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.
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.
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.
Online team play is probably the ideal way to play NHL 08 at all. The six-player mode demands real co-operation to set up on offence, establish who'll forecheck, and when to cross the blue line to avoid without going offside. Online leagues are finally in, albeit in a basic form. They're password-protected, so you'll need to coordinate with friends offline, but it's a decent template if you've got enough puckhead pals to justify a group. Head-to-head returns from last season, and the Xbox Live content is rounded out with shootout mode, which can be played from the shooter's and goaltender's perspective alike, another lead feature this season.
For masochists, NHL 08 offers the opportunity to play goaltender. Goalie control is activated through the pause menu at any point, and is available in every mode. Like shooting, guarding the pipes means using the analogs: the left to move, the right to make a save in a specific direction. The bumpers add "desperation saves", theatrical dives and stackings of the pads suitable for the highlight reel. Goalie mobility is limited, though. You can't wander outside the crease to pass loose pucks to your teammates. We might say the mode's controls are simplified to make them more playable, but being glued to the net doesn't reflect the game's other sim-like qualities. Unfortunately, it's omissions like this that draw the eyes to other design deficiencies: the inability to pin players against the boards, no fantasy draft, no animation to support grabbing the puck mid-air during play, and other nuances still on our wish list, like broken sticks.
Still, we prefer a handful of good additions to a host of mediocre ones. Play creation is nothing new to the genre, and it's well-executed in NHL 08. Instead of cluttering things with an interface, your pre-recorded plays initiate automatically as you transition into certain spots, with some coloured arrows showing where your linemates should skate to. Puck physics are finally addressed, too. Wire a wrister into a defender, and it'll skitter off to the side, glance off his shinpad, or trigger an "ow, I just got hit by a block of frozen rubber" animation. Players positioned in front of the net also actively deflect on their own. Rosters-wise, there are more than 100 teams. If you're not fond of the NHL, EA includes clubs from the American Hockey League, SM-Liiga Finnish and Swedish Elitserien leagues, along with the national squads of 21 countries. All of these are playable in dynasty mode and online, and the same goes for create-a-team, a feature that's crawled back with enough options for this reviewer to enjoy re-creating his college roster.
Will 09 be the year gamers get an upgraded graphics engine? Visuals remain an area in need of some attention for NHL. For once, we'd like a hockey title with some neat stat overlays during play - something to shovel some context in the middle of a season and remind you of your efforts thus far. More generally, the frame rate has improved, but player models seem a bit blocky when viewed from above. At least the audio has benefited from a few updates: some fresh commentary from Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, as well as new ice-level chatter from players.
Time in the cooler has allowed our favorite frozen sport (sorry, curling) some time to roll out genuine improvements. The enhanced AI isn't quite a cure-all for 07's passive defences, but it does bring a satisfying, sim-like feel to the franchise for the first time in years. Play creation, minor league play and deflection physics are a few of the non-gimmicks we get, but a handful of on-ice issues frustrate now and then. The online offering is likewise brilliant-but-bugged. All in all, an excellent ice hockey game, but one that would've benefited from one last run-over from the zamboni.
7 / 10