Reviewed: October 11, 2007
Released: September 11, 2007
I canít believe itís been a year already! Last year I lamented the day when NHL 07 and NHL 2K7 arrived for me to review. I was a bitter ex-hockey fan. I was a hard-core bitter ex-hockey fan. It was mostly due to the player/owner strike of 2005. Even two years after that was settled, I was still ticked off.
But much to my surprise, after playing the latest crop of hockey video games and attending an NHL game in North CarolinaÖ I was back. Make no mistake; I still harbor ill will toward the NHL. It will take a lot more than a good video game and nosebleed seats to win me back. But at least I do care about the sport and even seek out a game on TV when I have time.
So this year when EAís NHL 08 and 2K Sportsí NHL 2K8 arrived I was actually a little excited. Not only to see what improvements were made on already good games, but also to try out the HD graphics on my new PS3 and HDTV.
EA had a good game last year. The graphics were amazing, but the options and overall gameplay wasnít quite up to 2Kís level. It was very close.
This year we find a totally revamped A.I. system. The computer actually learns your playing style and adapts to stop you. This type of system has been tried in other games, including NHL 2K7 and 2K8. EA is the first to really pull it off. I do have certain tendencies while playing a hockey game and the computer actually adjusted its defense to contain my playing style. It is pretty amazing to see, but it can be very frustrating.
The controls have improved slightly. Last year EA introduced the skill stick. Basically the left stick controls the direction of the skater, while the right stick controls the hockey stick. It has been tweaked a little bit and it is an improvement. When you shoot, the AI players will now automatically try to deflect the puck into the goal. Also you can do a Ďslap passí which is basically faking a shot and instead passing to a teammate. Itís pretty natural and easy to master.
When you first start the game there doesnít seem to be anything dramatically different from last year, but take a closer look. The graphics have been improved Ė especially facial textures and a lot of little details. The details really make a difference! Cutscene transitions are smooth and animations are amazingly realistic. It wonít be long before video games look exactly like the real thing. Even the crowd in the stands has improved and looks almost independent of each other. It is much more difficult to find cloned fans.
EA has dramatically improved the number of playable teams to 108 Ė beating 2K8 by 3 teams! NHL 08 includes all 30 NHL teams, the NHL Eastern and Western All-Star teams, all 29 AHL minor league teams, 14 Smliga (Finland) and 12 Elitserien (Sweden) teams, plus 21 International teams. Sounds great, doesnít it? Well, not so fast.
EA did sign an agreement with the PHPA so any AHL player that gives permission to use their name will be accurate in NHL 08. They plan to provide updated rosters online. The AHL logos are authentic but their jerseys are not. The International team jerseys are not correct, and the Sweden and Finland leagues donít have ads on the jerseys.
The inaccuracies are not a big deal I suppose Ė at least they went to the effort to include the teams. But the biggest travesty is once again the complete lack of any classic teams. 2K Hockey kills EA in this area. There is just something incredibly fun about seeing how the 1987 Oilers would do against the 1989 Kings. Gretzky vs Gretzky. Just to play with the 1987 Canada Cup teams would be amazing (the Canada vs Russia final series was arguably the best hockey ever played). Maybe next year.
The dynasty mode has improved as well. You basically are the GM, coach, and players of your chosen NHL team and the minor league AHL club team. You can now play up to 15 years with your team. You can send players down to the minors to improve and call up others. Scouting has improved, and the game will even have the next Gretzky or Lemieux show up every few years. So keep your eyes open so you can trade for the #1 draft pick.
Online play has been revamped. You can now play up to 12 players online (6 on 6) where you select a position and thatís what you play the entire game. (note: on the Xbox 360 you can only play 4 on 4). There are online leagues with up to 32 teams, a shootout mode and you can even play as the goalie. EA really did a great job expanding their online play.
Itís unfortunate that few people own a headset for their PS3. The lack of a headset and the lack of rumble in the SIXAXIS controller really take away from the experience. If someone checks you into the boards, you just expect to feel the controller shake. This certainly isnít a weakness of the game, but it is a system problem.
I thought the graphics in NHL 07 were amazing. EA has actually improved on them! The player models and animations are phenomenal. The faces, uniform textures, skate marks in the iceÖ everything is top notch. The animations are seamless Ė everything flows naturally with the action. Players skate like the real skaters. This is the closest Iíve seen to the real thing.
The arena boards have all kinds of advertising. They even show the scuffs and dents from all the exciting hockey action. Even the fans are more alive and look like individuals Ė itís difficult to find the usual cloned clapping fan. The 35 stadiums are incredibly accurate. All the NHL stadiums are included along with a few generic stadiums to pass for AHL, Sweden, and Finland.
As it was in NHL 07, the ESPN integration has been cut almost completely out of the game. EA does still have a contract with ESPN Ė and you do still get the ESPN Online features like the customizable sports ticker and audio/video clips Ė but there isnít any kind of Sport Center studio or other ESPN branded visuals.
For a game that is so visually stunning, I for one miss the entire ESPN experience. But as you may have heard, after the strike of 2005, ESPN basically told the NHL to take a hike. So they are now relegated to regional Fox Sports Channels, HDNet, and VS. I suppose ESPN doesnít want their name associated in a game that promotes a product they donít broadcast.
The menu system is similar to last year. Crisp and clean with NHL themed backgrounds. If you have a 20Ē or smaller TV you might have trouble reading the text.
Bill Clement and Gary Thorne are the best hockey announcers in the business. While the ESPN integration is limited to the sports ticker, the announcers, stadium noise and fans are the best Iíve heard. The announcers sound exactly like they do during a real NHL game Ė the same intense, exciting play-by-play you can hear every week on TVÖ if you can find a station that carries a game. I actually found myself wondering if EA has somehow sampled actual game sounds to get this level of realism.
The sounds in the arenas are as authentic as being there. The fans even start to boo if you canít seem to get the puck out of your defensive end. Stadiums have different acoustics and the fans in the smaller arenas or international arenas have different chants and other sounds.
EA includes 21 songs from the usual eclectic bunch of bands I have no interest in hearing. Jupiter One, Dustin Kensrue, and The Ponys are just not my type of music, but apparently somebody likes it.
EA really pulled out all the stops to make this the best hockey game on the market. The overall experience of playing NHL 08 has improved greatly. EA really listened to the gamers and fixed problems from last year.
WellÖ almost all the problems. The only thing missing are the classic teams. Even if you have to manually put the player names and numbers in, the classic teams are what makes me come back to play over and over. Yes, you can create a team Ė but not with the correct team name or logo. So there is still room for improvement.
I created a comparison chart between NHL 08 and NHL 2K8. This will make things a little more clear as to where the focus is for each game. (note: this is not an exhaustive list, itís just items I found interesting).
EA added and improved enough things to make NHL 08 my favorite hockey game. EA has the gameplay, 2K has more options. So once again these two games play leapfrog and EA is back in the lead.
Iíve seen quite a few reviews that completely rip on 2Kís NHL 2K8 hockey and sing the praises of EAís NHL 08. The major complaint against 2K seems to be the new control scheme. Which I can agree with Ė but they provide alternate controls and you can even set your own. The major difference is the level of graphic detail.
If you want a fairly basic (but much improved) game with amazing graphics, EAís NHL 08 Hockey is the way to go. 2Kís NHL 2K8 Hockey still has a truckload of options that EA doesnít quite match. We Americans do love our options, and 2K has them. But, EA is getting there quickly. Ultimately, itís about the game, man!
This was a hard decision. It all depends on what kind of gamer and hockey fan you are. The big difference is in the gameplay and the teams. EA has the most accurate hockey gameplay ever. EA has 108 current teams and no classic teams. 2K is not as realistic Ė it has more of an arcade feel Ė and has 42 current teams and 57 classic teams.
While I am starting to enjoy the current NHL games, they just donít match the excitement I felt watching Gretzky, Lemieux, and all the other greats. Iím going to miss my classic teams this year. EA has converted me. The amazing graphics and overall experience earn EA the GCM editorís choice award this year, but they still have room for improvement. If they keep up this level of improvement, NHL 09 is going to be amazing!