Publisher: Take-Two Interactive
Developer: 2K Sports
Release Date: September 10, 2007
You ever been behind one of those fast cars on the freeway? Not a high-toned, high-strung red Italian sports number buzzing down the left road, a car for which someone has paid a hundred grand hoping mere ownership will extend his youth. I mean an automobile: mammoth, luxurious, steady in the lane, V8, completely automatic transmission with the timing of a Formula racer and all-leather interior. Windows sealed tight, she glides. The family inside softly sways to the beat of the onboard hi-fi system while their automobile cruises along at 100 miles an hour. Sometimes she'll muscle up to 120 without breaking a sweat, passing a lumbering truck or maybe showing off a little bit. You ever seen that? It's beautiful to watch. She easily overtakes any challenge for her top left position.
Then, who knows why — a jackrabbit flashes across the road, the driver spills hot coffee in his lap, a trick defect in one of the tires lets go with a screeching blow-out from which the driver can't recover — she's suddenly sliding down the roadway perpendicular to the lane markers; she tips and all the effortless 100-mile-per-hour energy is transferred to rolling her down the highway, side over side, then end over end. When you finally pull alongside and pass the spot where she's come to rest, she's inverted, lying on her hood, and God knows how the family inside has fared. One thing's for sure: A medical evacuation helicopter is already on the way. You hope so, anyway.
Meet 2K Sports' NHL 2K8 for PlayStation 3. Last year, NHL 2K7, the only PS3 hockey game for launch, was an entirely competent, if not superior, hockey game making its debut on the new powerhouse HD system. The visuals, while not perfect, were enhanced for the next generation. The game looked and played more or less like a televised hockey broadcast. How much better can any reasonable hockey fan expect? The gameplay was managed by 2K Sports' usual suspects: the left analog stick and various button assignments. The right stick could be used for some dekes and feints, sometimes making the difference between establishing by a hair's breadth a breakaway and merely winding up in a toss-up puck battle in front of the net. The right stick had limited but valid functionality.
Included also was 2K's optional Pro Control scheme, which involved pressing, tapping and double-tapping button assignments keyed to players on the ice; it wasn't truly accessible but easy to learn if you bothered, and was rather useful at times. However, the feature was unfortunately branded Pro Control when a more apt moniker for the system would have been Alternate Control, perhaps even Precision Control. It wasn't pitch-perfect, and if you label a feature "pro," sport gamers assume, Hey, that's the stuff. When it's not the absolute stuff, they're not satisfied.
The NHL 2K franchise has endured a lot since its inception. It even survived Sega's beautiful, doomed baby, Dreamcast. The series lived on with the surviving console platforms of that era. It picked up an EPSN branding deal. It took a risk in a publishing deal with a bargain label; the annually updated titles began shipping on day one for $20, a steal compared to the usual opening $50 bid for titles of that generation. NHL 2K was running against juggernaut EA's NHL franchise, and although the 2K hockey titles earned some solid respect on the virtual ice, it was still anybody's game. Hockey gamers are always going to argue over the best hockey video game, as they're going to argue in October over which team in the NHL will most likely take the Cup next spring, but nothing is fixed until the last game of the championship series.
Going up against EA Sports is no trivial endeavor. But that $20 bargain price tag meant that you could afford to buy and play both versions. Hockey gamers tried NHL 2K in droves, and what they tried, they liked. In an unusual turn of events, while EA is known for fine-grained detail in sports titles, their NHL series assumed the role of "the arcade hockey game." Running against EA, you can be sure of two things: They'll soon pile a whole slew of control features on the right analog stick — you just know they have some project in a top-secret EA lab using the two analog sticks for every single thing; and, eventually they'll put out the checkbook. So, 2K Sports' NHL series lost its elegant ESPN branding to, ahem, "an arrangement" between EA and ESPN. Again NHL 2K pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and played rough with NHL 2K6, which delivered the Pro Control scheme and a more than passable, if unbranded, broadcast-style presentation. Again, an NHL 2K game was widely considered the premier hockey title in the market, all for 20 bucks on most platforms.
Sure, you already know all this or you don't care. What about NHL 2K8? But you need reminding, and you have to care, as based on the series history, you couldn't have seen the wreckage coming that is NHL 2K8 any more than you'd have imagine that smooth-riding luxury sedan ahead of you on the freeway would soon come flip upside-down, afire in a grassy median ditch.
On paper, NHL 2K8 is a masterpiece of sports gaming: The new franchise and season modes are deep like the Mariana Trench; the face-off system is revised so puck-drops play like real pro hockey face-offs; breakaway attempts, one top-shot forward versus the goalie, are as likely to score as not, like you'd expect; scoring on one-timers, while still quite possible, has been reined in so that you aren't racking up points more common to basketball games with onesie, twosie, threesie setups, even on the game's higher difficulty settings. On paper, NHL 2K8 could be your only sports title for the whole year, almost your only game for the whole year. On paper.
Yet the execution of those grand plans is atrocious. To start things off, you're expected to look up on 2K Games' Web site a universal password to unlock the new Reebook 2008 official NHL jerseys. Oh, come on. First of all, I've already bought the game — at prices no longer discounted below the current generation's going rate — which is an annual update to an NHL-licensed franchise: I don't expect the new jerseys, I demand them. I have immediate access to jerseys all the way back to circa 1700 B.C., when hockey was just two Swedes, a couple of branches and a flat-ish rock, but I can't have the 2008 finery without a password? Worse, the password-divulging Web site isn't compatible with the PS3's Web browser; you have to get to it on a computer's Web browser. (Tell me it's a weak point because it's a multiplatform title and Xbox 360 doesn't have a Web browser, and I'll tell you, "So, it's a PlayStation 3 game.") Unfortunately, the password isn't something like REEBOKROCKS; it's a Byzantine amalgam of letters and numbers worthy of a missile-launching system. Write it down before you head back to your PS3. If I have to play the co-marketing game for 2K, couldn't I just watch a 30-second Reebook advertising spot within the game itself? They could have hired some absolutely fourth-rate NHL players, guys who likely need the money because they're certainly not playing pro hockey again next year. Everybody wins.
Next up, in a humiliating case of stick-envy, 2K Sports has, á la EA's NHL franchise, put puck control on the right analog stick. I mean, tried to put puck control on the right stick. They call it Pro Stick, doing away with Pro Control. By any name, it's an abomination. Inexplicably, shooting the puck is not on the stick, but assigned one of the shoulder buttons. There are more practical-joke style shoulder button combinations for evasive maneuvers on offense. Pro Stick is unplayable for me, as I expect it will be for anyone born with the expected two hands, 10 fingers arrangement. It's not a matter of giving it time. I gave it time. Hours and hours. If you have a few extra limbs and digits at your disposal, give Pro Stick a try; for the rest of us, immediately go to the controller settings and switch to the 2K7 Classic control scheme, the availability of which is perhaps NHL 2K8's only saving grace.
Improving the results of hard-charging breakaways and close-in wrist shots and stumping the inveterate one-timer abuser, has necessarily required reworking the AI behind the game's CPU-controlled goaltending. That's all well and good, making for a more realistic hockey style, but the game ships with the "Goalie Has Chugged an Entire Case of Molsen Ultra Just Before Match" setting turned on by default. In the menus — there are a lot of menus — I could never find the place to turn it off. This results in what I'd conservatively call schizophrenic CPU-controlled goalie behavior. It's not unusual in any hockey video game for the AI to occasionally misread the advisability of moving your CPU-managed goalie out of the net to collect a loose puck, resulting in frustration, but an excusable empty-net goal by the opposing team. This happened to me once early on while submerging myself in the quagmire that is NHL 2K8.
Typically, in these situations, it's your mistake, a quick turnover you can't blame the AI for missing and the goalie is only a couple of feet out of position, just enough for an opposing forward to exploit an accurate, unchallenged slapshot. I did note my goalie was rather a bit far beyond the crease and much closer to the boards than his net — entirely too far gone. But I shrugged it off as a random glitch or an anomaly because these things happen. Yet what was still to come ranks as the single most bizarre event in sports gaming I have ever witnessed, and I've seen some strange things over the years.
I was playing the Dallas Stars against the Florida Panthers, and Dallas was down 2-1 with a few minutes left in the second period. Dallas and Florida were fighting over the puck between the blue lines, the usual center ice ruckus; I missed a check, that flying Florida skater crossed the blue line and fired a quick, moderately powerful shot far ahead of the crease. He scored. Again an empty net. The game went into its automated broadcast-style replay, but this time I couldn't find Dallas' goalie anywhere — you can often readily pick them out, all those pads and that wire-faced mask and such. They're noticeable fellows. I paused the game and went into NHL 2K8's manual replay mode, robust as usual, rewinding the "tape."
Shortly after a Florida offsides resulting in a face-off, the Dallas goalie left the net, made a beeline for the boards on the Florida side, shuffled up the ice to the centerline, bumped the linesman up on top of the boards in front of the Florida bench, and there the goalie stood while I fought and lost the puck to the Panthers. Only after the goal siren sounded did he show any interest in his own net, turning and skating a few feet back toward the Dallas crease. Obviously, there was no delayed penalty against Florida or any such thing that would reasonably trigger the AI to pull the Dallas goalie. I certainly didn't pull him. It's a moot point, really, as he skated straightaway to Florida's bench, not Dallas', and no extra attacker came onto the ice.
2K Sports touts their AI revisions as "All-New Goaltending." It's "all-new," all right. Whatever they did under the hood didn't just trouble CPU-controlled goaltending; it smashed it to smithereens. The possibility that your team's goalie may on a whim — chasing butterflies? — leave his net and park himself center ice makes NHL 2K8 unplayable in anything but the most casual circumstances. "Casual circumstances" is defined as letting your toddler play with the PS3 controller while a NHL 2K8 match is underway.
There are some graphics. There's some audio. There's some music. Who cares? The new controls are a blight on sports title control schemes. The goaltending AI is, well, just thrashed. Out of due diligence, I'll tell you the character models and animations are quite good. The ice looks great, as NHL 2K ice has for years. This year, the Plexi above the boards is great — incredible, really. It looks fantastic, and the animations of wavering glass when two players crash into the boards seems absolutely the real deal. Next year, when 2K Sports scraps everything from NHL 2K8, they should spare those Plexi animations.
The game plays smoothly in most camera views, but there is some stuttering due to frame-rate instability on the parametric setting, something I've never seen before in any NHL 2K title, save during online play when other complicating factors preside. Speaking of online play, it's smoother than last year's, although the matching system still has those unexplained problems coordinating a match when the connection-quality meter indicates everything is good to go. As usual, 2K Sports' online player feedback system is awful. (Once, playing an NHL 2K version for Xbox 360, I received negative feedback for "trash talking" although my headset was not only disconnected from the controller at the time, but also downstairs in another room.) In fairness, every online game's player feedback system is poor, as they all suffer from the same design flaw: The person you just played is an idiot.
The music in NHL 2K8 favors the metalhead a bit more than previous years, although there are a few more diverse tracks in the mix. The audio, especially the crowd noise, is good, perhaps the best yet. With the default settings, the crowd noise entirely overwhelms the announcer; in the stock configuration, following the commentary is like trying to make out inbound train announcements on a New York City subway platform's PA system. The interface presentation is reasonable. There are a lot of options here, ergo a lot of menus and submenus; while it's not fully intuitive, it's not too confusing, either.
But these common perks of top-tier sports titles matter not in the face of the control design flaws and laughable AI issues. You can always switch back to the NHL 2K7 control scheme, but you can always just keep playing NHL 2K7, too. The problems with Pro Stick are inexcusable, the implementation completely factoring out the human holding the controller. The AI goaltending issues are likely the result of lax quality control; I can't write them off as random, having encountered several similar goalie problems in the course of preparing this review, one of them being as odd as if the sun just didn't come up tomorrow. The top seat in PlayStation 3 NHL franchises was 2K Sports' to lose, and lose it they did. I can't recommend NHL 2K8 to anyone as anything other than a hockey-theme coaster, although it's almost worth the price of admission just to see what crazy thing your goalie will do next. Hopefully, 2K Sports will take this year's hockey holocaust as a lesson in leaving well enough alone and in how bad things can get.
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