NHL 08: Hands On

A common complaint with the titles that has occurred recently in sports video games is that the lack of competition produces lesser quality games. The same can’t be said of Electronic Arts’ NHL 08. I should start off by saying that I’m not the biggest hockey fan. Like most casual gamers, I focus on the little guy and simply try to get the puck where it needs to go for me to advance. I am void of the defensive plays and the offensive procedures. EA’s NHL 08, however, is teaching me the ins and outs of hockey. As someone who has played hockey games the same way every time, I am finally forced to learn something and use my brain in a hockey game. I am naturally made to want to learn this game, and am taught so accordingly.

NHL 08 consists of two major improvements from last year’s version: The addition of the one-on-one moves and the impressive AI. EA proved themselves with NHL 07 which, despite stiff competition and coming off of a year lapse, prevailed as the premier hockey game of last year. Why? Because people admired the Skill Stick control from last year, but this one will leave them in awe. The left thumbstick controls your skates; the right your stick. This is the same as last year, only now you can press L1 to engage one-on-one moves. Tap the left thumbstick in the direction you want to send your skater and the right thumbstick to control what you do with the puck. In this way, you have greater control over your moves in order to bring the game home against the defender.

Sometimes, things might not always go as planned, just like real life. You might accidentally go overboard and send the puck flying into the audience. Ouch! It takes practice to figure out how to move your body and puck properly in perfect amalgamation. Just don’t forget, you still have to worry about getting yourself and the puck around the defender. Luckily, the replay system shows the positioning of the sticks. So when you fail miserably, just go back and zoom in on what you did. You can watch how you did the move frame by frame, and maybe not tilt the left stick inwards so much. If you figure out an unbeatable stick move, hit the replay and see how you did it with the weight shift of the character.. Once you have the hang of the new system, you’ll likely find reliable moves for specific situations. This is helpful when you find Scott Niedermayer coming close to your step.

The biggest improvement to the game is definitely the AI. Playing NHL 07 and then comparing it to NGL 08 is like comparing the moon and the sun. In NHL 07, the AI played in the fog of the night. They weren’t stupid, but it was the same old Neanderthal intelligence. Literally. It was so easy—a cave man could do it (props to Geico). NHL 08 is definitely the most realistic hockey game–ever. Even though I’m not a harcore hockey guy, I know can recognize realistic approach from a fake one.

You can’t perform any “hell mary’s” here. If you charge, the puck carrier will slam you to the ground. On defense, you need to be most careful. Play the passing lanes and check defensively, when you have a real shot at changing a play. If you don’t, you might find you can never reach the other side of the arena!

Offense takes more of a careful approach towards judgment calls. In the past, it was easy to get breakaways and then look for the one time to score. Or (particularly in NHL 07) just keep shooting in hopes that the puck will swoosh behind the goalie. Sorry, but this won’t work here. When these "unfortunate" goals occur, it looks and feels more natural. After all, sometimes the goalie does lose sight of the puck, but it’s not because of the AI. It’s simply because the goalie is actually an idiot.

Going right down the center isn’t the best way to score a goal. You need to pass the puck from side to side. Your best bet is to play like it is meant to be played, with you in the arena. When the goalkeeper loses sight of the puck, slam that puck and hope for the best. Just know that the AI will perform as equally if not better than you with special moves, so be aware of your sightline and play form.

EA not only made the AI believable, it made the AI brilliant. As you play a game, the AI adjusts to your play style. If you stupidly try and rush the arena, the AI picks up on this and alters its defense to match. If you spread and try long passes across the ice, the AI will ground back in a zone and try to pick off those passes. The AI also will try and make sure you don’t just keep shooting from across the arena by barging towards you instead of waiting for you to politely come into the arena.

You will know when the AI starts making both offensive and defensive adjustments. The announcers cue you in regularly. It’s done subtly, so that it won’t break the flow of the game, but with a sharp ear, you can pick up hints. "The Sharks have been crashing the net all night and they are not doing so well," should tell you to stop rushing. All these subtle hints announce that the smart AI recognizes a pattern. At last, the announcers are real, not repetitive, and are useful.

Scoring is tougher this year, so EA has added a special feature to help gamers out on offense. The new create-a-play system lets you design dozens of plays for almost any situation on the ice. Let’s say you want to create a few plays for a 4-man side split. There are seventeen different possible formations for a split. For each instance, you can create a play.
You record the movements of the puck carrier and then the movements of the man without the puck. You can even adjust timing, so if you want your fourth guy to fake the right change, you can do so.

There are still some issues with NHL 08. There are some clipping issues that make some impossible moves possible, the presentation isn’t perfect, and the AI seems to be able to come back in nearly every game. Another issue is the 30 frames per second in addition to these clipping issues on the PlayStation 3. The 360 version of this game runs at 60 frames per second, but luckily, this frame rate issue doesn’t affect the gameplay like it did in Madden. You can definitely expect the exact same game as on the 360, if not, with slightly better character models. Even if EA doesn’t manage to fix all these issues before NHL 08 ships, it is looking to be a strong game that can teach many people things they hadn’t cared to find out in hockey. I loved it so much, that I actually started skating again to play on an actual arena.