NHL 08 Preview
EA has recently come under fire for not producing big enough upgrades to their long-running franchises, like Madden, NBA Live, and NHL, but perhaps they're stepping things up for 2008. Madden NFL 08, despite suffering from an inferior PS3 version, did make significant strides from last year's installment, and NHL 08 is also shaping up nicely. More information and details have come to light regarding the latest hockey entry from EA Sports, and even if you aren't a fan of the puck-on-the-ice, this one might appeal to any avid gamer. We're looking at serious enhancements for the AI, added gameplay depth, and overall extra freedom and customization. Now, if that's not enough to entice you, you're simply not interested in sports games, nor do you care much about simulated realism in your virtual interactions.
First up is the growth of that very cool Skill Stick from last year; it's back, but this time around, the developers have worked to flesh out the concept. You'll have access to one-on-one deke moves, which are executed by using the L1/R1 buttons and then tapping the analog in the direction you'd like to go with the puck. Now, you'll likely risk losing control of the puck if you abuse your newfound ability, but you can also juke an opponent right out of his skates if the deke is performed correctly. Success will depend heavily on player position from both the aggressor and defender, so if you fail at an attempt, you need to look back and take stock: what did you do wrong? Why didn't that one particular deke maneuver work in this situation? The more you do that, the more you will devise a strategy for dealing with pesky opponents who play you super-tight, and the more you will leave them behind in a flurry of ice chips. Sweet moves for sweet replays!
But that's hardly the most important upgrade you'll find in NHL 08. That lame AI from last year's production was the crux of many complaints, and thankfully, EA has heard and processed the negative feedback: no more abusing the same style of play to get yourself easy goals. Over-aggressive play on defense won't always yield big dividends. Using only your favorite player without ever switching to another isn't advisable. In other words, if you decide to play this game the same way you played Blades of Steel or the early NHL installments back in the 16-bit era, you won't get very far. What, you think you'll just magically create breakaway after breakaway? You think the puck will somehow slip by a braindead goalie who's looking the other way? Sure, your opponents will make mistakes, but at least you won't be able to take advantage of poor programming that makes the game comically easy.
You'll have to actually develop offensive game plans that require precision passing, taking defensemen out of position, and a variety of shots on goal. Because you won't be able to net an easy score on breakaways all day long, you'll have to set up an offense that might actually mirror that of a real-life hockey team. That's right, team play will be a requirement in the face of this ramped up artificial intelligence. Furthermore, you can deke and pass all you want, but if you keep repeating the same tactic over and over, the AI will pick up on that and adapt accordingly. If you're making a lot of long passes back and forth across the ice, the other team might fall back into a zone in an attempt to pick them off "in transit." If one of your stars is lighting things up, he might soon find himself looking down the business end of a double-team. And it doesn't end there, either; the AI will also recognize specific game situations- power plays, time running out with a certain number of timeouts left, yanking the goalie for a 6-man attack, etc. Overall, this appears to be one sports title that won't give anything away.
But what to do? It's not easy to just design offensive plays on the fly. However, you will get a good bit of assistance in this capacity, as EA will be providing the gamer with an easy-to-access "Create-a-Play" system. And while it should be simple to understand, the number of options available to you is truly impressive. Not only can you select the players, position, and style (3-man rush, for example) for the play, but you can also test it out before attempting it in an actual game situation. Furthermore, you'll even be able to adjust the speed and timing of the passing and shooting, which means you have full control of even the most intricate details. Just imagine the possibilities! If you're finding a defense particularly tricky to counter, perhaps you should get into the "Create-a-Play" editor and go to work; if you can manage to produce a few effective designs, your offensive potency will greatly increase. Remember, this is supposed to be a simulator, so the more customizable the gameplay is, the better.
With everything from umbrella powerplays to overloads to rushes, you'll be able to formulate specialized strategies for multiple scenarios. And lastly, each setup allows for more than one starting formation, which means certain plays can be implemented from different team arrangements. Obviously, this kind of system is extremely deep and complex, which means those faint-of-heart arcade sports fans need not apply. At the same time, you shouldn't expect the game to consist only of a myriad of grids and diagrams on the ice- above all else, hockey remains a fast and furious sport. There's no doubt that EA should also include smooth and engaging action in addition to the aforementioned depth, so no worries. If they can successfully blend the fast-paced appeal of the sport with all its inherent complexity, than we should be looking at a truly complete title.
NHL 08 is scheduled to arrive in stores on September 11, and we're greatly looking forward to seeing if EA can deliver the goods.
8/20/2007 Ben Dutka