After playing EA Sports' hockey games for a couple of years, I decided that while I initially enjoyed playing them, the artificial intelligence wasn't sufficiently difficult to sustain a high level of replayability. Enter NHL 08.The designers finally got it right, and playing on the Xbox 360, I'm finding this to be a deep, customizable game. Best of all, the AI in this year's version adjusts to your play, making the game more competitive and realistic.
In past years, I learned to speed-burst my wingers down the boards with the puck, cut across the slot and shoot back from the direction I came to beat the goalie at the side of the net he just vacated by following my movement. Unfortunately, while this move served the purpose of adding to my goal total, it tended to seem like cheating after awhile. It was just too easy.
This year, try that move too often and your forward will find himself scrabbling around on blood-soaked ice looking for his teeth. I managed to get Alex Ovechkin on the injured list inside of three games in dynasty mode after subjecting him to one too many brutal hits by opposing defensemen.
The speed-burst function has been scrapped this year, which gives the game a less arcade-style feel and places more emphasis on strategy, accurate passing and precise shooting.
Another nice addition this year is — I noticed when playing defense — you can knock an opposing attacker off their line by simply running into them (if your defender has enough momentum). You still can use controller commands to issue a bone-jarring hit, but beware: If you go for the knockout blow and miss, you could leave a wide-open swath of ice to your own net.
Game action is smooth, although I found that pushing a shooting button in classic control mode didn't always lead to a player taking a shot, which is definitely an annoying quirk when a defender is about to steal the puck off your player's stick.
If you think of yourself more as a between-the-pipes warrior as opposed to a stick-handling superstar, you can leave the scoring to your skaters and play as the goalie.
There are plenty of controller options to suit individual tastes for controlling the on-ice action. The Skill Stick lets you perform a variety of moves to deke opposing players or, as in my case, you can stick with the old-school button-mashing methodology. So far, I've been playing in Pro mode, which is just the second of four difficulty settings available. Granted, I'm obviously not the best hockey gamer on the planet, but I can't begin to think about playing in the hardest mode until I get much more practice. Fortunately, the game offers a handy practice mode.
For serious gamers who go for more than just on-ice action, NHL 08 also delivers plenty of general manager and coaching options. Rosters and line combinations can be customized; teams, leagues and players created and edited to suit your needs; and even attacking and defensive strategies can be developed in practice mode this year. There also are sliders available to further customize in-game play. These are useful to help ease the jump in difficulty levels, which can prove to be substantial.
A fine soundtrack accompanies many menus, and the in-game announcers do more than just comment on the game, sometimes offering strategic insights into how you might improve. The developers made sure you can hear well-sharpened skate blades carving the ice, bodies slamming the boards and pucks hitting the pipes with a satisfying ping.
Visually, the game is flat-out gorgeous on an HD set. Each rink is beautifully rendered and player likenesses and uniforms are accurately represented. Overall, I have to give props to the developers of NHL 08. Other sports games have taken a step back in what they offer gamers as they create products for the next-gen consoles. But NHL 08 doesn't take shortcuts and is not only a great hockey game, but a development effort that should serve as a model for sports-game developers on how to put together a superior consumer-first product.
For hockey and gaming fans, NHL 08 is a great investment. I also recommend it to gamers who may not have a lot of experience with sports games or are novice hockey enthusiasts. You'll learn a lot about hockey by playing it, while at the same time enjoying one of the best sports sims on the market.