EA Sports hits the ice with its annual hockey game, NHL 08 and we skate with it in our version for the PlayStation 3. EA battles 2K Sports every year for the crown of the best hockey game and the competition seems to be bringing the best out of EA’s hockey franchise and it shows with this year’s version exemplifying the NHL experience.The first thing you’ll notice about NHL 08 is the fact it isn’t a goal fest that you may be used to with more arcade-style hockey game. The goalies are incredibly adapt at defending the net so when a puck does go in, it’s a big deal. This fact alone changes the dynamics of the game since it forces you to take advantage any opportunity you have at scoring and to concentrate on playing a tough defensive game. You can forget about crushing an opponent or making a miracle 5 goal comeback. It isn’t going to happen in NHL 08. Instead, you’ll be scratching and clawing in most of the games. Sure, you might have a laugher once in awhile or get crushed by the CPU opponent but for most part, you can expect your palms to get sweaty as you battle your way through incredibly close games. Here’s a great example when I started a season playing as the home team San Jose Sharks, of course. I’m taking a 1-3 record into Vancouver as I face the always competitive Canucks. With just few games under my belt, I start to get comfortable using the Skill Stick controls (right analog stick) for shooting the puck. The Canucks are not as brutal as some of my earlier opponents but they’re still formidable. I’m up 2 to nil going into the third period but the Canucks score quickly but since I’m playing 5 minute periods, I’m thinking I should be able to hold my one goal lead. Well, so far so good since there’s only 35 seconds left in the game but the Canucks are mounting a furious offensive attack at my end of the rink. I have my defenders clogging the lane but the Canucks manage to hit a slapshot high and into the top left corner of the goal. Ouch!!I resign myself to having to go into overtime but there is still some time left in regulation so I think to myself, “What the hell?” I’ll give it my best shot before going into overtime. Ask any hockey fan and they’ll tell you the most exciting time in any hockey game is the last minute of a close game. I’m able to get a face-off at the Canucks’ end with about 6 seconds left in the game. I win the face-off – the puck flies over to a defender, who’s lined up directly facing the goal, about 30 feet out. I take control of him and let a nice slapshot fly and the pucks finds the top left corner of the goal. Score!! A classic hockey moment and a perfect example of how NHL 08 successfully captures the intensity of professional hockey.Getting into the gameplay – the default setting for aggression is set below the mid-mark so NHL 08 leans more towards finesse right out of the box, which I actually prefer. I’m okay with a more physical game but personally, I prefer hockey to be more about athleticism and skill – not the crew who has more effective goons. When you do try to body check, it’s a bit more difficult to pull off than what you’re probably used to in previous versions of the game. I’m not quite sure why the body-check control doesn’t utilize the Sixaxis motion control since it would have been a natural fit. Instead, it’s mapped to the right analog stick. The newly added one-on-one deke control reinforces the skill type of gameplay since it gives you the ability to completely fake out your opponent. It takes some time to master and you have to time it right, otherwise you’re opponent will cut your maneuver short with a hearty check. NHL 08 comes with a full suite of gameplay sliders so you can tweak the game to your liking so if you want a more aggressive style of game, then go for it. I found the default settings for penalties to be too high resulting in way too many penalties being called. I notched it down to the middle setting and ended up with what I felt was the right balance. There is a robust Dynasty mode, where you play a full season as an NHL team and its minor league AHL affiliate. You can fill the shoes of both the GM and coach so there’s plenty to do if you’re into micro-managing your franchise. There is also an in-depth practice mode, where you can work on your shooting and skating skills. Other features include team and goalie practice as well as a highly intuitive video-based “Create-a-Play” where you literally draw up unique plays by assigning specific routes for all of your team members. This is a great way to set up plays for using in certain game situations such as offensive rush attacks and power plays, just to name a few. This is great for designing plays that use team members as decoys or maybe to bring in multiple shooters to the lane. The cool thing about this feature is the play is automatically triggered when that certain scenario crops up in a game so if you have a three or two man rush attack on offense, the drawn play lines are superimposed on the ice so it’s like your playing on your own virtual coach’s clipboard – a very nice touch.Besides the gameplay itself, the graphics are excellent with the players and rinks having some nice detail. The player’s faces look normal and their animations are exceptional. The rinks are also impressive, especially the little details of flying ice from the skates and the skate marks on the ice itself. It is also nice to see more attention being paid to the rendering of the fans, which complements the realism in the rink. The only blemish I could find with the graphics is some distorted color reflections on the glass from the players’ uniforms when they set up for face-offs near the net. It’s not a major deal but it’s still worth noting. It’s also great to get this level of detail and not experience a hit to the framerate as the game runs as smooth as a freshly Zamboni-groomed rink.The sound is consistent with the visuals so no real complaints from here. I like the small details such as the audible warnings from players when you have too many teammates over the blue line and that you’re close to going offsides. I do wish there was more trash talking from the players and heckling from the fans but I never seem to be satisfied in this department with sports games. On the announcing side, Gary Thorne and Bill Clement do a formidable job in providing an interesting and varied play-by-play and color commentary. Their in-game comments also let you know what you need to work on during the game. All the way around, the sound is what you would expect from a marquee-level sports game. Multiplayer will also keep you busy with its varied offerings – standard team vs. mode, shootout, league play and 3 vs. 3 co-op play. There is also an online league where one person acts as the commissioner and your friends control their own teams. The online gameplay did hit some rough ice, specifically the co-op mode which was an act of futility since I always got disconnected any time I tried to join or create a game. I never had a problem with the straight-up one-on-one games so EA must be having issues with games involving more than two players. The online experience is highly competitive and a blast to play, especially since you get to face a wider variety of playing styles from your different opponents. There is definitely more checking so be prepared to bring your big hitters in since your opponents will not show much mercy. Speaking of mercy, you should also pick a comparable team and don’t forget to set the game to auto-select opponents who have a comparable skill level, otherwise you’ll learn the hard way with a major league thrashing. NHL 08 is a great hockey game and I recommend it to any gamer who wants to get as close as possible to the NHL experience. It has great graphics, exceptional controls and most important, it plays like a real game of hockey.
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.