NHL 08 Review

Time for more of that great British sport Ice Hockey. What do you mean you’ve never heard of it? You people are animals. While it may be true that ice hockey is seemingly the reserve of Canadian and American fans, there are plenty of quality leagues worldwide too so the sport is a lot more global than people give it credit for. When people think of ice hockey they think solely of the NHL which is a crying shame as there is a whole world of leagues with people beating ten shades of hell out of each other with sticks. Oh, and playing some hockey too. While the real thing may be a thing of mystery to most of us the NHL series of games has always offered plenty of chances for high octane action, with all the stats and rules that a seasoned pro could want coupled with the ability to turn things into a more arcade experience for novices.

Obviously this is yet another yearly update from the masters of seemingly every sport from across the pond, EA. If you’ve played one of their earlier offerings in the NHL series then you’ll pretty much know what to expect as this is just an upgrade of what has come before with a few minor bells and whistles added on the make for a more enjoyable experience and to justify the price tag. A nice touch is that, for the first time ever, players now have access to the AHL league as well along with leagues from Sweden and Finland. This adds a new depth to proceedings as players can train up and draft players from the AHL and other leagues, or even take over a team in those prospective leagues and battle for glory.

Time for the pools ‘Spot the Puck’ competition.

As with all EA games the wealth of options available on the menus can seem daunting at first, though the Quick Play option for instant fun with yourself and a friend can be enticing just to get a feel for things. You also have access to Dynasty Mode which allows you to take control of your favourite team and lead them to (hopefully) Stanley Cup glory. Of course, if you have a particularly twisted mind you could also take your least favourite team to the depths of despair and trade away all of their best players, it’s entirely your call. Sadly there is no option for a Fantasy Draft (which strangely made it to the PS2 version) so no chance to build an uber-dream team from the ground up. You can skirt around this shortfall by using the ‘create a player’ and team options to build your own squad of heroes should you so desire and then use them to butcher the opposition at will.

As you would expect all of the shirts and players are accurately represented and their skills are carried over from their real life performances accurately. I’m sure NHL fans will have a few minor gripes about players who are better or worse then their real life counterparts but everyone has their own opinion and the teams are a fairly solid depiction. The customisation options on offer are vast too, with you able to tailor a home made player to your hearts content, though actually putting him onto a team can be a fussy process due to squad limits. You’ll often have to go through a very long winded procedure of releasing so many players before drafting the ones you want, then again until the team is just the way you want it. The ability to completely empty a squad’s roster and then hand pick your own replacements would have been a welcome one. You can only tailor the stats for established players too, so any desire you might have had to deface them is sadly destroyed.

The game-play can be as realistic or arcade based as you want it to be, as you can turn off any rules that you can’t get to grips with. If you want to be able to batter your opponents into submission without worrying about fouls and icing calls then you can do, on the other hand you can also play a fully accurate simulation. It’s easy to get the balance right for whatever suits you via the menus and you can tweak most things in game too if you forget something. Obviously it would be a good idea for novices to turn some of the advanced rules off as otherwise you’ll find getting through a single game a very stop start experience as you will be constantly getting penalised for rules you didn’t even know you’d broken. You can also alter the controls to suit your level of expertise too. The ‘Skill Stick’ option allows you to use the right thumbstick to have greater control over the puck, so you can pass, shoot and fake your opponent with the merest twitch. Alternatively you can just switch to classic controls whereby one button will shoot, one will pass and so on. It’s good to have the option as getting used to the default controls can take some time.

This goalie appears to have been hit in the crumple zone.

The computer A.I. on offer is suitably dumb on the easier difficulties and pretty tough on the harder ones, though the goalies seem to be remarkably good no matter what level you are playing at and scoring seems to be more a case of luck than judgement. Take the same shot 10 times and you can guarantee that the goalie will save it nine of them while on the tenth attempt it will mysteriously go in, it’s a bizarre state of affairs and often can lead to just peppering the goal from all angles in a bid to score. Your team also has the frustrating habit of blocking your own shots far too often, as they just stand in front of your route to go goal with no way to shift them. Minor gripes like that aside though your team will do a good job of backing you up when required, though you’ll often find yourself doing a lot of the leg work in defence as they aren’t too quick to make a tackle.

Stepping into the online arena is unwise unless you’ve got a number of games under your belt, as many players have honed their skills on years of NHL games rather than just this one. You can play ranked and unranked and even bring a friend along for the ride should you wish. You also have the option of playing Shoot Out mode with other challenges to see who is the ice cold king of penalty pressure, though it proves to be more of a minor distraction due to the element of luck involved and the fact it can be over in a few shots. Mainly you’ll stick to playing against friends and strangers alike in full games and for the most part things are pretty smooth, as you can bump into people in lobbies or send direct invites to friends and prior opponents. However, while most games are lag free you can run into an annoying glitch that results in play being reset to the last face off every time a certain player touches the puck. It’s a frustrating experience that can only be solved by quitting the game or waiting until the end of the period when the problem sometimes rights itself. It doesn’t happen all of the time but is persistent enough to get on your nerves after the second or third time you run into it.

Sportsmen + aggression + sticks = carnage.

Even with a cursory glance at the game you can tell it’s pretty well polished. The skaters are smooth and they move and handle just like you would expect them to in the real world. I suppose I could complain that the stadiums are completely generic and it’s hard to tell whether you are home or away, but really there is very little you can do to make an ice rink look unique. The ice effects are nice with shavings flying about as you grind to a stand still and little trials showing where you’ve already been. Overall, it’s full of a number of small tweaks from last years offering that make the whole package much more presentable. The commentary on offer is good for the first few games but suffers the bane of all sports games when it starts to repeat and you swiftly get tired of hearing the same stock phrases over and over again. The little musical chants that come from the crowd in game are also churned out far too often to preserve your sanity.

The achievements on offer should pose little challenge for the most part, as you can get most of them by playing with a second controller and then beating up on the second player. The online achievements are a nice change as they reward games played rather than games won, so even poor players will get them eventually. Though whoever thought up the idea of having to beat someone in the top 50 for one hundred points should be given a good seeing to, as they have obviously gotten to that position by being pretty damn good and they are not prone to just roll over and let you win. The penalty shot achievement will also cause a lot of grief as it’s hard enough getting a penalty shot in a full game never mind scoring one.

Repetitive commentary and in game chants that soon begin to grate, I suppose it’s fairly realistic but that doesn’t stop you reaching for the mute button..

Smooth visuals and realistic players mean this is a good looking game, EA have always done their best in terms of rosters and uniforms so everything is up to date and looking good.

A good introduction to ice hockey for anyone that doesn’t have a clue, though whether it will keep you gripped is another matter as the wealth of rules can be off putting. Played as an arcade style sports game though it works a treat..

Nobody does presentation like EA and the menus, rosters and feel of ice hockey are superb. The various leagues and teams are all well catered for and offer anything that a fan could desire...

A very easy list that echoes a lot of the achievements of previous years, but the addition of the ridiculous Tough Competition achievement will mean the full 1000 will elude most people unless you can find someone willing to let you win. A lot more thought needs to start being shown in the future as they don’t seem to have come up with a good list in three attempts.

A very good simulation that can also cater to those people with simpler tastes as well. The online suffers from a few too many bugs that can cripple a game instantly for me to recommend it. Pick this game up if you’re a fan but otherwise you might want to dip your toe in with a rental first.

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