July 6, 2007 - For over a decade and a half now EA's NHL series has brought the fastest, purest, most intense puck experience imaginable on home consoles. The series began with NHL Hockey in 1991, and with every iteration the franchise has grown in both gameplay and visual realism. Now that we're entering the HD era, all eyes are on the NHL vs. 2K rivalry to see which hockey source has what it takes to achieve true realism. E3 is on the horizon, and while we can't give you our final say on the [Register or Login to view links] vs. 2K8 grudge match, we can confidently and irrevocably state that NHL 08 is the more realistic hockey experience we've ever played, period.
Interestingly enough, NHL 08 isn't the end-all, be-all of iteration of the hottest sport on ice because of its visuals alone. Don't get us wrong, NHL looks amazing, and anyone owning a HD set will know where your hard-earned cash went when you see cover-man Eric Staal step onto the ice. NHL goes beyond that this year though, offering true gameplay progression that doesn't just add new modes or slap a new play style onto the back of the box, but truly gives the game a next generation feel in skating, playmaking, improvisation, and flow; all key elements of the greatest game on earth. NHL not only looks the part this year, but it truly feels the part as well.
During our Pre-E3 hands-on with the game we had a chance to take NHL 08 for a full spin. Last time on the ice, it was about seeing the new Skill Stick and overhauled skating motion in action. This time around, however, we had a chance to try it for ourselves. For starters, the skating in NHL 08 feels nothing short of outstanding, and we truly mean that. Even with the puck out of play during a practice session we enjoyed gliding between the blue lines, making full use of the new "true analog" control of 08. Hardcore EA hockey fans know that before 08 skating has basically been a stop/go effort. If you press forward, you go, let go, and you stop. Sure there was acceleration and top speed differences between skaters, but aside from the stroke-to-stroke feel you got when digging each skate into the ice it was generally a pretty uninspired experience until you got teammates and defenders on the ice.
This time around, skating is totally analog, and it feels great. Press a little on the stick and your player will make half pushes with his primary foot. Press a bit farther, and you'll see him step more often, spending less time coasting and eventually switching from foot to foot in order to gain speed. Test the stick's limits all the way, and he breaks into a dead sprint, digging hard into the ice with defined strokes and a bit less straight-on maneuverability. Once you get a feel for the actual skating, it's all about combining quarter circles or slight turns on the analog stick to send your player into crossovers, turning him around for defensive strafing, or doing hard turns or hockey stops to spray up ice. It sounds silly now, but when you get onto the ice you'll feel it, and when you're staring at Mr. Scott Niedermayer barreling at you at 100 miles an hour you'll be glad you have the precision you do.
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NHL looks, feels, and acts the part.
To team with the revamped skating - which, by the way, was worth every penny EA spent in development - NHL 08 makes use of a fully-expanded Skill Stick. Fans of 07 know "the stick" extremely well, as it absolutely made last year's experience. This time around, the stick is now entirely analog as well, so you can literally move the puck around you in full circles or slightly push it out to one side rather than shoving it at stick's length away from your skates. To make both the skating and stick-handling experience user-friendly EA has included what they call "Controller Visualization," which is a form of on-screen user feedback that shows two small analog circles in the bottom right of your screen. When making your move, you'll see dots slide around the two circles to show exactly what motion you're inputting. It's a small addition, but it definitely helps tune yourself to the full analog feel that NHL 08 now offers.
In addition to the Still Stick NHL has also included an extremely vital addition to stick handling this year. With the press of the left bumper (or L1 on PS3) you'll actually free the puck as its own physics object, separating it from your character entirely. Combining the Skill Stick with that button you can now fling the puck in specific directions, so should a defender have you lined up you can free the puck to one side, skate around him on the other, and then rejoin with the puck after successfully parrying his check. When used with team play, simply push in front of a teammate or cross in front of a winger and dump the puck to them nonchalantly. It won't look like an official "pass" play, but it'll confuse the hell out of any human player.
Of course if you've been keeping up with NHL 08 this is all old news, right? After all, we knew skating was going to feel better, and having seen the new Skill Stick in action we knew it'd be an impressive tool to use on the ice. Well, now it's on the good stuff, as EA showed off more than just the basic control options this time around. Included in this year's NHL game is one of the best single improvements we've seen in a hockey game in years, and we're sure it's going to change the way people play videogame hockey forever. Enter the new create-a-play system from EA; a fully-functional, ultra-intuitive play creation mode where you take control of the coach and create entirely new attacks for your team's offensive catalog. Just as interesting as the mode itself, however, is the actual way you do it.