NHL 08

Pucking about.

Version tested Xbox 360

What the hockey gods giveth, they taketh away. Last season's innovation, the skill stick, gave us a clean control to rack up goals. "Finally," the fans spoke, "something fun and fluid to play with on offence." Making the right analog an analog for your player's stick was as good a design decision as we'd seen in sports games, and for a while, this advancement was enough to overlook other faults.

But like a star player that doesn't share the puck, the skill stick's over-emphasis on individual offence made messy teamwork obsolete. A few flicks of the thumb produced an elegant, easy scoring shortcut, but there wasn't enough AI in place to support working the puck around in the zone. No longer.

Puck hogs, be gone: EA's spent time schooling its defencemen so they can school you. Last season's control scheme remains aboard in NHL 08, but the computer finally has the code to counter it: a dynamic AI that scouts your tendencies, forces you to adjust your playing style, and studies the tape while you sleep, we guess. This "on-the-fly AI" is the antidote to repetitive play, say EA. It's not HAL 9000 on skates, but it's enough of an improvement over last season's predictable defenders to earn some stick-to-ice applause.

Together, we get a more tactical, patient style of gameplay than the one we got in 07, and it's one you'll probably prefer. Striding headlong at the crease and trying the same left-right deke or one-timer tactic isn't as reliable. With the AI up to task against these moves, you'll want to set up in the zone, cycle the puck, and generate genuine scoring chances, you know - what actual hockey clubs tend to do.

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It begins with players that seem to understand their positions a lot better. Forwards hang about the hashmarks and transition behind the net to accept a backdoor pass. Defencemen straddle the blue line, ready to release a long-range slapshot. In between, alert AI fills the gaps with active, aggressive defenders that pressure you to pass through tight lanes. Sounds good, eh?

There are still a number of minor issues that hamper play on occasion, but they aren't so distracting to break any part of the gameplay. Passing assist seems to overcompensate at times, sending the puck along a poor route, or, rarely, off your goalie's leg and into the net. Most of last year's weak goal bugs are gone, but the puck phases through the post or gets stuck against it on occasion. Camera woes usually skip sports, but NHL 08's default view is too confining. If the puck is anywhere along the boards, it hides the slot - the lane in front of the net. This is an issue at both ends: be prepared to make a blind pass or two, second-guess if someone's wide open at the goal mouth, or get knocked off your skates because you couldn't see what was ahead of you.

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Maybe what makes these mini-faults more apparent is the AI being better equipped than your own team-mates at exploiting plays. On higher difficulties, opponents regularly get the benefit of the doubt - a mild collision or gentle poke check might jar the puck loose off your stick, but not theirs if you try the same move in your own end. The intelligence just doesn't go both ways - now that you're dealing with mobile forwards and defencemen that cycle the puck well when they want to, it'd be nice if your team-mates mimicked your competitors more. It's a double-standard at times, but still preferred to the passive defencemen we were paired against last year.

More importantly (and it seems odd to congratulate what should be standard), for once in a sport game we've got a system without a sure-fire scoring tactic. Plays develop in a way that demands patience and snap execution alike: a gameplay shift that the hockey community should welcome. And this isn't a case of another sport riding its gimmick into the annual update - NHL 08 brings a block of fresh content in goalie control, play creation, playable minor leagues and expanded online modes. The latter's easily the most welcome, but unfortunately the most bug-ridden, too. EA's acknowledged some connectivity quirks: matches lock up before they start about half the time, and you're required to download rosters before each game, even if you've done it ten times before. We know the faux pas of releasing a half-functioning product, but when they're working, the online options are some of the best you'll see in a sports game. Really.

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