NHL 08 Hands On
Pass deflect, intercept, scoop, skate, deke, twist, shoot, SCORE! We go hands on with EA Sports' upcoming puck game.
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If you're not a longtime hockey fan, you might not think that the players on the ice are doing anything but skating toward the goal and doing their best to bash each other's heads in with their sticks. What fans understand is that hockey is just as tactical as any other professional sport. In its upcoming hockey sequel, NHL 08, EA Sports is attempting to add some additional strategy to the on-ice mix, thanks to some powerful new skating features and a new play-creation tool that looks to be a lot of fun. We had a chance to try out the game at a recent EA press event in Los Angeles.
We wrote about the new controls in our previous look at NHL 08, but the changes to the gameplay bear at least a brief retelling. Skating has been redefined to differentiate between fast, arching crossover turns and slower, but more steeply angled, carved turns. In addition, player skating speed is tighter than ever before: Every point on the analog stick's range of movement indicates a slightly different speed for your skater, from full blast at the outer edge to barely moving near the center, as well as all points in between. In addition, you'll have more options for moving the puck around defenders, thanks to the newly added ability to push the puck into space one direction while skating in another. There are also new player animations that will help you focus on a player's more subtle skills, as opposed to simply his brute force.
When put into action on the ice, the new controls in NHL 08 add up to a remarkably fine-tuned hockey experience. For example, to push the puck to the left and around a defender, you first hold the LB button, pushing left with the right stick. At the same time, you want to move your player around the defender to the right by pressing right on the left analog stick. It takes some getting used to the new controls. To the game's credit, the defensive artificial intelligence is canny enough to interrupt you and grab the puck for itself. But when you pull it off, it feels fantastic.
The forwards and defensemen aren't the only ones receiving improved controls in NHL 08 because you'll also be able to take control of the goalie at any time to play from his perspective in front of the pipes. It's similar to the approach taken in NHL 2K6, though there's no color-coded cone indicating the goalie's field of vision. Instead, the developers are going for a slightly more realistic take on goaltending. You'll have a number of moves available to you, including the butterfly (down with the right stick), stacking the pads (LB or RB button), and the ability to free skate by holding down the left trigger. In fact, if you're playing as the goalie during a delayed penalty, you'll be required to skate yourself off the ice so your team can gain the extra attacker.
New moves and better controls are a good place to start, but the best NHL 08 players will be the ones that make sure all five players on the ice are working in tandem with one another. One of the coolest new features in the game that will help you accomplish this goal is the new create-a-play tool, which is part of the game's practice mode. Whether you're practicing your moves with one or two skaters or a full five-man team, you can create plays on the fly using this flexible tool. Creating a play is as simple as choosing a player, choosing a starting point (indicated by a flashing yellow circle on the ice), hitting the record button, and moving the player where you want him. A small arrow appears underneath the recorded player indicating his general direction. From there, you take control of the next player on the ice, hit record, and move him where you like; repeating the process for as many players as you like. After you've recorded your players, you can test your play and watch as the AI-controlled players move where you tell them to, making adjustments to their positions as you like.
Once in the game, calling the plays is as simple as taking a player to the original starting point of your play and moving in the direction of the play you designed. Your AI teammates will immediately recognize the play you're running; thus, they will react and move on the ice accordingly. In the single-player game, the yellow "starting" circle and on-ice arrows will pop up to give you an indication of where the play should go; in multiplayer games, those overlays will be hidden so your opponent won't be able to glean your strategy. Another interesting aspect of this feature is that created plays are tied to specific players so that certain shifts will have their own plays (depending on the players that make up that shift), and those plays will stay in a player's "memory" even if he's traded to a different team. If one of Vancouver's Sedin twins is traded away in your franchise, the plays shared by the two brothers won't be activated until they're both on the ice together on the same team (such as when playing for Team Sweden).
What was the standard method for scoring goals in previous versions of the NHL series? Take a winger down the boards, pass it into the middle, and hope for a one-timer with your center. Not only will that be less of a sure thing than in the past, but EA is promising a defensive AI that will even adapt to your favorite created plays if you go to the well once too often. It's also evident on offense, with the players often passing up bad-shot opportunities to move the puck around and look for better chances, as well as playing a proper positional power play that is almost serene in its execution and efficiency. It bodes well for NHL 08's overall AI, which was one of the gripes players had with last year's game.
There's no doubt about it: After last year's debut, the NHL series is continuing its upswing after some subpar efforts on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. We look forward to seeing more of this game in the coming months and will be keeping you up to date on all the new developments.