Ah, good old NHL. It’s difficult to imagine anybody that grew up in the era of the MegaDrive or the SNES not having played EA’s masterpiece series at one point or another; or indeed to imagine those that didn’t immediately get hooked on the experience at the time. In a traditional Electronic Arts fashion however, the interim years have overseen the general degradation of the franchise via smaller and smaller updates, leading to a tarnished reputation that only 2K Sports has seen fit to capitalise on thus far. However, last years edition definitely opened the door to a return to form for the series, and building on those solid foundations, ’08 manages to knock the puck firmly into the back of the net this time around; but not without showboating a little in front of goal first.
For those of you new to either the ’07 or ’08 edition, undoubtedly the first thing you’ll notice will be the control scheme. Gone are the days of a simple button press to dictate a pass, wrist or slap shot (although they are buried in a menu somewhere if needed), and in comes what initially looked like just another bullet point on the EA checklist – full analogue stick control.
The title is a little deceptive, but as a mechanic it works fantastically well. The principle here is that the right analogue stick on the pad corresponds directly to the hockey stick of your controllable player. Whilst it isn’t a complete 1:1 mapping in that regard, the implementation is so smooth (not to mention massively improved in this version), that it may as well be. For example, to take a wrist shot, you simply aim with the directional controls and then move the right stick sharply forward. For a more powerful shot, draw it back, and then push forward with speed; again, mimicking the exact movement a player would make. To deke left and right when in control of the puck, simply sway the stick to the left or right, whilst circular motions act as special modifications to flick the puck behind or pirouette around a defender. The right trigger acts as a pass button, and some of the lesser controls are still mapped to the shoulders or face of the pad when necessary.
It’s simple, intuitive, and effective, and it adds a whole new dynamic to the play that simply isn’t matched by any other sports simulation at the moment. NHL 08 improves this aspect over the somewhat stuttering start made with NHL 07; primarily by tweaking the responsiveness to an optimum level, and implementing some new 1-on-1 controls to the mix. Holding the left shoulder button allows you to access a whole new sub-section of controls designed to beat single players, with the left analogue stick controlling the direction of your body, and the right controlling the stick – and by extension the puck. These are a little tricky to master, but with patience become a rewarding facet of play, especially in local multiplayer matches.
Driving to the lane
So, the basic elements of player control are excellently implemented this time around, but that isn’t the only improvement that needs to be detailed. More so then ever before, NHL 08 manages to produce the sensation of a real hockey game, with players that skate, stack up around the zone and manoeuvre into space exactly as they should do.
Chief amongst the improvements here is a brand-new adaptive AI system (and I’m praying this gets modified for FIFA somehow), which manages to produce some flowing encounters. Simply put, there is no easy way to score here. If you play the same passes over and over again, the AI quickly learns what you intend to do, and moves to intercept whenever necessary. Initially, this may seem a little bit unfair, as you’ll quickly find yourself on the end of some fast breaks and often 2-3 goals behind before you work out what’s going on. With time however, it forces the play into some far more expressive avenues than ever before.
In order to score then, NHL 08 forces you to think a little more tactically. It isn’t about rushing to the net constantly any more, and setting up an open play with quick passing around zone holds a better chance of success than simply dekeing from side to side with your star player or setting up a one-timer near the crease. There is room for the more direct route of course, but don’t expect to score from it time and time again. In short, it flows a lot more like a real hockey game this time around; and that’s most definitely a positive aspect.
Skating around the issue
The other, more conventional aspects of NHL also hold up pretty well under scrutiny. Online options are well implemented, with 6-player matches and online leagues to look forward to (much to the envy of the Madden crowd), and a generally lag-free environment to play in. Single-player game modes are basically the same as last year, although this really is a game that comes into its own with ah human opponent.
The game engine has also been fine-tuned to a locked 60fps throughout, and player animation extended to include greater variety in checking and shooting. There are still some omissions here, particularly in group situations up against the boards, but perhaps that’ll come with time. Player models are well-detailed and lifelike, although there doesn’t seem to be much of a discernible improvement in that regard over past versions.
The playable roster has also been expanded in this version, with the traditional North American and Canadian teams joined by those of the Swedish and Finnish leagues, along with national teams from 21 different countries.
Back of the net
As a sports simulation, NHL 08 definitely ranks up there with the best, and manages to overtake the 2K Sports effort by a considerable margin. As a multiplayer experience, the simple joys of sitting on the sofa with a group of friends hasn’t returned to this sort of form in a long, long time – and for anyone that sampled the early days of the franchise, it’ll bring memories flooding back for all the right reasons.
Simply stated, hockey games haven’t been this good since 1995. And I can’t give it much higher praise than that.