Hockey games have been on the upswing ever since the introduction of the Xbox 360 a few years back. Thanks to crisper graphics and innovative controls, the sport has rarely been depicted as accurately as in the past few years. That isn't to say that there's no work to be done, however. As Kush Games, the developer for 2K Sports' upcoming hockey sequel NHL 2K8, will tell you, there's always room for improvement. We had a chance to check out the E3 build of the game to see where it's heading.
Along with a new-look menu system that looks a bit like a film reel, the game will feature improved player models and the new Reebok "Rbk Edge" uniforms, which were first seen in last season's All Star Game. They will also be worn by all NHL teams during the 2007-2008 season. The uniforms are slightly slimmer and feature swaths of mesh fabric near the arms, along with an almost feltlike material on for the player number, which was clear to see on the player models in the game. The uniforms won't be the only new aspect of NHL 2K8's look. The team has also gone to great lengths to vary the kind of equipment the players will use on the ice, which includes tape on the socks, skate-blade holders, or the nearly 50 different sticks that will appear in the game.
Beyond the new look to 2K8, a new control scheme means the game will feel slightly different. The developers at Kush, recognizing the increased popularity of tying controls to the right analog stick, have moved some--but not all--stick control to the right stick. With the puck in your possession, you can move your stick left or right and push forward or pull back, all by moving the right stick in any direction and, more importantly, shoot from any position. Different players will have differing stick handling skills--so that Joe Thornton is able to kick the puck to himself or quickly switch from side to side, while your third-line wingers might not be as skilled. On defense, you can also use the right stick to poke check your opponent to try to grab the puck from an opponent. You'll also use the right stick for face-offs and be able to swipe at the puck either forehand or backhand, depending on which way you move the stick.
However, unlike 2K8's major competitor, you won't be shooting with the right stick. Instead, shooting and passing will still be executed with buttons, the right button and left button, respectively. The new mechanics--coupled with some more observant referees--means you'll need to pay attention during face-offs more than before. If you go too early, you can get warned or even booted out of the face-off, bringing your winger in to take your place. Guys with strong face-off skills will have a larger "window" of time they can use to win the face-off. In addition, a higher skilled player will be more liable to win in case of a face-off tie-up.
Another new twist to the controls is separate speed burst and sprint buttons. Your standard speed burst will be controlled with the right trigger (the left trigger is still for skating backward). But if you're looking for that extra push over the top when chasing a dumped puck or making a last-second breakaway, you can hit the A button for a dramatic, if brief, charge. The upside is the burst of speed can give you some crucial clearance on the defenders; the downside is that, after a sprint, a player won't be able to handle the puck, their turning radius will greatly increase, and they'll be gassed at the end of a sprint and will be due for a line change more or less immediately.
It takes some time to get used to the new controls, especially the shooting and passing tweaks. But beyond the adjustment time, the game plays fine. The goalies are more aggressive than before; producers say the goalie artificial intelligence has been completely rewritten so that net-minders will challenge the offensive player more often and will be more apt to use the butterfly when defending against shots.
While last year's cinemotion presentation option, which replaced play-by-play commentary with sweeping orchestral music, will still be available, the new default presentation style will feature the team of Bob Cole and Harry Neale (of Hockey Night in Canada fame). They will be once again offering their play-by-play and color commentary on the games. However, the improved cinemotion camera style will be part of the action.
We caught glimpses of features in NHL 2K8 that neither 2K or Kush are ready to talk about yet. These include the team-select screen that showed some teams noted with a "super rank" tag (perhaps it has something to do with franchise mode?), as well as yet another control mechanic tied to the L3 button (clicking down the left analog stick), for which we're still awaiting details. But we do know that when the L3 button was clicked, we weren't able to shoot or pass the puck. 2K also hinted at some sort of mechanism that will allow your player to call his shot before he shoots on the goalie and, while they didn't go into any further detail, they did say it will bring an entirely new level of fun to the gameplay. Finally, the game will be running in 1080p resolution at 60fps when it's released later this year, a first for any 2K Sports game on Xbox 360. Stay tuned for more on the game in the coming weeks.