NHL 08 Review (Xbox 360)

Last year, EA turned the hockey gaming world upside down when they tossed aside the tried-and-proven face button control scheme for more accessible free-form Skill Stick analog controls in NHL 07 on Xbox 360. Critics and fans unanimously deemed the experiment a success and helped catapult EA’s NHL franchise back on top, much to the chagrin of 2K Sports.

The button-free Skill Stick controls returns in NHL 08 for an encore performance with a few new twists. The right analog stick can now be used to deke around or through an opponents legs adding an additional authentic stick-handling touch. Pulling off this somewhat tricky maneuver to avoid a massive body check is both highly gratifying and the key to creating a clear path to the goal. Once at the goal, shooting with the Stick is more accurate than in NHL 07 resulting in a few more tallies. Even with the revised accuracy, there are still times when shots are muffed or never fired at all due to missing the correct timing by a split second.

EA has also tweaked the physics and AI that hampered NHL 07. Last year, players moved at the same speed whether it was a race to a loose puck or they were casually skating up ice. Players now accelerate and decelerate realistically based on the amount of pressure applied to the left analog stick. This subtle yet crucial control change allows far greater control of skaters and drastically cuts down on over-skating dead pucks or speedy wingers you’re trying to cut off from a defensive position.

The AI has been successfully re-programmed to identify a player’s offensive tendencies and adjust on the fly. For example, if a player favors cycling the puck around the perimeter for a long shot, the AI will seek to cut down the passing lanes and force the player to make interior passes. These adjustments are more evident on the harder difficulty settings where the AI is near-brutal in its approach on both offense and defense, and careful listeners may pick up on some hints to crack a tough defense coming from the announcers.

NHL 08 not only plays better than last year’s version, it looks better, too. EA has injected another layer of realism with authentic player clothing tendencies like shirt tucked, socks up, etc, and combined that with detailed boisterous crowds, deforming ice, and slick player animations that look good up close or from afar. NHL 08 is by far the best looking hockey title EA has released to-date.

Deeper options for more seasoned NHL fans include robust create-a-player and create-a-team mode, online games allowing up to 3 human players to play on the same team, and massive 32-team online leagues. Player customization within the create-a-player mode is particularly intriguing as equipment selection will impact a player’s performance on the ice. Casual gamers will never need to delve into this tool, but hardcore NHL enthusiasts will take great pride in selecting different stick flexes and testing them out in a controlled environment to see if their slapshot speed improves.

Above all, NHL 08 can be both fun at the lower difficulty levels and extremely challenging when the AI is cranked up a few notches ” thanks to the improved Skill Stick and skating physics. This makes the game even more accessible than last year’s version, which is saying a lot. Toss in a sparkling presentation and it’s hard not to recommend anyone take a run at EA’s pixilated Stanley Cup this year.

– Dan Bradley

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