If the NHL really wanted to reinvigorate the flailing sport of hockey, it would pay special heed to the incredible videos of such populate sites as YouTube, featuring NHL players pulling off the kind of moves in real life that were previously reserved for… well, video games. Think of Marek Malik's round-the-leg shootout goal from a couple of years back or seemingly any shot by Sydney Crosby these days. It's that insane talent that makes the NHL--at its best--one of the most exciting sports to watch. And those kinds of moves are a big focus of 2K Sports' upcoming NHL 2K8, as we discovered after some recent hands-on time with the game.
Part of the focus on player skill comes from the new pro-stick controls, which let you move the puck anywhere along the ice as you skate along with your controlled player simply by moving the right stick in any direction. The more skilled a player is, the better he'll be at controlling the puck, giving you access to moves that you might not otherwise be able to pull off. For example, with an elite center like Joe Thornton, you can toss the puck from left to right and behind the player simply by quickly moving the right stick along the lower, outer edge of the stick.
Another cool move is the kick to stick. By holding down the left trigger and pressing the right stick in any direction, your player will kick the puck off his skate, a great move to make your defender look silly as you skate right past him. You'll also be able to use pro-stick controls on defense too, which is a great way to clog up the passing lanes and maybe get an interception. To acclimate yourself to the pro-stick controls (as well as the rest of NHL 2K8's control scheme), there's a nice training feature that will practically take you through all of the moves one-by-one and let you practice them as many times as you like.
The other big aspect of NHL 2K8's focus on great players is the superstar-moves feature. Here's where things get really fancy. If you want to try Malik's ridiculous under-the-leg shot or Peter Forsberg's one-handed extended-reach slide in goal from the 1994 Olympics, this is the feature for you. There are 12 total superstar-move shots from which to choose. Each is executed with a combination of the left trigger and then pressing two face buttons in quick succession. For example, the first--and easiest move on the list--is the "fake whiff," a fake shot followed quickly by a slapper that can often cause the goalie to bite. To pull it off, you hold the left trigger and press the A button twice.
However, it's not about just pressing the buttons and watching the lamp light. In order for a superstar move to be successful, a number of factors need to be in place. First, the player attempting the move will have to be up to the task--each move will have a minimum requirement for puck handling and agility that the player will have to meet. For example, the "fake whiff" shot requires puck handling and agility attributes of 50. However, the "spin pick up," a round-the-back shot that looks as if it's shot from a cannon, requires puck handling and agility ratings of 85 apiece. Secondly, you'll need to be relatively close to the net to pull a superstar move off and have enough momentum while you're moving. While you're player will automatically shoot the puck after he's pulled off a superstar move, you'll still be able to aim your shot in the process.
In all, superstar moves can add a good deal of flair to your on-ice adventures in NHL 2K8. Some of our favorites include "batters up" where the player flips the puck into the air and then slaps it into the net. Another favorite is the "shot caller," which isn't so much a trick play as it is a chance to show up your opponent, with your player pointing toward the net and calling his shot even before his puck has left his stick. You'll be able to use any of these superstar moves for online matches, which should be a nice addition for 2K8 fans who enjoy a little trash talk with their hockey. This feature will also be a nice complement in the 2K Reelmaker, which lets you create movies culled from clips of your games. After putting together a movie of your best superstar moves, you'll be able to upload it to a 2K server, where other fans will be able to watch and view your clips.
In addition to all of the on-ice control tweaks, franchise mode has gotten a good bit deeper in NHL 2K8, specifically in terms of player contracts and progression. Much of the changes come from the 2K Sports team implementing many of the aspects of the NHL's collective bargaining agreement. As a result, you'll see things like one- and two-way contracts, as well as a waiver system. You'll also see restricted and unrestricted free agents as part of your franchise. The game's tweaked presentation will put crucial contract information front and center for your franchise management. Thus, you'll easily know which players are about to become free agents and which are wrapped up for the next few seasons.
When it comes to re-sign players, a new negotiation interface should keep things interesting as well. Here, you're given an all-in-one view of how both parties (your player's agent and your team owner) feel about the negotiations, giving you immediate feedback on how close (or far apart) you are in terms of salary. Handy gauges help here too: As you increase or decrease your offer, you'll get a visual representation of how close you are to meeting your player's demands. Of course, if you're not into the business side of running an NHL franchise, you can also let the CPU handle these things and focus on the day-to-day operations of improving your team.
Part of the job of any general manager is making sure your players progress while they play for your team. As with NHL 2K8's updated franchise mode, the new player-progression system will give you easy access to how all of your players are improving throughout the season. The key here is that player progression is based on two key factors: playing time and results. Ice time is going to be the key ingredient in making sure a player progresses as quickly as possible; your goal as GM will be to decide whether or not it's worth it to put a young, promising player on the ice with your NHL team to let him sink or swim or let him stay in the minors and build up the ice time there.
An all-in-one team-progression screen will serve as a quick guide to how every member of your team is doing at any given point in the season. There are four basic factors to consider: ice time, stats, aging, and net. Ice time indicates how much playtime a player is getting; stats measures statistical output; aging determines whether a player is on the rise or slowing down because of age; and net indicates a player's overall progress. Arrows for each of these four factors are a quick visual guide for how a player is doing at any given point, so if you see a player who has three downward-facing arrows in the "stats" column, it might be time to consider a line change. Conversely, two upward arrows in the "aging" column means the player is still growing and will likely continue to improve as the season progresses.
In addition to this overview look at your team, you can drill down to each individual player to get a closer look at his progress. Here, each player has five focus areas: scoring, skating, defense & skills, mental, and physical. Each focus comprises a spread (which indicates how dedicated that player is to that particular aspect of his game), an overall rating, and a momentum arrow indicating whether he's progressing positively or on the downward slope (even if it's just temporary). Also, each focus comprises a number of different attributes. For example, a player's scoring focus takes into account five attributes: offensive awareness, shot accuracy, shot bias, shot power, and shot quickness, with each attribute measured by a number. As a player continues throughout a season, his performance on the ice--whether in practice or in a real game--will increase attributes, and as a result, improve that overall focus level.
While your run-of-the-mill NHL players will only be able to progress so much throughout the season, veteran and superstar players will be eligible for larger-than-normal gains befitting their elite status. In addition, you'll be able to change a player's role on a team in the off-season, transforming a finesse player into a scorer before the start of the next season. As a result, his focus attributes will shift accordingly to reflect his newfound role on the team.
If customization is your thing, NHL 2K8 looks to be up to the task, with a host of create-a-player and create-a-team options. On the player side, you can take advantage of flexible player-creation tools and a huge lineup of real-world gear from manufactures, such as CCM, Mission Intake, or Nike. You can also take advantage of a flexible editor that will let you do things like paint your gloves all the way down to the individual fingers. The create-a-team options seem similarly flexible, with more than 120 logos to choose from, including such classic gone-but-not-forgotten NHL franchises as the Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, and the Minnesota North Stars. And let's not forget the new Reebok jerseys, which will be in the game. But because of NHL licensing issues, you'll need to get a special code from the 2K Sports Web site after the game is released, which you can enter into the game to unlock the new uniforms.
With NHL 2K8, it's clear that the developers at 2K Sports are putting the focus squarely on the best players and their amazing feats of on-ice magic in the sport. We'll be bringing you more on the game in the coming weeks as we prepare for its release in early September.