NHL 08 Review (Xbox 360)

Let me get this out of the way up front—NHL 08 is the most fun I’ve had with a sports game in recent memory. It’s not perfect in every area of AI. It’s not the best looking game on the XBox 360. It’s not even the easiest game to just pick up and play. It’s simply an extremely good representation of the NHL that fans see on TV on a daily basis, and the most enjoyable online multiplayer experience that I’ve ever had on the 360.

Many hockey gamers who played NHL 07 last year loved the skill stick, but the framerate and some strange defensive AI behavior held it back from greatness. Pitching the puck back to a defenseman would frequently leave your defender standing around, watching the puck clear out of the zone, forcing you to chase it down. This turned the game into somewhat of a one-timer-fest, since cycling the puck was next to impossible with the defensemen acting like they had no clue that it was their responsibility to stop the puck from clearing. You were forced to plow into the zone, dish it to the slot, and put it on net. It wasn’t the only way to score, but it was by far the most successful. It’s been that way in almost every hockey game ever released.

Thankfully, NHL 08 changes that. Some might argue that it goes the other direction on the default difficulty—to easy to cycle the puck. And while I’m discussing possible negatives, I might as well put them all together. On the default Pro difficulty, you can cycle the puck around at will in a game of full-contact tic-tac-toe, since most players pass high-speed passes with laser-like precision. I don’t review games with slider modifications, so my games have been played on default Pro, All-Star, and Superstar mode. Keep that in mind, as many things that users (including myself) may dislike can be fixed with slider modifications. Defender aggression and penalties are both non-existent on the default difficulty, especially early on in a Dynasty season. A decent joystick jockey can probably win 80% or more of the face offs, and have a three-to-one advantage in time on attack on the default Pro difficulty. That’s not hockey, that’s a controlled clobbering.

The good news is that’s about it on the negatives with regards to actual gameplay...the only other major oddity I've encountered has been strange scoring with regards to wins and losses, particularly overtime loss point totals in dynasty play. If you're incorrectly awarded a point here and there, it can affect the outcome of your season, since you could be credited with several points that you didn't actually earn. In the grand scheme of things, though, I was awarded 4 "unearned" points at the end of a season...so I may have lost a seed or so in the playoff tree, but the effect it actually had on the playoffs was minimal. The minute you take the opening face off and push the puck into the offensive zone, however, you know you’re witnessing something special here. Being a Ducks fan, I was shocked at how similarly the cyber-Ducks behaved. Utilizing the new 1-on-1 deke moves with Teemu Selanne provided numerous highlight-reel goals. You see, this year, EA added a deke mechanism by simply holding a bumper and then maneuvering your left stick for your player control and right stick for puck control. What this allows you to do is actually separate your player from the puck, skate around the defender, and then gather the biscuit up again for a (hopefully) good scoring opportunity.

That being said, the feature certainly isn’t overpowered. It’s more difficult than it would appear to deke a defenseman out of his skates, as the puck will frequently be deflected by a stick or flutter harmlessly into open space, where another defender can scoop it up. And if you attempt the moves with a player not particularly skilled at finessing his way around a defender (I’m looking at you, Todd Bertuzzi), then it could have comically ineffective results. But with Teemu…it’s glorious. Scoring machines like Crosby, Spezza, Staal, and the like will frustrate you if you leave them one on one with defenders very often. Combine the new dekes with a refined skill stick and you’ll get goals that you want to replay again and again.

That’s not to say that the defense is outmatched, however. In NHL 07, playing defense was an exercise in frustration for me. Move your defender the slightest bit, and he would charge a full stride out of position, leaving an easy pass to the slot. Combine that with 30 frames-per-second animation, and sometimes it was a complete game of luck to maintain sound defensive positioning. That’s no longer the case. An all-new skating engine allows you to move six inches or six feet, and 60 frames-per-second animation renders everything with remarkable fluidity. There’s no turbo button in the game (just like last year), so it can really become quite cerebral when attempting to shut down the opposing offense in your own defensive zone. You’ll simply have to maintain area or man responsibility and make sure that you don’t give up an easy shot. You’ve probably read complaints that the computer turns the game into a one-timer extravaganza game after game, but honestly, I haven’t seen that in the least through close to eighty games. If I don’t give up an easy passing lane, then there’s no slot pass to one time. The possible trade off is that you’re not going to be actively pursuing the puck handler, so the fear of facing a barrage of shots while hoping to collect an errant puck comes into play. That’s part of hockey, though. All of which brings me to use of strategies.

The more you play sound defensively in front of your net, the better off you’ll be using the strategy options to control your other four players on the ice. If I’m using Chris Pronger to throw elbows and mash opposing players’ faces into the glass, with a few quick taps of a face button I can tell the rest of my defense to protect the front of the net, aggressively pressure the puck handler, attack the puck side of the ice, etc. I can’t stress enough how much you’ll want to shift strategies based on how you’re personally playing on the ice. Very rarely have I been forced to shift up strategies on the fly, because my offensive attack and defensive plan were hardly ever going to differ from game to game in past versions of video game NHL hockey. Check the puck handler, steal the puck, drive it up ice and try for a one timer or a feat of amazing finger dexterity on the analog stick to beat the goalie.

That’s all changed now. Since I continually use Anaheim examples, I’ll continue the trend: Ryan Getzlaf and Todd Bertuzzi are great at powering the puck through the offensive zone, but not so great with the finesse moves. Scott Niedermayer ALWAYS seems to find his way to the puck first in the defensive zone, and he has another gear that makes him appear to be faster than all the other players around him when trying to reach a puck. Pronger’s poke checks and body checks are almost always spot-on. In short…they play like the Ducks (at least the Ducks of last year with Teemu and Niedermayer still there). Other teams follow suit Detroit plays an up-tempo, attacking style of offense. Ottawa will move the puck around at a blistering pace, while slower, more methodical teams will force you to play patient defense and not give them a clean shot. No two games play out the same, and no two teams perform identically. That’s beautiful.

Rounding out the on-ice changes and things that are of note are saucer passes and dumps. Last year the only way to give the puck to a teammate was to use the R trigger to pass it to him. This year, you could pass it to open space, or even to yourself with a press of a bumper. Getting pressured along the boards in the neutral zone by a defender? Use the saucer pass to flip it up against the boards, skate to the inside and around the defender, and gather up the puck on the other side. You’ll see many moves like this in a real hockey game, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to video games. It’s possible in NHL 08, but still not as easy as it should be…you have to hold the saucer pass a bit too long to really kick it up in that situation with a defender harassing you, so sometimes it’s just easier to dump it in and chase it. The good news there is that your AI teammates are very smart about reaching pucks in the offensive zone, allowing you to play a good dump-and-chase game and really get after a softer team with the forecheck.

All the on-ice gameplay features in the world won’t make a game perfect by themselves, however. A decent player can always find a strategy that will “break” the AI. I remember playing gamers in some past games in online leagues where a fast winger could “cut across” the net and nail an easy goal almost every time. Games always boiled down to “who could get the cut across first”, which wasn’t particularly fun. It even worked against the CPU, as moves like that usually do. Not so in NHL 08. New this year is “AI Learning”, where the CPU will break down your tendencies from game to game, period to period, and even rush to rush. If you find passes to the slot working early on in a game, more often than not you will suddenly find the middle being clogged with bodies as the CPU adjusts to your attack. If you try to blast past the defense with a quick winger over and over, the CPU will get more aggressive with your puck handler, double-teaming him and checking him more and more until you learn to dump it in. The name of the game is mixing up your strategy. A lot of games say it, but very few actually force you to do it to succeed—so much so that at All-Star level or above, you will get absolutely shelled if you don’t adjust your defensive strategy and offensive strategy from rush to rush.

Presentation is very solid, with the audio receiving particularly high marks. The duo of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement returns, and I still believe that it's the best sports commentary in the business. Hockey is a fast-paced sport, and the commentary rarely lags behind the play. You'll have the occasional long-winded diatribe that is quickly followed by "HE SCORRRRES!" about five seconds too late, but overall, the commentary is fantastic. They'll even try to give you tips if you're beating a dead horse with regards to strategy. With the AI learning your tendencies, it can really help the novice player adjust his game for greater success. The graphical presentation is solid, and the animations are great. You'll see checks that can simply force a player to stumble a bit and regain his balance before continuing on toward the puck, for example. What you won't see are players pinning each other up on the boards, fighting for the puck like a real game. To me, though, that's one aspect of the sport that can probably be left out of a video game recreation. What kind of control would you really have over kicking and jabbing at a puck while pinned up along the boards? It's a common outcry from the hockey purists, and I understand where they're coming from...I just also understand why it wouldn't be in a game. But presentation-wise, you'll have everything but real-time stat overlays, particularly in dynasty play. Why EA couldn't simply have a little shot that says how many season goals, assists, and points your player has after scoring a goal in dynasty is beyond me. You'll only get a small stat box that shows who scored the goal and who had the assist(s). It certainly doesn't hurt the enjoyment of the game, but I can remember the days of full stat pop ups mid-game, listing season stats, game stats, and so on. When you're fighting tooth and nail for every goal against the formidable (yet fun) AI, sometimes it's nice to take a breath and admire your accomplishments, even if it's only for a split second.

Speaking of formidable AI, I’ve gotten into a fairly comfortable difficulty range on All-Star now. I fall in the “middle ground” of hockey gamers. I can cycle the puck far too easily on Pro, but Superstar whips my tail. After several games on All-Star, I found a challenging, hard-hitting hockey game without a single slider tweak. Out of curiosity, I even played fifteen games of a dynasty on Pro and was shocked at how much the CPU adjusted. Games from around the tenth game on were getting tougher and tougher. I didn’t have time to play an entire season to find out, but I wasn’t scoring 6 and 7 goals very often, as I did early on in the Pro campaign. The problem I have is that games on All-Star must be played on 10 minute periods, which turns a game into a rather long affair. Realistic? Definitely. But not necessarily what I want when I could knock out two complete games on five minute periods on Pro. There are times when I can sit down and really get into a lengthy war on the ice, but others when I want to knock a quick game out and move on.

This is where I’ll probably get into a little slider adjusting post-review, because “my” perfect difficulty is somewhere between Pro and All-Star. Up the CPU aggression in their own zone a bit more, get them to win face offs more than 20% of the time, and I’d be in heaven. As it is, I’m pretty close already to the perfect hockey game for me offline, and that doesn’t even include the stellar online play. I also haven't had enough time to really dig deep into the contract negotiations, but you have 1 and 2-way contracts this year, as well as the entire AHL farm league. That's right, every AHL player and team is represented in the game, and you can even play those games during your dynasty. I can't tell you how cool it is to play a few AHL games and see an impressive minor leaguer, then (after navigating the menus for about ten minutes trying to figure out how to scratch and dress players) calling him up to the NHL roster and seeing him perform. There really is more depth here than you can imagine for the offline gamer. So much that I couldn't possibly do every little thing that the game has and still get the review out by Halloween. But rest assured, if you love to negotiate contracts and adjust lines, even create your own plays, then NHL 08 allows you to do so. I tend to spend most of my time on the ice and filling obvious holes as far as roster moves go. I work on my strategy and actual on-ice gameplay. I've seen grumblings of curious roster scenarios that aren't accurate, but I'm not familiar with the real-world contract situations enough to really call foul. What is in the game works as it should, and you can make any moves to improve your club that you see fit.

For the first time, EA has included online leagues in their NHL release. The leagues work, the online play is smooth, and it’s incredibly fun. What I have noticed are strange errors where I’d complete one league, and join another. When I played a game, suddenly I was credited with losses in the new league that I hadn’t even played. For example, I completed a league with some friends that had eleven games. I finished the season 11-0, yet when I joined a second league and played one game (of a thirteen game schedule), it showed me with a 1-2 record, with twelve games to go. Odd statistical anomalies like that sound like they’re more and more common, with many people reporting them. That would explain why there’s no real stat tracking of any kind, other than overall gamertag league stat tracking. You don’t have individual player tracking or even playoffs from what I’ve seen. You play the regular season and that’s it. Whoever has the most wins at the end of the season wins. I can’t be certain, though, because in every league I’ve tried, there are still a few users who have yet to complete their season so I haven’t seen it for myself. I’ve seen numerous reports that there are no playoffs, however.

Non-league online play is unbelievable, however. For the first time since Microsoft’s NHL Rivals on the original XBox, six users can connect over XBox Live for some three-on-three hockey action. I can’t tell you how side-splittingly fun this mode is and have it actually sound as fun as it is. If one player on each side plays as the goalie (another new feature that EA has included that is exceptionally fun), it is a laugh riot waiting to happen. Somehow seeing your buddy rushing at you on a breakaway is a pucker-inducing moment that has no peer in the gaming world. Stonewalling said buddy is also a moment that has no equal.

Bottom line—if you play online and like hockey, then NHL 08 has you covered. If you play offline and like hockey, then NHL 08 has you covered. I struggled to find an accurate score for this game. Critics from all over always seem to debate the score the most, and it doesn’t matter which game they’re a fan of. But to me, the score reflects how fun it is. Is it perfect? Of course not. Is it an absolute blast to play, whether it’s online or offline? Absolutely. Every time I place the disc in my Xbox 360, it’s there for a full game or two longer than I intended it to be. It’s a solid recreation of the sport it’s portraying. Teams behave like their real-life counterparts, and the worst part of the game is that the players pass too precisely and the CPU doesn’t pressure you enough in the offensive zone…both of which can be remedied fairly easily. Even if I receive 4 "gift" points by the end of a season, I can't really fault the overall package. I can see it becoming "perfect" to me with a bit more aggression and a bit sloppier passing. NHL 08 is close to the perfect hockey game for me, personally. Very close. When all is said and done, it looks like the NHL, it plays like the NHL, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had with a sports game. To me, that's the textbook definition of greatness when it comes to hockey games (or any game, for that matter).

Let the flaming commence. Direct all hate mail to tcrouch@operationsports.com, or simply call for my head on a platter in the forums for a more entertaining experience!

NHL 08 Score
out of 10