Few sports games translate better to multiplayer action than hockey. The game is fast enough to keep the action flowing at all times, momentum can change with the drop of a puck, and leads are never safe. And while EA Sports' NHL series has been online for a while now, there's always been significant room for improvement. With the upcoming NHL 08 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the publisher is taking a big step forward in its online ambitions for the series, as we discovered today in a hands-on session with the game.
Four new gameplay modes anchor the core of NHL 08's online offering: leagues, shootout, versus play, and team play, and each of these offers a slightly different puck experience. The addition of online leagues is probably music to the ears of the year-in-and-year out hardcore NHL fans who've been clamoring for just such a feature in the series for a while now. Here, you'll be able to play a league comprised of anywhere from two to 32 teams--and you can choose teams from the NHL, AHL, international, even 32 of the exact same team if you so wish. When setting up the schedule, you can choose to play every team on the schedule up to eleven times in the season; as a result, you can play pretty close to a regular 82-game season, or a season that's far longer than normal. League games will feature full stat-tracking via Xbox Live, so you can keep track of league leaders in a variety of categories.
Last year's NHL 07 let you play a shootout minigame that was a fine way to introduce you to the then-new skill-stick controls. NHL 08's online shootout mode will let you compete against a friend in a shootout; the twist here is that for ranked shootouts, you'll play each round both as the shooter and then as the goalie, defending against your friend's shots. Naturally, playing the goalie will make use of the manual goalie controls, and you'll need to have skills on both sides of the puck in order to be successful.
Online versus play will allow multiple people to play online on the same consoles. Here, up to four players on the same Xbox 360 can take on up to four players on another Xbox 360. Folks playing the game on a PlayStation 3 will be able to enjoy six-on-six gameplay on two PlayStation 3s (yes, one player can control the goalie on each team). If the idea of playing on the same console doesn't appeal to you, then online team play is the mode for you. In this mode, up to three players can connect online and play on the same team from individual Xbox 360s or PS3s, creating three-on-three match-ups on six distinct consoles (of the same type, naturally), all playing over online connections.
In both online versus and online team modes, you can play any combination of players up to the maximum on either team. For instance, in an online versus match, you can play five-on-one, with five players on one PS3 playing against one player on another PS3. Similarly, in an online team match, you can have three-on-one games, or two-on-two, and so on, with the rest of the positions on the ice filled out by CPU-controlled players. Before a game begins, you can choose to lock yourself into a certain position or have the ability to switch between open players as you go, so if you're looking to play center the entire match, you'll be able to do so.
While we haven't had a chance to see the online play in action yet--we had only one copy of the game available to us--the new modes have some interesting implications with regard to how you'll play online hockey. For one thing, it will likely quickly separate the men from the boys in terms of strategy. We expect to see plenty of online matches where every player on the ice is chasing after the puck, leaving holes wide open for those who know where their position is on the ice and how to take advantage of it. Another interesting aspect in online team play is voice chat: You'll be able to communicate with your teammates, but your opponents won't be able to hear your conversation, adding another layer of strategy to the action on the ice. Finally, NHL 08 producers are quick to point out that last year's game didn't perform that well online and, as a result, EA has spent a great deal of time ensuring that current online performance is comparable to the offline game.
For the single-player game, the team's focus on improved controls and smarter artificial intelligence seems to be paying off. The create-a-play feature, profiled in our last look at NHL 08, has proven to be a test for the game's improved AI. The goal for the developers has been a defensive scheme that continually adapts to your play on the ice and, from our time with the game, it seems to be heading in the right direction. CPU-controlled players are always looking to fill up passing lanes and interrupt your play, forcing you to keep the puck moving with smart passes, and they aren't afraid to lay into you if you leave yourself open. Playing with the manual goalie controls will be a test of your skills with the analog sticks and your reaction times. Interestingly, if you pull your goalie while manually controlling him, you'll have to skate yourself off the ice, and then play as the sixth skater who comes on to replace him.
For those players who are worried that the create-a-play feature will give away their best strategies in multiplayer matches, it should be noted that you can choose to turn off the illuminated lines that show up on the ice when you are in the correct position to trigger a created play. Your players will still move to the correct spot once you get into the trigger zone, and it will be up to you to run the play as you designed it. Unfortunately, you won't be able to bring your created plays into online matches, but we expect that, if the feature proves to be popular, you'll be able to do so in next year's game.
Hockey purists looking at videos of NHL 08 and wondering where the all-new Reebok NHL jerseys are will be pleased to note that they are in the game but, due to licensing issues with the NHL, they won't be immediately available. Instead, once all of the NHL teams have introduced their new-look uniforms, a code will be provided on the EA Sports web site that, once entered into the game, will unlock the new uniforms for use in your matches.
With a host of new multiplayer features, EA Sports seems to be taking online play seriously with its hockey series. Are the days of full six-on-six online gameplay in fully formed leagues that far away? Time will tell, but if NHL 08 is anything to go by, things look to be heading that way, and quickly. Expect a five-on-five demo (Ducks vs. Sens, naturally) to be up on both the Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network in the weeks leading up to the game's September release. In addition, we'll be bringing you more information on the game in the near future as well.
In the meantime, we'll be taking your