For my money, NHL 2K8 is the best looking PS3 hockey game to lace up a pair of skates this year. The ice is slick and gets torn up as skaters race across it, the screen pops with color and action, and the players are always moving and hungry for the puck. That's what you want to know, right? Hockey fans aren't exactly numbering in the millions these days, so if you've clicked on this review, I'm guessing you're an ice fan and are trying to decide whether NHL 08 or 2K8 should get your bucks.
Sadly, I'm not here to give you a head-to-head or a definitive answer -- although we already have for
Insiders. I'm here to tell you about 2K's take on the NHL. Like I said before, I realize you're a hockey fan, but I can't assume you know about 2K's history on the ice. Year in and year out, this franchise has made its name by being the top hockey sim around, and fans who have turned to this series for the feel of a real game aren't about to be disappointed -- but they are going to have to learn to play all over again.
Hockey games have been integrating the right analog stick for sometime -- whether it is for dekes or shot modifiers -- but 2K8's default Pro Stick control scheme means your success hinges on mastering the idea of rocking two joysticks -- yes, very similar to last year's EA outing -- and the shoulder buttons your primary method of control.
See, Pro Stick leaves the left analog stick as your traditional source of movement, but the right one takes over as your hockey stick. When you're driving toward the goal, you'll need to maneuver the right stick to deke -- mind you, it's moving push for push and not in a combo fashion as we've seen before -- as well as where you want to put the puck. If you have a defender making a move on your right, you can push your analog stick to the left. If an opponent comes up on your left, push it to the right. Repeat for front and back. On defense, use the scheme to poke check the puck away from pesky centers and other assorted chumps.
However, one of the bigger uses for the Pro Stick is shooting. Once you decide to pop a shot -- R1 for a wrister or L2 with R1 for a slap shot -- the right stick is going to control where you're putting the biscuit. Now, I wrote a preview about this system a few months ago, and some reader piped up and spouted that this didn't sound all that different from other hockey games.
I'm here to tell you that it is.
Pro Stick gets your thumbs off the face buttons and keeps them that way. It's changing the way you play hockey videogames, and that's exactly what 2K8 wants as it builds the most realistic hockey game it can. Sure, you can still clean Beruzzi's clock with a stiff check, speed along the boards toward a loose puck and fire off a one-timer, but don't expect these hallmarks of videogame hockey to be the make-or-break plays they have been in the last, oh, 15 years or so.
NHL 2K8 is a game of finesse.
To be successful you're going to have to throw out all of that arcade garbage you've been fooling around with and play smart. Rather than mashing circle and nailing folks with body checks, clog the passing lanes and click the R3 to hold your hockey stick on the ground and interfere with easy dumps. Don't just fire a one-timer because you've got a winger in position; deke the goalie, drive him to one side of the net and expand the crease. You've got to pass (defenders come to you), you've got to make those passes smart (pucks won't make it through skates), and you've got to cut to avoid contact (you're not going to bounce off a defender and maintain control of the puck).
I'm sure it sounds simple on paper, but you'll be surprised how awkward it'll feel on the ice. After years of mashing buttons and relying on pure power to win, having to think as a team and relearn the controls was rough for me, but here came a moment when it all clicked. It was game three of my Chicago Blackhawks franchise. Up until this point, I'd been getting my ass handed to me. The team had yet to put one in the back of the net, morale was already dropping (there's a meter and it affects performance), and I was getting pretty frustrated.
Then it happened. I -- as center Robert Lang -- broke away from the rest of the Rangers, stormed into the open ice and came up on Henrik Lundqvist. For a moment, my right thumb jumped to the face buttons -- it had been doing this since I picked up the controller -- but I forced it back into place, slid the Pro Stick right, watched the goalie bite, brought the stick back left and fired one into the top shelf.
In all my years of hockey on systems -- and we're talking games since Mike Boylan introduced me to the NHL on Genesis -- this was my most satisfying moment. It's going to take time and probably turn hardcore hockey heads off, but once that learning curve is over, the Pro Stick scheme gives you a sense of control that is pretty darn fulfilling. In the days of yore, you'd press up and left on the D-Pad and hope for the best; here you're visualizing where the puck is going and making the move for yourself.
This overall sense of having more control than ever is reflected in 2K8's deeeeeeeeep Franchise mode. Beyond the typical schedules, rosters and line edits, 2K8 takes you deeper into the life of a front office flack than ever before. You're going to need to keep players happy with playing time, deal with angry e-mails from your annoying owner and -- in one of the coolest love/hate relationships -- sit down at the negotiating table with blood-thirsty agents.
Need a hotshot free agent early in the season or have a big-headed player who's negotiating his contract after the Cup? Be prepared to pay. The negotiating screen presents you with a smattering of information -- what the player wants in terms of years, salary and more as well as what your current counter offer is. After my first year in Chicago, Tumomo Ruutu decided he wanted $18.32 million over six years to be our left wing, and his agent chimed in with "My client isn't one to negotiate. He knows what he's worth." Well, we went in and arranged our counteroffer, submitted it and watched Ruutu's mood go from optimistic to frustrated.
Hit the bricks or take $1.1 million, Ruutu. We're the Chicago Blackhawks. We're broke.
If you don't want to be jerks like we were, you can go back and forth with offers as you try to find the sweet spot on a negation meter that signals both you and the player getting what you want. Add in salary caps, collective bargaining agreements and injuries, and you're about to get a crash course in how to run a hockey organization and manage a player's career.
Of course, if this player-intensive stuff bores you, you can let the computer take care of as much or as little of this stuff as you want, but there are some pretty nifty RPG element to 2K8. Player Growth gives you the information to take a young upstart from rookie to superstar as he makes mad bucks for your team. Experience points are broken up among the Focus categories of scoring, skating, defense and skills, mental and physical. Put a player on the ice more, and he will begin building these attributes and climbing the categories ranks on his way to becoming a "Veteran Elite."
As great as the in-game action and franchise options are, NHL 2K8 isn't the compete package. To begin with, the menu navigation system in the game feels like it's taking a step backward. Basically, a horizontal bar at the top of the screen lists the options -- modes, training, features, etc. -- and is set over a piece of ice with your favorite team's logo and a series of somewhat blurry images rolling by on the right. You clumsily scroll through the options on the top bar, and a list of choices appears below that you then need to navigate down through to pick your position.
The breakout tree of modes reminded me of a cumbersome computer programming tool and didn't mesh with the rock music being piped in.
The create modes didn't cut it for me either. Sure, I could change the curve of my blade and the way I taped up my stick, but I couldn't customize any of my facial features. Instead, the game gives you a set number of heads and has you pick the one that's the most like you. Lame.
Although I dug my ice time, not everyone's going to embrace Pro Stick like I have. Luckily, they can use a more traditional scheme, but some gameplay hiccups will remain. My main gripe is that things can be just a bit too touchy on the ice. If your center has the puck in traffic and you're not moving the right stick exactly where the game says there's a hole, you're going to lose control.
Now, I'm not saying I should be able to truck through guys and not miss a beat, but there were times when Martin Havlat would get nicked by a defender and completely lose control. That's a curse-word inducing pain in the neck. Worse? The computer doesn't play by the same rules. When my 'hawks were up against Colorado, Lang and Martin Lapointe pinned Tyler Arnason to the boards. As the center shimmied and shook to try and get away from our team-up attack, he lost control of the puck and it slid from between his skates. My boys let go to grab the loose puck and somehow the dominated Avalanche player came away with it.
Cinemotion -- 2K's cinematic presentation style from last year that used sweeping scores and camera angles for a new way to look at the game -- is back but boils down to some music pumped over the game.
Still, the worst news for PS3 owners? This is another multiplatform title that is just better on the 360. On the PS3 the crowd is blurred during cutscenes when the 360 shows the fans crisply; watching your players shoot around the ice is generally smoother on the 360; the player faces look downright last-gen in some of the replays; and the controls feel tighter on the Xbox.. When I passed the puck in 360's 2K8, I felt like I was directing it perfectly whereas on the PS3 there was a larger margin of error.
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