We’re going Duck hunting.
The NHL has been on an arduous quest to expand the sport of Hockey to the southern United States for the last couple of years. With the Tampa Bay Lightning winning Lord Stanley’s Cup in 04, the Carolina Hurricanes in 06 and finally the Anaheim (no mighty in the name but mighty nonetheless) Ducks in 07, it’s quite evident that it isn’t the teams struggling down south, but rather the fans support. It hasn’t always been like this though. The fan support for hockey, not only down south, but everywhere else, has always seemed to oscillate like a pendulum. It’s quite fitting then that the EA NHL franchise has also seen such back and forth support. After the triumph that was NHL 04 came the utter disappointments of 05 and 06. Fortunately for hockey fans, the next installment, NHL 07, turned next generation, and it most definitely felt like it. And now we arrive to NHL 08, the second next-generation attempt at a hockey game by EA. Will the pendulum swing back to the days of 06, or will it break the oscillating pattern and continue to light the lamp like 07?
The first thing you’ll realize about NHL 08, quite obviously, is the graphics. NHL 08 definitely picks up where 07 left off in terms of the graphics. They’re absolutely stunning. The player face models will make you stare in awe at the accuracy of them. Well, for the most part. The majority of the big name player’s faces are mirror images of their actual selves. However, some popular superstars look nothing like their real life counterparts. Inspecting Brad Richards, Steve Sullivan and many other stars, you can’t help but feel ripped off at how poorly their models were done. However, inspecting Martin St. Louis, Mats Sundin and Alexander Ovechkin brings some sweet redemption because these models are unfathomably perfect. Never in my life could I have imagined that video games could evolve to the point where I could mistake a character for a real life person. Fortunately for 08, the phenomenal graphics aren’t tarnished by a choppy framerate, unlike its predecessor. The Xbox 360 version runs at 60 fps, which is a huge step up from the choppiness displayed in the 07 version with 30 fps. Unfortunately for you PS3 owners, you’ll have to make due with the 30 fps once again.
Not only have the great graphics from 07 returned, but also the innovative skill stick. Essentially, the skill stick is your ability to control your hockey stick with the right analog. Move the analog stick to the left, your stick goes to the left, move it to the right, that’s where your stick goes. Flick it forward; your player will take a wrist shot. Pull it back and then flick it forward and he will perform a slap shot. You get the point. With the NHL recently implementing shootouts, it’s rather obvious how useful this becomes. Whether you’re on a breakaway or coming down on a penalty shot, you can be as creative as you want to be with the skill stick, which makes it return to NHL 08 a welcomed one. However, the skill stick proves rather futile when you come down one on one with a defender. This is where the new deking system comes in. When holding down the LB button, your player will enter a deking stance and which ever way you move the skill stick dictates where the puck goes. Similarly, where you move the left analog stick dictates where your player goes. This feature can lead to some embarrassed defenders and some absolutely wonderful goals. With this feature you not only solve the problem of coming down on defenders, but goals also no longer feel linear and restricted. Want to score Mario Lemieux’s infamous playoff goal against the North Stars in the 91’ Stanley Cup finals? No problem. How about Jason Spezza’s how do you do on Sheldon Souray? Done. But heed my words of caution, the computer is very intelligent. Try to do the same move on a defender twice and you’ll pay. The AI adapts to your strategy and shuts you down accordingly. Essentially, you can’t be a one trick pony. You’ll have to dig deep down into your repertoire of moves and change it up every once and a while to successfully beat the defender, and ultimately, the goaltender. With that being said, the new deking system adds an element to hockey in video games that was desperately missing. Add it to the new skating engine and advanced AI and you get a game that looks and feels completely real while maintaining the fun factor.
However, with all this focus on massive gameplay overhauling, shouldn’t other aspects of the game inevitably suffer? Well, yeah. This is where Franchise mode and extras come in. While the franchise mode has made significant upgrades since last year’s installment, that still isn’t saying much. It still feels weak in comparison to the plethora of options the 2k series throws at you. You won’t find any cool unlockables, classic teams or even classic jerseys in NHL 08 which is an utter disappointment. It definitely holds NHL 08 back from being one of the great hockey games, but at the end of the day, the proof is in the puddi….er…gameplay, and that’s what makes NHL 08 the excellent game that it is.