Keeping It Simple, Stupid
I was surprised by the San Jose Calgary season opener last weekend. In multi-national NHL games, you stand and listen to the national anthem for both countries. Lots of fans sang O, Canada, which egged on more of us lazy Americans to sing The Star-Spangled Banner. What is usually a big ugly contest through and through started with an unusually special moment.
Fittingly, when I first booted up EA NHL 08, there were no lengthy cut-scenes in the locker room, no aimlessly elevated television angles. The first visual in the game is of both teams, lined up at center ice just as a national anthem ends - perfect for EA’s signature lightweight, high-quality presentation.
I appreciated such classy little touches, but EA was keeping things too simple. Once again, their vanilla ice-rink simulator has neither enough tuning nor enough spice to make an entertaining hockey game. Like watching a figure skater in the NHL - who clears an extremely clean, graceful path around the ice but crumples along a wall against a 200-pound defenseman - NHL 08 looks very smooth but the gameplay definitely gets into a few scuffles.
Now, I like hockey slightly more than the next guy. I see a few games each year, I know what it means to be off-sides, and I follow the league a little. But I’m not hardcore to the point of knowing how players should form up and where they should pass the puck to make good shots. I became frustrated with the computer team, which would hustle me into two scoreless periods, then turn around and score five goals in a row. You can only play a game like that once before you say screw it and quit.
My crushing defeat, however, sent me into a training montage like you’ve never seen before. NHL 08 has great new practice options, like a scrimmage where you can specify how many players are on the ice. I alternated between free-skate shoot-outs and one-on-one showdowns as I searched for ways to beat defenders and sneak in goals. But after two solid hours of practice, I could not improve my scoring one bit! I needed coaching.
To my amazement, NHL 08 quietly takes a first step towards instruction and accessibility. Every formation in the strategy menu has animated player icons, to show you how your players are going to move and where the puck should go. These tiny illustrations are an extremely insightful addition, and I hope it’s expanded for rookies in future editions.
Of course, sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands. NHL 08 features an ambitious new motion-capture play creator. That’s right, you can actually make new strategy formations by recording player movements one at a time, and then have the game combine all five together. It’s a little involved to make a single formation, but it’s a key idea that’s executed well.
However, the default settings are too rough and demanding, forcing you to make death-defying game-winning plays. The skating and the ally A.I.s feel way off the mark. Your teammates skate beautifully until you take control, flying off their man-to-man route and turning in slow, wide circles. It’s nearly impossible to line up a tackle without swinging past your target, and to top it off, the button for switching players is more likely to put you on the outside of the play than between the puck and the goal.
As for spice, the game does a terrible job with anything that would have given you an edge. Body-checking is weak and feels wonky on the right analog stick. The lack of a solid, working Sprint button also means that you can’t beat your opponent to the mark. What kind of thrill is that?
Though shooting feels great on the right stick, I constantly wished that face buttons would do something useful - or anything. You can choose between the all-analog new controls or an extremely basic face-button layout, though you hope you could mix the two or at least assign your own button scheme.
The live commentary will also fail to inspire anything, unless it’s laughter. Try passing rapidly and the announcers will say the same phrase over and over. The language is excessively broad and dull (is a shot from mid-ice really a scoring opportunity? – That’s nothin’. ~Ed) and some phrases come in comically late, like compliments on a pass after it gets intercepted.
The visuals are more successful. Player models and faces are smoother and more polished, and all the bloom and lighting effects paint the game with a very clean style. EA’s tiered move-left-and-right interface is slick and unobtrusive, though you have to dig through lots of submenus to find what you need.
The usual character and team creators are in, and franchise mode is in with an international World Tournament mode. It’s slim pickings, but fans should get plenty of matches out of season and tournament play. This year’s multiplayer admits up to six players on the 360, or you can field a complete 12 players in one online PS3 match with voice support.
Last year, when NHL 07 and competitor NHL 2K7 first started to distinguish their control schemes from each other, I felt they played similarly but 2K Sports won with a longer feature list. This year, as 2K8 lags with its overcomplicated controls, EA has managed to slip by. NHL 08 is imperfect, but with its simple gameplay and its clean presentation, it’s somehow on track to lead the league and push it forward.