Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: September 12, 2007
When was the last time EA made a hockey game that really grabbed your attention? For me, it was NHLPA 93 for the Sega Genesis. It boasted some of the best hockey rosters ever; from Ray Bourque with the Boston Bruins, to Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios in the heyday of Chicago Blackhawks fame; the gameplay was fantastic and an overall blast when you played with a friend. For the last few years, 2K has been getting by with their solid NHL 2K franchise while EA contemplated their next move in the background. Well, I'm happy to say that EA has returned as the hockey frontrunner with NHL 08, which could arguably be the best hockey game ever made, and better yet, one of the best sports video games as well.
With the sport of hockey itself still rebounding after the NHL lockout of the 2004-2005 season, there's nothing like a great hockey video game to boost the popularity of the sport. Last year, EA released NHL 07, which was a decent game but was basically a symbolic gesture to show that EA wasn't going anywhere. While NHL 07 introduced some great features (i.e., Skill Stick), it was not the total package for which hockey fans were yearning. NHL 08 takes everything that NHL 07 had and shapes it into a classic.
The essence of hockey can definitely be seen and heard in NHL 08 with the amazing commentary of Bill Clement and Gary Thorne, who provide some of the best observations I've ever heard in a sports game. Their remarks are so fresh and current that you forget you're playing a game. Not only do Clement and Thorne talk about the events in the current match, but they also mention some events that occurred earlier in the gaming session, making it that much more realistic.
And then we have the visuals, which are astonishing. Player models are shaped nicely, and their faces are true replicas of the players. NHL 07 shocked us with its realistic players and NHL 08 follows suit, and the addition of the Reebok Edge jerseys definitely doesn't hurt, either. Players and coaches mouth expressions on the sidelines, and replays show the grimaces and excitement of the players. It's too bad you can't save any of the replays, which is a grievous offense in any sports game. There's nothing like creating that amazing goal and sharing it with your friends, or gloating if the goal was scored on them.
Once again, the controls are simple to use, with most of your actions being controlled by the triggers, bumpers and analog sticks, but it takes countless games to become truly adept with the control scheme. Offensively, the skill stick is used to shoot and deke, but with the combination of the left bumper, you'll be able to perform one-on-one dekes, which are handy when you only have one defender to beat or if you're caught in a tough situation along the walls. While the one-on-one deke system works pretty well, it has a learning curve that may initially seem intimidating, but with enough practice, most will eventually get the hang of it. I recommend practicing with the national teams, since they play on a larger-sized rink.
Continuing with the controls, the right trigger is used to pass, and holding it down allows players to perform one-touch passes. Defensively, the Skill Stick is used for poke checking when you hold down the right bumper, and when released, body checking, which is a bit harder to execute this year than in years past. This is because of the added realism of player movement. The fluidity that the characters have in their skating is amazing, which means that you cannot body check someone from any angle; you have to actually square your body with theirs in order to have a powerful check, or else they'll shake off your attempt and pursue the goal.
The intelligence of the players is astounding, and you'll recognize this once you play your first game. Your teammates will play the defensive and offensive plays that you've assigned them on the coaching side, and you can also change their playing styles. Some offensive players may be considered Playmakers, which are great puck handlers and passers, but you may have a few Playmakers on your team and need to change one of them into a Sniper, which is someone who shoots before he passes during rushes. There are quite a few different player types to choose from, so the biggest hockey enthusiast should be pleased.
Your teammates play alongside you very well, but it's the defenses that you'll play against that really showcase the impressive AI of NHL 08. Defenders will float in passing lanes and force you to play an extremely realistic game. If you're expecting to come in and score five or six goals off the bat (or stick), then you're going to be disappointed because the goalies are very sharp — almost too sharp at times, making some saves that you'd expect to be given goals. This does become quite frustrating, but every goal you do score feels that much more rewarding. Of course, I'm also saying this assuming that you'll be playing on the skill level appropriate for you. If you're a hockey veteran and you're playing on Rookie just to score 10 goals, you're just not playing your best hockey.
If skaters do get by your offenders, you have the option to switch on Goalie Mod, which allows you to control your goalie in third-person view, and once you get the puck back, you can try using one of your newly created plays from the new Create-A-Play mode. The new feature works well, allowing you to put together any play that you can think of; and once you're finished, you can execute it during a game.
Along with Create-A-Play, there are two other custom modes, Create-A-Player and Create-A-Team. The Create-A-Player is moderately in-depth and very similar to the mode found in Madden 08, but nothing like the mode found in Tiger Woods 08. The Create-A-Team mode is the real bread and butter within player creativity. You can customize just about everything, including jerseys, helmet straps and gloves, but there's still room to customize your mascot. There's also every color combination you can imagine so you can rest assured that your team can look exactly the way you'd envisioned.
The number of nicknames for your team is pleasantly long and diverse, ranging from the somewhat corny "Seals" to the futuristic "Neptunes," so you'll find something that suits your taste. Once you've created your team, you load up your roster by picking any players from the NHL or newly introduced AHL rosters. You're given a salary cap, but the biggest flaw in picking players is that you don't know how much they're worth until you pick them up. I started out by picking the young powerhouses Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, and then I proceeded to pick up Stanly Cup-winning goalie Jean-Sébastien Giguère, which drained about half of my salary cap, but I didn't know that until I picked up all three of them, which was pretty annoying.
This year's Dynasty Mode is similar to last year's, but it allows you to not only manage your NHL team, but their AHL affiliate too, and you can play as your created team, which will be given an AHL affiliate. Depending on how many games you want to play, you can either play only the 82 regular season games for your NHL team, or switch between your NHL and AHL teams to make sure that they're progressing. It's important to keep track of your AHL team, as it's the future of your NHL team. You'll conduct the same GM tasks that you've been doing for years with most sports games, such as scouting talent, dealing with contracts and salary caps and keeping track of revenue.
One flaw that cannot be overlooked in the Creative Zone is the lack of creating your own arena. Once you have your team, all of your home games are played in the default EA Sports Arena, which is pretty lame considering how much you've been able to create. EA's NBA Street Vol. 3 allowed you to create your own court, so why not allow us to create our own arenas in NHL 08?
NHL 08 has brought hockey back to the forefront of sports video gaming. With intuitive controls, exciting gameplay and a one-two punch of audio and visual goodness, this game has just about everything that any hockey gamer could want. There is still some tuning that can be done to the game and some features that could be added in future iterations, but for now, NHL 08 can be considered an instant classic.
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