NHL 08 (Xbox 360)
If you're a sports gamer, there are times when you have to accept a game's flaws -- times when realism and authenticity take a backseat to pure entertainment value. No sports game in recent memory encapsulates this philosophy better than NHL 08 from EA Sports. It's easy to pick this game apart, jabbing at its lack of ultra-realistic hockey gameplay, but in the end it's just so much fun to play that its flaws, while important to discuss, just don't matter in the grand scheme of things.
The Skill Stick is what drives the game. This feature allows you to use the right analog stick on the Xbox 360 controller to position and fire the puck at the goalie. You simply move the stick in a back and forth motion to shoot the puck; pulling back winds up the shot, and pushing forward unleashes it. EA Sports continues to push right analog stick control in its entire line of games from its FIFA to NBA Live series, but it works extremely well in NHL 08. It feels natural and is a huge reason why the game is so much fun to play.
Of course, the Skill Stick was first introduced in NHL 07, and while it was a fantastic innovation last year, the game that surrounded it was its downfall. That isn't the case this year, as NHL 08 has a sound structure built around it, allowing you to enjoy the entire game and not just the nifty shooting mechanic.
It starts with the game's artificial intelligence (AI). The NHL series has never been known for its brilliant computer AI, but NHL 08 bucks the trend; the computer opponent looks for open passing lanes, fires off shots on goal when given the chance, and even plays positional defense, something that has always been a problem with this franchise. Games against the computer are fun, competitive, and fluid -- the usual repetitive rut we've come to expect with EA Sports games is nowhere to be found here.
Perhaps most surprising is the level of goal variety built into the design. In the past, there were only a few ways in which you could score (one-timers and wraparounds being the most common methods), but in NHL 08, every shot at least has a chance of tickling the twine. It doesn't come off feeling scripted, which adds to the replay value. You're likely to see rebounds, five-hole goals, goals that go in off a goalie's pad or skate, deflection goals, goals from the blue line -- you name it.
As we mentioned earlier, it's easy to pick the game apart in terms of realism, but there are some important issues that need to be addressed in future versions. Passing is still far too accurate; it's easy, regardless of which player you are controlling, to wrist-off perfect tape-to-tape passes that are never off target. This makes the game less defensive, particularly in between the blue lines, than it should be, which leads to fast-break hockey rather than a game with any real resemblance to the modern NHL.
Line changes are also a problem. You cannot issue separate line changes for forwards and defensemen, which is a staple in other games like 2K's NHL 2K series. In addition, you can't readily see a line's fatigue level, so it almost forces you to trust the AI and set the line changes to automatic.
The game's online component, while improved, still needs further development. Playing against a buddy over Xbox Live is a blast, no doubt about it, but the new league functionality leaves a lot to be desired. There are no play-offs in the league setup. The season just...ends. Honestly, what is the point of having a league if you just play the games and then crown a champion? Still, playing the game itself is great over Xbox Live, and while there's nothing stopping you from forming your own league and doing some of the work manually, EA Sports needs to step up and provide a real structure to its league system.
The same can be said for franchise mode, which works, but remains way behind the NHL 2K series. The franchise mode is basically the same as it was last year, and lacks a lot of the bells and whistles that are in 2K's game, like the rules for the Collective Bargaining Agreement, team and player morale, realistic free agency, etc.
Quibbles aside, NHL 08 is a must-buy simply because of its unabashed fun factor. It's a joy to play, and when you add its first-rate gameplay to its fantastic graphics and play-by-play commentary that sucks you into the action like no other hockey game before it, you have a recipe for a sports gaming classic. So while EA Sports clearly has some areas that need to be tweaked and polished a bit, the company can finally claim that, for the first time in years, it has produced a brilliant hockey videogame.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by Crispy Gamer.