NHL 2K8 Review (Xbox 360)

When the NHL came back from the lockout that very well could have delivered the death blow to the struggling league, they decided to open up the action on the ice in hopes of capturing the attention of the typical A.D.D. sports fan. Through a series of new rule changes and long overdue enforcement of others, the league is attempting to take hockey off of the boards and out of the hands of the grinders and give it to the high flying skilled players. Wide open ice with room to move, long passes, breakaways, even shootouts were all brought into the NHL arenas all over North America trying to win back the affection of the fans that they had lost, and to attract a new generation of followers.

While many will argue that the changes were a necessary move to compete for the attention of the modern sports fan, some hockey purists will tell you that the old product wasn’t broken and any attempts to fix it were just change for the sake of change.

In one of the most truly competitive battles in the sports gaming world, the two major contenders for the sports gamer’s hockey dollar has become a knock down, back and forth battle. While no one would argue the series from EA dominated the ice in the early years, the last half a decade has seen amazing releases from the team over at 2K Sports in their NHL 2K series. Last season saw the team at EA drop the gloves and really reenter the game with a strong release that included their universally-applauded Shot Stick. The gap was narrowing between the two competitors once again, and the folks at 2K would need to respond.

The first thing that you’ll notice when you break the seal on NHL 2K8 is, in fact, their response to the Shot Stick and other changes EA has made. This season, they introduced a completely overhauled control system featuring their new Pro Stick. The new controls are daunting at first, even for the most hardened sports gamer. There are really no buttons left unpressed, or analog sticks left at center while trying to master this new system. Unlike what the competition brought to the table, the new control system is not as centered on the right stick as you would think. Bumpers and triggers are necessary for most of the passing and shooting in the game, creating a pretty steep learning curve to perfecting your offense.

While I certainly appreciate the challenge and the fact that I have to work a little to get better, some of the decisions just feel unnatural and cumbersome at times. It smacks of being different simply to be different. It’s almost as if the decision was made to stay off the stick because that’s what the other guys are doing and then get away from the face buttons because it’s been done. These are decisions that truly hurt my overall enjoyment of this game.

While you’re on the frozen floor, you’ll notice even more of NHL 2K8’s changes for the new season. For the first time, you’ll really see a lot more real-life personality on the ice. Finesse players behave like finesse players, while the more rough and tumble boys play their game. You can actually feel the difference in controlling a Sidney Crosby versus a Todd Bertuzzi. Player differentiation was a big point of effort in NHL 2K8 and it shows on the ice. Player’s physically look and perform like they should. From the equipment on their bodies to the decisions that they make, it’s easy to feel the difference in style and competition depending on the line match-up. This creates some of the better in-game AI that we’ve seen in recent sports gaming. Because players play their game, you get a natural feel and accurate representation of the ebb and flow of a professional hockey game.

For the most part, teams do play a realistic style and the game does well in actually running plays and staying within the system that it’s trying to reproduce. Though the spacing, especially during the power play/penalty kill sometimes seems a little off; you’re able to effectively run an offense with some practice. I still think there are a few too many breakaways compared to the real NHL, but a lot of that can be neutralized through smarter play and use of the improved checking system. While the big hits are still there, especially along the boards, open ice hitting is a total risk and reward proposition this year. Smart players will use the check far less often and instead concentrate more on positioning and use of the poke check system that has been reworked and improved in NHL 2K8. Smart hockey wins, as it should be.

Second only to the new control scheme, the most sizable tweaks and enhancements were made to the Franchise Mode in NHL 2K8. Gone are the days of simply setting lines and signing Free Agents. This mode takes the world of the NHL and creates a depth that is rarely seen outside of today’s text-based simulations. You’ll find yourself in constant contact with your owner and players throughout your career, making daily decisions that impact your club. How hard you’re working your players, who’s getting playing time and the results on the ice are just a few examples of things that will affect your team now and in the future. Overwork a player and you could see his stats decrease drastically. Treat them right and they’ll respond on the ice and in the negotiation room. Contract negotiations have really become a focus and, in a way, a mini-game within the Franchise mode. This adds a level of depth to the financial side of the mode that you normally will not find on the console.

That’s not to say that the mode is perfect. There are some strange things that take place that really go against the whole concept of an accurate simulation. Simply the ability to refuse to take your owner’s emails seems like a good way to get yourself a spot in the unemployment line and not very realistic. Still, all in all, you’re looking at the most complete Franchise system that we’ve seen from this series and, arguably, the deepest on the console market.

The presentation in NHL 2K8 has greatly improved as well. While a toned down version of the Cinemotion presentation style is back (but turned off by default), I really love the TV-style presentation that I saw this year. The play-by-play is really, really well done and does a great job of following the action, even as quick-hitting as the NHL can be. Statistical overlays are plentiful, and the replays work well during the stoppages. The between-period updates run a reel of highlights from the previous period while you get a take on what you did right and wrong during the previous 20 minutes. This is the type of non-stop presentation that every game developer should be using as the model for their own games. There has not been a moment that I was playing that I wished I was seeing or hearing something that I wasn’t. Sadly, that’s not the norm in today’s sports gaming market.

When the game is over and they bring the Zambonis out, what do we really have with NHL 2K8? It’s a game that took really solid steps forward in many different areas. The player differentiation has a look and a feel that is unlike what we’ve seen in the past. The presentation has been ramped up and is better than what you’d find on a real NHL broadcast (if you can find one). And the Franchise Mode has become one of the deepest in sports gaming today. Those are huge steps forward for a game to make during a single development period.

Unfortunately, NHL 2K8 made a decision to make a change that, to many people, undid all the good that they had done in other areas. The new controls make it hard to appreciate all of the strides the game has made in other facets. While they may feel fresh and natural for some, I found them clunky and even illogical at times. I think changes were made for the sake of change and decisions were made just to be different and new. New isn’t always better. Different isn’t always good. And, for all the good that is done, one bad decision can set you back.

NHL 2K8 Score
out of 10