Do you see defensemen storming at a forward with the puck? All you will do by charging relentlessly is put all of your defenders out of position and allow for easy goals. Instead, you need to use some NHL smarts. Play the passing lanes. Look for the opportune moments to poke check; don't just swing your stick around wildly like a blind man. And above all, show patience.
An attentive gamer will pick up on clues that the AI is shifting its approach on offense or defense. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, who return once again to call games, will give hints throughout a match. It comes off sounding like very natural commentary, but when you hear that the Senators are no longer going to let the Sharks crowd the net, consider making some adjustments. Each period ends with both teams being given lists of suggestions to improve play in the following period. Again, considering the challenging AI (especially on the harder difficulties), you'd be wise to pay attention.
The remarkable AI does come with a few drawbacks. Though the competing AI is solid, your own teammates can sometimes be dunderheads. You'll see AI-controlled allies staring at a loose puck while doing nothing and damned if your teammates don't have a bad habit of screening your own goalie. And while the AI is spectacular both on defense and offense, there are still some basic plays you won't see often -- such as working off the backboard. You will also find that the AI adjusts at a Herculean level no matter the team. It's as if every coach is a genius, every player able to make the perfect adjustments at a snap of the fingers.
To assist you in capitalizing on your offensive opportunities, a sweet create-a-play feature has been added. With this intuitive feature, you can create roughly 70 different plays to match most any situation on the ice. You record the movements of the players involved, so that, when the play initiates (which occurs automatically when players are correctly positioned on the ice), you know exactly where your AI teammates will move. Creating effective plays isn't all that easy, but that in itself becomes a game within the game.
Normally, EA puts most of its focus on adding new control schemes each year. That's not the case with NHL 08. The AI was clearly the focus, leaving the controls close to what they were last year, though some tweaks have been made to improve the skill stick. The only significant change is what EA is calling "Skill Stick Moments." By holding down a modifier button, the left and right thumbsticks become deke tools. The left stick determines where your skates go, the right where you point the puck. When you perform a skill stick move, it's simply a matter of pointing the two sticks in the proper direction. Done right, you can get some nice dekes around opponents. Done wrong (which is often), you will lose control of the puck.
The advancement of last year's skill stick is a good idea, but could have used a bit more work. When done right, the moves tend to be an automatic way around a defender. And when they don't work, you end up looking like an idiot. Some will master the new skill stick controls and dominate with it while others will get frustrated and simply stop using it. But what makes the skill stick so effective is the sad fact that there are some clipping issues. Your puck reacts to players as it should, but sometimes when performing the new skill stick moves, your hockey stick will pass right through another skater. So instead of banging into a body as you should, you slice right through them. Fortunately, NHL 08 has so many other good things going for it that this won't likely kill a hockey fan's love for the game.
Among these "other good things" is the inclusion of every AHL roster. Now when you call up players, you are calling up true potential stars of the future. Then there is Goalie Mode, which puts you in the skates of a goalie the entire game. You watch from the goalie's perspective, with total control. Being a goaltender is not an easy task and if it proves too tough for you, at least you can switch out of the mode at any time during a game. Add to all of this a better player creation system and the ability to create teams. And last, but certainly not least, is the addition of online leagues with full stat tracking and the ability to play 3 vs. 3.
For all of the good things added this year, there are still a few areas in need of greater attention. The Dynasty Mode has seen some tweaks to smooth out problem areas, but hasn't been given any significant upgrades. The strongest improvement is with free agent signings. Players now take more than just cash into consideration. They also consider the success of a team, how many minutes they are likely to play, and the age of the team. This is then balanced against cash and play time to decide if it's worth signing. The Dynasty Mode is serviceable, but won't feel too different for those who played NHL 07.
Also lacking is a broadcast-quality presentation on the ice. While NHL 08 offers up quite a lot of features and has some nice moments during games, it does almost nothing to try to look like a dazzling NHL game. There are some standard overlays, but nothing approaching what EA's licensed partner, ESPN, might do. Sports games should either feel as if you are right in the thick of things experiencing the game as a player might or need to have the look of a TV broadcast. NHL 08 tries to split the difference.
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