NHL 08 [European Release]
Game: NHL ‘08
Genre: Hockey Simulator
Platforms: PS, PS3, Xbox 360, PC (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
Of all the major American sports, hockey is perhaps the best suited for translation to video games. The constant fast-paced, dynamic action has made for fine gaming since the early days of consoles. Even in the early days of consoles hockey had an advantage over other sports: Blades of Steel is a much better game than Double Dribble. Likewise, NHL 95 is a far superior title than Madden 95. EA Sports has don a good job of continuing the NHL’s fine game legacy in recent years, especially with last year’s introduction of the “Skill Stick” mechanic. This year’s entry, NHL 08, takes what NHL 07 did and manages to improve it on almost every level, resulting in what may be the best hockey game of all time.
From a gameplay standpoint, you pretty much know what to expect here: it’s hockey. Passes are mapped to the left trigger and bumper, and pretty much everything else is done with the right analog stick. The “Skill Stick” allows you to deke left or right, flick forward for a quick wrist shot or wind up slapshots by holding back, then quickly pushing forward. One new feature here is the loose-puck deke. By holding the left bumper and using the Skill Stick in conjunction with the left analog, players can separate from the puck, move around a defender, then catch up with the puck on the other side. It’s a very cool feature that’s tough to master, but once you get the hang of it, lets you utilize big playmakers like Jaromir Jagr the way they’re supposed to be used.
You’ll need these new skills if you want to have a chance against the vastly improved AI the game sports. No longer will you see every defender trying to full force body check you at the blue line. Instead, defenses will poke check, push you to the boards and trap you just like a real team. What’s more, defenses will actually adapt to your offensive style. Setting up in the slot too much? The defense will make sure to put a body on that man, forcing you to diversify your attack. Every player on the ice plays the way they’re supposed to, successfully creating the look and feel of real NHL hockey. From time to time, you will run into the occasional clipping issue or wonky goal, but these are significantly reduced from last year and never really hurt the gameplay.
EA has always prided itself on improving the graphics on its annual titles, and NHL 08 is in no way an exception to this. Character models are absolutely gorgeous. There are still frames from this game that are hard to distinguish from actual in-game photos. What’s really impressive is that the game actually looks even better in motion. NHL 08 features some of the finest animation work in any sports game ever. All this visual goodness is complimented by great-looking arenas that seem more vibrant and lifelike than in last year’s offering, as well as stellar play-by-play work by Gary Thorne and Bill Clement.
The main complaint about NHL 07 was the lack of game modes. This to has been addressed, with a more fleshed out dynasty mode and several new online modes. A new free agent and trading system prevents players from cherry picking the league’s best players: a flaw that was heavily exploited last year. There do seem to be some connection problems when playing 3-on-3 games, which is definitely an issue because 6-player hockey is an absolute blast when you can get it to work. Other online modes, including a ranked shootout mode, connect with little to no problems.
There hasn’t been a hockey game this impressive since the days of the Sega Genesis. It’s a truly immersive title that simulates NHL gameplay better than any game before it. While some of EA’s other sports titles may have suffered over the last few years, NHL 08 shows that their commitment to pucks has never been stronger.