There's little denying that the sport of hockey is in flux these days. Televised games here in the US have had some of their worst ratings in years, while the league is considering expanding into such questionable territories as Las Vegas and Kansas City. Perhaps oddest of all, the NHL Finals ended up last week with the Stanley Cup in the hands of the Anaheim (formerly Mighty) Ducks. While the future of the sport is uncertain, isn't it nice that the state of hockey video games is as strong as it's ever been? Last year, EA Sports turned heads with its next-generation console debut of its long-running NHL series, NHL 07. This game did more than look great, thanks to an innovative analog shot stick, and it also played well. The next version of the game, NHL 08, is on its way later this year, and we recently had a chance to see how it's coming along.
With such noticeable changes to the series last season, the overarching goal for NHL 08 seems to be refining the new-look controls and adding depth to the overall experience. A big part of that refinement will be in improved skating controls, which look to add more variety and depth to how you move your players around the ice. As producers readily admitted when showing off a work-in-progress build of NHL 08, one of the difficulties in playing last year's game was on the defensive side. Keeping close to offensive skater or better yet, really laying into him with a good, stiff check was difficult because you didn't have enough control over the defensive skater. If those producers are to be believed, that won't be the case in NHL 08, thanks to some new controls that help you decide how a skater carves up the ice.
Being able to distinguish between carved turns (where a skater digs in and turns on a dime) and crossover turns (a wider arc that has a skater crossing his skates over one another) is one of the biggest improvements made to the skating model. You'll be able to choose what kind of turn you want in NHL 08, depending on how you move the analog stick that controls your skater. Turning in the traditional manner--moving the stick left or right--will result in a standard carved turn, which is a sharper, quicker turn but one that requires a lot of momentum. However, rolling the analog stick along the outside edge will cause the skater to perform a crossover turn; a quicker, wider turn. Though we didn't get a chance to try out the game for ourselves, it seems like the implementation of the two turns is seamless, so that you can break from a wider, crossover turn into a quick carved turn at any moment. Skating speed will also play into the mix because how far you push up on the analog stick will determine how fast you skate, giving you that much more control over how your skater moves along the ice.
The direction and speed of skating is just part of the story; puck handling, which changed dramatically in NHL 07 with the innovative skill stick, looks to improve in NHL 08 as well. This time, you'll be able to make the defender look silly as you deke around him with deft moves all controlled with the skill stick and the left button modifier. You can also tap the puck into space or through a defender's legs before scooting past (complete with some excellent player avoidance animations) before opening up for a shot on the net.
The new skating and skill stick moves seem have to been developed, at least partially, with NHL 08's online game in mind. As producers said, online play in NHL 07 had a tendency to be frustrating because the player could deke around the goalie using the skill stick, but it wasn't really possible to do the same thing against a regular defender on the ice; all the defender had to do was switch to the closet player and lay you out with a check. While you could only deke with the puck in one of three directions (left, right, or behind) in NHL 07, that number has expanded to 10 in NHL 08. With this wider variety of angles, improved deke moves, and those slick animations, you'll be able to unleash your inner Sidney Crosby with a flick of the analog stick.
Checking in NHL 08 will be more momentum-based than in previous versions of the NHL series. Collisions in NHL 07 were ported directly from the old-generation versions of the game, so that when a player was hit and went to his knees, he'd still more or less stay frozen at the point of contact. With the new collision system in NHL 08, the momentum of both players will factor in, so that a checked player might slide out of the play; thus, opening up a lane for the player dealing out the punishment.
Shooting has also gotten a facelift. This time around, the game will depend more on user skill than ever before. As with a golf shot in Tiger Woods PGA Tour, you'll be more accurate in NHL 08 if you make the analog stick shot straighter. If you move the stick at an angle, it will cause your accuracy to drop and the puck to go wide of its target.
Of course, these are just the first details to come for NHL 08. The production team behind the game is promising more information on the improvements to the artificial intelligence (though they did say both offensive and defensive AI have gotten a lot of attention this year), the new practice drill minigames that have been designed to help your individual or team-play skills on the ice, and improvements to the dynasty mode. The game's graphics are looking typically sharp, with lots of player-specific visual idiosyncrasies (Jaromir Jagr's "snazzy" tucked-in jersey look? Yep, it's in there) that should keep the diehard NHL set happy. If you couple that detail with a 60 frames per second frame rate, you've got another visually solid game on the way. We'll be bringing you more on NHL 08 in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.