EA's NHL 07 redefined the hockey genre with one simple feature, the skill stick. Though the game had few modes and several artificial intelligence issues, its star play mechanic worked brilliantly, and created a great rebuilding point for the franchise. As you would expect from a follow-up, NHL 08 takes what 07 did and stacks a bunch of improvements on top of it. The AI has been thoroughly reworked, so it now looks and feels much, much more like the real-life sport. Throw in some balance improvements to the skill stick, a gaggle of new online modes, and an improved dynasty mode, and you've got an all-around great hockey game.
EA-branded hockey takes a big leap forward in NHL 08.
For lack of a better term, NHL 08 is just a smarter game of hockey than 07 was. Pop in 07 for a few minutes before starting in on 08, and you'll see a night-and-day difference between how players behave in each version. For one thing, 08 is a slower-paced game than 07 was, though not to the point of feeling sluggish. Part of that is because the game has done away with speed burst mechanic, and part has to do with skating, which has been redone from the ground up. The momentum of the skaters as they move up and down the ice simply feels more natural and less overblown, and the pacing of the game is much more realistic. On offense and defense, player behavior feels correct in most every situation. Setting up power plays and other elaborate passing schemes is more natural than in any EA hockey game to date. When you push your way into the offensive zone by yourself, the defense doesn't just try to knock you silly every single time. Defenders will actually poke check, try to push you toward the boards, and close the gap to the net. It's like watching real defenders, instead of the robotic hitting machines from earlier EA hockey games. You'll occasionally see some dopey moments where guys on your team skate right past the puck or stand still in front of the net even though they're getting hammered left and right, but these aren't the norm.
Incidentally, it pays to vary up your offense as much as you possibly can this year, because the defense will actually adapt to your plays. If you keep moving to the center of the ice and slapping it in, the AI will react accordingly and start clogging up that area. If you're constantly trying to set up elaborate one-timers, the defense will see it and attack accordingly. The reactions to your repetitive play are almost uncanny. The one goofy thing about this adaptive AI system is that it doesn't differentiate among players and teams; Johnny Oduya is just as capable of figuring out your tendencies as Scott Niedermayer is. While it's better to have everyone be smart versus everyone being an idiot, a bit more differentiation between skill sets would have been nice.
If you find yourself running into trouble, the game is quite good about letting you know what you're doing wrong. Between periods, a screen will pop up telling you what you're doing well and what you need to improve on. Specifically, it'll tell you things like your forechecking needs to improve, or that you're doing a great job of getting shots on net. In another helpful feature, if you're getting too predictable on offense, the commentators will actually point that out. It's subtle, but if you're paying attention to what they're saying, you can get some sound advice.
As far as control goes, the skill stick feels even more refined this year. There aren't any major, game-changing differences to the mechanic, but all told, it just feels smoother in its movements. Goals scored are rarely alike, and it's a thrilling feeling to fake out the goalie and knock the puck in with a few quick flicks of the stick. And though this seems like less a change to the stick and more a change to the goalies, glitched and otherwise wonky-looking goals are much less frequent this year. You'll still see some highly questionable ones on occasion, but there are very few of those weird goals from 07 where the puck would bounce off every body part of the goalie before eventually donking its way in. Now, if EA could just fix it so your stick wouldn't clip through defenders' legs anymoreâ€¦
One specific new feature for offensive controls is loose puck deking. To pull one of these off, you hold down the L1 button/left bumper, and press both analog sticks in the desired direction of the deke. It's a tricky maneuver, as you're basically letting go of the puck and trying to push your skater into exactly the right spot to pick the puck back up once he's past the defender. The timing is tough, and if a defender happens to decide to check you right at the time you're trying to pull this off, you're hosed. Once you get a good handle on the timing, however, the move becomes incredibly effective--maybe even a bit too effective. Fortunately, not every skater can pull these moves off with a deft touch, but if you've got a one-on-one matchup against an opponent who has the timing on these moves down and a good skater holding the puck, watch out.
Defensive controls haven't seen much change, though there are some balance tweaks. The poke check feels a bit more effective this year, though it still looks weird and awkward, and the control mechanic of holding the right bumper/R1 button and swinging with the right stick still feels cumbersome. Checking with the right analog stick is much more understated this year, but that's not to say it isn't effective. You can still wind up for a big hit and send a guy crashing into the boards, provided you can actually time such a hit correctly. But by and large, most checks don't just knock guys silly all the time--and that's a good thing. You'll knock guys off the puck periodically, and sometimes checking won't do anything. Most of all, checking feels balanced. The big grinder types do a lot more damage than the little speed wingers, and that's how it should be. Lastly, the game does feature slightly improved goalie controls that actually make a measure of sense and let you challenge skaters effectively, though this control method still isn't as much fun as 2K's goalie control.
Signing players in dynasty mode actually works correctly now.
One of the big complaints about NHL 07 was that it was a barren wasteland for game modes. It didn't have much of a dynasty mode, and online play was just laggy head-to-head play. Both areas of the game have significantly improved this year. Dynasty mode finally features a realistic negotiation system for signing players, as well as more helpful rookie info and better coaching and management options. The negotiation system addition is a big one, since you can no longer just cherry-pick every free agent player you want. Players will actually take into consideration any offers made by other teams, and they'll take a few days on the calendar to come to a decision. You'll even get rejected for more reasons than simple money issues. Players will actually say they don't think they'll get enough playing time on your squad, which is pretty realistic in the current NHL landscape, where plenty of quality role-players are heading overseas due to the lack of good job opportunities here.