EA's NHL 07 redefined the hockey genre with one simple feature, the skill stick. Though the game had few modes and several artificial intelligence issues, its star play mechanic worked brilliantly, and created a great rebuilding point for the franchise. As you would expect from a follow-up, NHL 08 takes what 07 did and stacks a bunch of improvements on top of it. The AI has been thoroughly reworked, so it now looks and feels much, much more like the real-life sport. Throw in some balance improvements to the skill stick, a gaggle of new online modes, and an improved dynasty mode, and you've got an all-around great hockey game.
For lack of a better term, NHL 08 is just a smarter game of hockey than 07 was. Pop in 07 for a few minutes before starting in on 08, and you'll see a night-and-day difference between how players behave in each version. For one thing, 08 is a slower-paced game than 07 was, though not to the point of feeling sluggish. Part of that is because the game has done away with speed burst mechanic, and part has to do with skating, which has been redone from the ground up. The momentum of the skaters as they move up and down the ice simply feels more natural and less overblown, and the pacing of the game is much more realistic. On offense and defense, player behavior feels correct in most every situation. Setting up power plays and other elaborate passing schemes is more natural than in any EA hockey game to date. When you push your way into the offensive zone by yourself, the defense doesn't just try to knock you silly every single time. Defenders will actually poke check, try to push you toward the boards, and close the gap to the net. It's like watching real defenders, instead of the robotic hitting machines from earlier EA hockey games. You'll occasionally see some dopey moments where guys on your team skate right past the puck or stand still in front of the net even though they're getting hammered left and right, but these aren't the norm.
Incidentally, it pays to vary up your offense as much as you possibly can this year, because the defense will actually adapt to your plays. If you keep moving to the center of the ice and slapping it in, the AI will react accordingly and start clogging up that area. If you're constantly trying to set up elaborate one-timers, the defense will see it and attack accordingly. The reactions to your repetitive play are almost uncanny. The one goofy thing about this adaptive AI system is that it doesn't differentiate among players and teams; Johnny Oduya is just as capable of figuring out your tendencies as Scott Niedermayer is. While it's better to have everyone be smart versus everyone being an idiot, a bit more differentiation between skill sets would have been nice.
If you find yourself running into trouble, the game is quite good about letting you know what you're doing wrong. Between periods, a screen will pop up telling you what you're doing well and what you need to improve on. Specifically, it'll tell you things like your forechecking needs to improve, or that you're doing a great job of getting shots on net. In another helpful feature, if you're getting too predictable on offense, the commentators will actually point that out. It's subtle, but if you're paying attention to what they're saying, you can get some sound advice.
As far as control goes, the skill stick feels even more refined this year. There aren't any major, game-changing differences to the mechanic, but all told, it just feels smoother in its movements. Goals scored are rarely alike, and it's a thrilling feeling to fake out the goalie and knock the puck in with a few quick flicks of the stick. And though this seems like less a change to the stick and more a change to the goalies, glitched and otherwise wonky-looking goals are much less frequent this year. You'll still see some highly questionable ones on occasion, but there are very few of those weird goals from 07 where the puck would bounce off every body part of the goalie before eventually donking its way in. Now, if EA could just fix it so your stick wouldn't clip through defenders' legs anymore…
One specific new feature for offensive controls is loose puck deking. To pull one of these off, you hold down the L1 button/left bumper, and press both analog sticks in the desired direction of the deke. It's a tricky maneuver, as you're basically letting go of the puck and trying to push your skater into exactly the right spot to pick the puck back up once he's past the defender. The timing is tough, and if a defender happens to decide to check you right at the time you're trying to pull this off, you're hosed. Once you get a good handle on the timing, however, the move becomes incredibly effective--maybe even a bit too effective. Fortunately, not every skater can pull these moves off with a deft touch, but if you've got a one-on-one matchup against an opponent who has the timing on these moves down and a good skater holding the puck, watch out.
Defensive controls haven't seen much change, though there are some balance tweaks. The poke check feels a bit more effective this year, though it still looks weird and awkward, and the control mechanic of holding the right bumper/R1 button and swinging with the right stick still feels cumbersome. Checking with the right analog stick is much more understated this year, but that's not to say it isn't effective. You can still wind up for a big hit and send a guy crashing into the boards, provided you can actually time such a hit correctly. But by and large, most checks don't just knock guys silly all the time--and that's a good thing. You'll knock guys off the puck periodically, and sometimes checking won't do anything. Most of all, checking feels balanced. The big grinder types do a lot more damage than the little speed wingers, and that's how it should be. Lastly, the game does feature slightly improved goalie controls that actually make a measure of sense and let you challenge skaters effectively, though this control method still isn't as much fun as 2K's goalie control.
One of the big complaints about NHL 07 was that it was a barren wasteland for game modes. It didn't have much of a dynasty mode, and online play was just laggy head-to-head play. Both areas of the game have significantly improved this year. Dynasty mode finally features a realistic negotiation system for signing players, as well as more helpful rookie info and better coaching and management options. The negotiation system addition is a big one, since you can no longer just cherry-pick every free agent player you want. Players will actually take into consideration any offers made by other teams, and they'll take a few days on the calendar to come to a decision. You'll even get rejected for more reasons than simple money issues. Players will actually say they don't think they'll get enough playing time on your squad, which is pretty realistic in the current NHL landscape, where plenty of quality role-players are heading overseas due to the lack of good job opportunities here.
All told, the mode is still nowhere near as deep as what 2K's game offers, but it's largely a step up. The only stupid holdover issue of the mode is that any free agent you sign still automatically gets dumped into the minor leagues, where they don't count against the salary cap. Last year you could pretty much just sign any players you wanted and trade them for less expensive players you could actually use. This year it's much more difficult to sign free agents, and the trade logic is a bit tougher as well, so at least that's less of an exploit. It'd just be nice if you had all your free agents automatically assigned to your NHL squad so that it was done away with altogether.
Online modes have seen the most definitive improvement. Besides standard head-to-head play, you can play in ranked shootouts, team matches for up to six different players on six different consoles, and online leagues. Obviously, leagues and team play are the big additions. Leagues are simple to set up and easy to use. You create a league for anywhere from two to 32 teams, including all the AHL and international teams included in the game, and can even create some basic logos and a winner's trophy for the end of the season. In the league lobby menu, you'll see which players are online and who your opponents are, and you can simply jump into a game from there. There is individual stat tracking for each time, though there aren't any individual player stats or trade options available. In this regard, the mode is a little on the bare-bones side compared with what 2K has been offering for years now, but the leagues function as advertised, and getting to play in leagues online at all is pretty awesome.
Team play is a great idea in theory, though it isn't quite working at the moment. Basically, up to six players can take up to three spots on each team, and anyone in the game has the option to lock to a certain position or switch freely between all players on the ice. While we'd love to say this mode is as cool as it sounds, we frankly just don't know, because the mode doesn't really work right now. On the Xbox 360, every team match we tried to play dropped the connection from the moment the opening cinematic loaded. We tried this a dozen or so times with different players in every match, and every time we got the same result. On the PS3, we were never able to find enough people to play a team play game, so it may or may not suffer from the same issues. This seems like the sort of thing EA could easily fix with a patch, but it's pretty irritating that this feature doesn't work right out of the box.
Apart from that rather glaring issue, online performance seems OK. The bulk of the matches we played were lag-free and worked properly. We ran into a couple of connection drops on both the PS3 and 360 here and there (one out of every dozen or so standard online games we played had that issue), and we also had a couple of game crashes while loading some of the online shootouts. But again, the bulk of our online play experience worked fine, and without any of the dominant lag issues from last year's game.
NHL 08 also includes a great practice mode that not only lets you practice strategies in a wide variety of scenarios, but actually includes a play creator. It's a simple, intuitive mode that records the movements of individual players via neon-colored arrows on the ice. You can basically position each player individually and get them into the right position to score. It works nicely within the context of the game, too, as the second you get the right player into the proper starting position, all the other players on your team move to their proper starting positions and execute the play you designed as best they can based on the defense's position. The one slight bummer about the play creation mode is that you can't insert defenders into the play creator. When you're designing the play, it's just your teammates and a goalie. You can take the move you designed into the standard practice mode and try it out there, but it would have been nice to have a way right within the play creator to see if you were designing something legitimately ingenious or just a way to get the puck stolen very quickly.
The other big selling point about last year's game, besides the skill stick, was its graphics. Hands-down, NHL 07 was the best-looking sports game on the market last year, and NHL 08 subtly improves on an already fantastic graphics engine. The improved skating is probably the biggest visual treat, though the still-amazing-looking player models and generally improved animations are a nice touch as well. On the Xbox 360, NHL 08 runs a great deal better than it did last year in terms of frame rate. You'll see occasional choppy bits here and there, but they're rare. The PlayStation 3 version runs about as well as the Xbox 360 game did last year. It mostly sticks to about 30 frames a second, though it occasionally chops up on the ice, and cutscenes seem to take a big hit. It doesn't affect gameplay, so it's not a gigantic deal. It's just disappointing that the PS3 version is inferior in this one regard.
Audio is top-notch all around. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement continue their streak of being the best commentating duo in all of sports gaming, displaying a natural-sounding chemistry that gives a true-to-life feel. Their dialogue is also considerably better written and less repetitive this year. The only knock against their commentary is that they don't address specific players very often. In-game sound effects don't seem much better or worse than last year's, though the game still sounds great on the ice. The soundtrack is yet another mixtape of indie and alternative rock tracks that you may love or not even notice.
In pretty much every single regard, NHL 08 is a significant step up from the series' current-gen debut last year. It's got more content, exciting gameplay, and legitimate smarts to its game. Some issues certainly knock 08 back from being a truly superb effort, such as the online issues and the few remaining control irritations. But by and large, this is a terrific game of hockey that's both realistic and thrilling to play, a combo that's often difficult to achieve in sports games. If you love hockey, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.