nnovation has become a universal challenge in the video game sports genre. With the addition of the "skill stick" in last years NHL 07, the struggling hockey series by EA Sports was renewed and took a sizeable step forwards in their rivalry with 2K Sports. With the success of last year's campaign, expectations from critics and fans were high, but with the tweaking of game mechanics and the additional game options, these expectations have been far surpassed.
Visually, NHL 08 offers textures and animations that are far superior to its predecessor. Player realism is phenomenal, and a close inspection of the jersey reveals first-rate attention to detail. Though improvements in these areas may be hard to notice initially, after a few moments playing last year's edition, the enhancements become clear. The variety of broadcaster commentary is still limited, and in some cases unchanged from 07. The on-ice environment, however, compensates for this repetitive dialogue.
Veteran players of the series will be excited to hear that Dynasty Mode has returned with increased depth. The inclusion of AHL teams will allow users to take both franchises to their respective cup finals, while maintaining rosters throughout the season. A new feature that I've had a lot of fun with is the ability to "create-a-play." Essentially, you record each player's skating path individually and then combine these paths with the end result being a new play that will automatically be carried out on ice when your players are in the correct positions. Once you've fine tuned your play on the drawing board you're free to try it out on the ice in a multiplicity of practice modes. These new elements, coupled with the options of constructing entirely new teams and players give value to an originally dry offline experience.
A.I. has a more dynamic and personified feel to it this year. Depending on your position on the ice, your teammates respond much more naturally than in previous years. Playing against the computer provides much more of a challenge than it ever has. Instead of trying to run you over, it plays a smart, patient game. If you drive into the slot whenever you get the puck, the A.I. will adapt and close you down. Conversely, moving the puck around on the perimeter will result in the A.I. loading on the pressure to get you out of there.
The biggest complaint from last year was the somewhat rough skating system. Though it sure looked and sounded like hockey â€" in truth it never really felt like hockey. EA has introduced an entirely revamped system that allows for smooth movement across the ice â€" forwards, backwards, and laterally. With the new system in place, players will have few complaints about the game not "feeling like hockey." The skill stick has remained largely untouched, but now allows you to separate puck and player giving room for users to get creative. Though these moves may be hard to execute against an A.I. opponent, I've seen firsthand the devastation that can been unleashed online, with the proper timing.
Though Dynasty mode offers hours of fun for the avid hockey fan, the heart of NHL 08 rests in its online play. Previously, online multiplayer was limited to 1-on-1 matches, ranked or unranked. Significant changes to the EA servers this year now give players the option of playing up to 3-on-3 matches, as well as starting or joining integrated online leagues. Connection issues and lag from last year have also disappeared, providing a seamless online experience to those who desire it. Certainly these new elements add tons of value to the title and will get 2K fans seriously contemplating a migration.
Clearly, EA has improved on what was a breakout year in NHL 07. If you're familiar with the EA Sports series, don't hesitate to pick this game up immediately. If you're a longtime 2K fan, consider at least giving this one a shot. Trust me â€" hockey hasn't been this much fun since 2D.