Blow the whistle.
2008 is here, folks, so throw out your ratty old 2007 calendars and get with the times. 2008 means a new pro hockey title and a new paint job for my beloved San Jose Sharks: Meaner logo, fancy new stadium screens, and pricier parking for everyone!
[image1]I saw a hell of a preseason game on Saturday night, when it seemed like every attempt on goal sent the Sharks and the Calgary Flames into a Jerry Springer free-for-all. Watching one Shark slam a Canadian’s face down into the ice repeatedly (true story) is just the kind of thing that gets me reaching for some sports games. Hooray for the merchandise treadmill!
Enter NHL 2K8, the most comprehensive yet sloppiest hockey title around. Where do I even start? Offense is a mess, defense is busted, goaltending no longer works and even the fighting is muddied. This is one illegible, unreliable sports game.
One of the few things that isn’t a complete calamity, 2K8 still has the best body-checking around. You’ll cackle with glee after you knock players upside-down and over walls, spilling helmets onto the ice. In addition, the AI has been tuned so that the standard “Pro” difficulty is easier and tougher in just the right spots. This year’s game plan is more about fooling the goalie and less dominated by one-timers.
However, the learning curve is still as tall as a glacier. The radically redesigned control scheme is as insanely difficult. Defense boils down to trading pawns for pawns, where acting usually leaves you more vulnerable than before. Offense is a two-fisted affair, a challenge to manage four to seven buttons at once as you dart between five AI buzzards. Or to put it simply: you have to push two buttons to do a simple slap shot. Why?
[image2]Goalie Crease Control, which allowed you to make precise blocks in past installments, has been watered down to this year’s Token Sixaxis Feature (TM). Shots go by faster than a WarioWare minigame, as 2K8 joins Super Mario Strikers in the running for a Most Impossible Goaltending medal.
Other areas remain untouched. I swear someone went to Kinko’s, copied the menu options in 2K7, and filed them into 2K8. Party Mode features the same assortment of cryptically documented mini-games. You can still spend hours creating a custom team full of custom characters, then watch it get deleted after playing Franchise Mode, and the Skybox Rewards gallery has the exact same layout and features as 2K7. If there are actual changes here, I will have to raise my Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass to the screen and really scrutinize these menus, because by all appearances, it’s the same old, same old.
Graphical improvements are also a 2K8 mystery. I never saw the new special moves work, so I can’t speak of their animations… I feel like I saw more helmets, more fans and more falls than last year. The game looks as vivid as ever, but the textures are not quite up to par. Facial hair in particular looks like a muddy splotch stretched over brows and jawlines, and faces have all the creepy charm of Team America marionettes. The gallery of create-a-character heads are the straight–up ugliest collection of asymmetrical mugs since Sloth broke free in The Goonies.
Up to six players can play NHL 2K8 on- or off-line, though it was clear that there was no way my more-than-capable friends would see the nuances you need to win 2K8. Like how you need to fake out goalies by leading them to one side of the net. And how you need to always hold the right stick to tip the puck past their weak side. And how there are TWO speed boost buttons, one for defense and one for offense. These are hardcore lessons learned only after lots of playtime and careful reflection on the AI – and hockey in general.
[image3]Instead, we found our fun in 2K8’s Mini Rink mode, an intimate two-on-two face-off. The rinks are tiny with silly themes, and the rules are way cartoony, so the hits came hard and the points came quickly, similar to the quick and easy Pond Hockey mode in last year’s installment. Still, one pond hockey game shouldn’t be more exhilarating than a full season of regular, hard-hitting hockey, but maybe that’s something to look into next year.
But what are you sitting here reading the Internet? It’s 2008, haven’t you heard? Get in your car, drive to a hockey game, support your local team, and go pay $20 for a deep-fried stadium lunch. Because whatever you do, don’t spend any time on this flabby substitute.