Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: September 12, 2007
"No game is ever the same." It says it right there on the back of the NHL 08 box in big, bold, blocky, capital letters. Can't miss it. This the jumbo motto for EA Sports' annual update of their hockey franchise, and, frankly, as a piece of marketing copy, it's flat uninspired. Even relatively obvious, bland attempts at bon mots like "The ultimate NHL experience," or the perhaps more witty "The best ice off the ice," are, I modestly declare, at least a little better in the salesmanship racket. But "No game is ever the same," while certainly a much debated, oft-rewritten marketing department piece of sloganeering, is also quite true in the case of NHL 08. This year, EA Sports' rather wobbly ice hockey franchise, which has been on thin ice for a while, is a sublime amalgam of feature refinements and worthwhile new additions that make for the best hockey video game experience from any publisher in years.
Over the past few seasons, EA Sports has almost made a sideline industry of losing ground to its only real hockey rival, the youthful but heretofore impressive NHL 2K franchise from 2K Sports. In EA Sports' never-ending quest to make obsolete all buttons on console controllers, NHL 07 brought the Skill Stick, a method of not only controlling player movement on the ice with the dual analog sticks, but also handling the puck: dekes, feints, wristers, slapshots, backhands, the works. In NHL 08, you even fight with the dual analog sticks. It didn't hurt one bit that the competition was still mostly dependent on buttons for puck handling, and entirely dependent on them for passes and shots on goal.
The Skill Stick went a long way in differentiating EA Sports' NHL-licensed title from the similarly named 2K Sports NHL-licensed title. Unfortunately, the first try at Skill Stick stood out more for its unwieldy implementation than anything else. Despite coming from the same people who gave us the nearest thing to a real golf swing on a game controller, NHL 2K7 and its button-based puck control still claimed the high ground in smooth-playing hockey experiences. Skill Stick version one was certainly interesting, but in flawed places, it qualified more as an experiment or proof of concept than a viable way to play a sports game.
Unflagging, or merely obstinate, NHL 08 holds onto the Skill Stick, yet this time around EA gets it right. Even when you're playing poorly, whacking passes right to defenders, missing giveaway goals, you feel like you're the problem, not the control system. This may seem damning with faint praise, but in my experience with this game it means it is your problem, rather than a weak control system hampering your otherwise spot-on play. Logic rules this ice. Wide awake and tack-sharp, I'm making razor-wire passes to forward attackers, handily pulling off one-timers, deftly sneaking in deflected goals and gloriously stuffing the puck into the back of the twine with a cannon-blast slapshot; alternatively, worn out or otherwise distracted, I'm flubbing shots, turning over the puck and aimlessly skating chase circles around my opponents, just as you'd expect of a fatigued NHL player. The air of realism is supreme, due almost entirely to the refined Skill Stick.
This is not to say the feature is perfect. There's a steeper learning curve than I'd like, especially for gamers giving the franchise another go or for those who, perhaps wisely, didn't give the NHL 07 attempt much of a chance. Also, on defense, powerful checks rely on action with the left stick; these movements, while nicely, sometimes outlandishly, animated don't convey the same flair as puck control on the right stick. A shoulder button is used for poke checks, and depending on your personal adaptation to the stick-based defense, you may find yourself defaulting to the conservative, often more successful poke check over the more satisfying but less intuitive, risky heavy-hitter.
Another feature of note allows you to take control of your goalie at crucial moments. Honestly, the idea of letting the CPU place the goalie under my control pre-shot in an NHL simulation scares me to death, but for the hockey completist, holding forth between the pipes — dubbed "goalie mode" — is an outstanding enhancement to EA's NHL franchise. NHL 08 also claims to improve opponent AI so that the CPU-controlled teams actually learn over the course of three periods, using against you the most effective defensive and offensive strategies. Indeed, that's exactly what happens during a match. Gone are the days of shoving the puck down the ice at top speed, tucking up on the same corner of the crease, firing the same pinpoint wrister into the very same corner of the net, racking up almost automatic goals. You'd think you'd miss it, but the added challenges and extra hours spent trying to outwit your opponents are well worth the sacrifice in quick third-period catch-ups.
NHL 08 now lets you design your own custom plays, work them out in practice mode and ultimately use them in a full game. It's a unique feature that, like "goalie mode," will appeal more to the completist than the casual gamer, but it's accessible enough for anyone to play with a bit, just for the fun of determining how close you come to a bona fide hockey mastermind. Create-A-Team has been reworked for the better, and the dynasty feature is as deep and detailed as ever. Indeed dynasties are so bottomless you just might drown in them. I'd never suggest EA do away with the franchise's dynasty mode — it's a highlight — but with covering all that back-office business, waffling over the most brilliant path in free-agent hiring, every one of those AHL — minor league — games playable, not to mention the full NHL seasons, I'd appreciate the addition of a simple single-season mode following only the current year's schedule. I answer enough e-mail off the ice, so to speak; the last thing I need is that new mail icon blinking holes in my head in a sports video game when all I want to do is run through one season, and possibly even have the option of shortening that season. NHL 2K8 is a rough beast, but building in the ability to limit some of aspects of scheduled play is one of the few good decisions 2K Sports made this year.
Presentation, graphics and audio, as in most of EA's 08 line of sports titles, is roundly excellent. Because of the high, distant perspectives typically required of hockey titles, get far enough away from your HDTV and you might have a hard time telling the difference between this current-generation eye-candy masterpiece and an old Sega Genesis hockey title. But during replays and various close-ups, the outstanding graphical quality is immediately evident. Playing off- and online is smooth and lifelike. In-game audio is very good, a well balanced aggregation of on-ice effects like checks and shots, hearty fan noises in the arenas and a serviceable commentary. In the audio department, I can't say enough about the selection of musical tracks included with NHL 08. It's flat smashing. While the music on hockey game soundtracks has long leaned against the hard edge, an often dull hard edge, the NHL 08 mix carries a different vibe altogether. You'll wish the diverse and interesting tracks played throughout the games, not just in the menus. EA Sports could release their NHL 08 soundtrack on a compact disc compilation and do quite well with it. I admit I've sometimes left my PlayStation 3 running the game only to enjoy the soundtrack.
As with the competing NHL 2K8, we're again faced in this title with the hassle of a password system to unlock the new team uniforms. NHL 08's password is, if anything, worse than NHL 2K8's; at least 2K Sports had the good sense to list right there on the password entry screen the Web site address for retrieving the password. Via an unexplained menu item, EA Sports assumes we'll figure it out ourselves, or the NHL 08 development team is awfully fond of Google. I understand the reasoning behind the password system: The titles needed shipping before the new jerseys were officially unannounced, so some mechanism was needed to hold off presentation of the new uniforms in the hockey games until the big day. But it felt like I was put through hoops to no personal benefit, and the whole deal is made that much worse by the fact that Reebok, on their own Web site, accidentally leaked the codes well in advance of the official uniform announcement date.
With reservations about some of the stick-based defense mechanics and the essentially all-or-nothing dynasty effort, I can't call NHL 08 the perfect hockey video game. However, if EA cautiously continues in the same vein with next year's title, I indeed may be labeling NHL 09 perfect, or as near as we're ever going to get in sports gaming. There's no competition for the cup in hockey games this year: NHL 08 sweeps the final series. No game is ever the same. Some are far better than others.
More articles about NHL 08