Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Reviews for Men: Finally, EA's NHL franchise scores again

NHL 08
EA Sports

Graphics: 10
Gameplay: 9
Options: 8
Season mode: 9
Multiplayer: 9
Difficulty: 7
Fun: 9
Overall: 8.7

Where would we be without EA Sports?

It’s the standard. Ever since John Madden slapped his name on a football game and trashy, trashy Sega released the glitchy but fun NHL Hockey in the early 1990s, our generation of sports-loving gamers has been tickled pink.

For the most part, EA built and sustained a tradition of excellence and made itself the measuring stick for pretty much all sports games. Think All-Pro Football holds a candle to Madden? Euwww.

But something went wrong with hockey over the last few years. The NHL franchise was as good as gold for about 10 seasons, offering easy controls and smooth, fast, yet fairly believable gameplay. Then everything went south. After NHL 2004, which many purists believe was the pinnacle of hockey gaming due to its realistic physics, EA seemingly gave up on hockey.

Was it the lockout? Did EA just pass the hockey programming onto Doug, the computer programming-school drop out from Santa Monica who spent most of his time playing Halo 2? The NHL franchise went totally arcade on us. Suddenly Hal Gill could make tape-to-tape, blueline-to-blueline lead passes and Maxim Afinogenov could toss Chris Pronger into the boards like a rag doll. If that high-flying, NBA Jam-esque hockey action wasn’t enough, there were the mini games, featuring the likes of “EA Sports free-for-all.” It was a glorified version of Hog, and admittedly it was kind of fun. Still, EA was looking frighteningly similar to the 2K franchise.

What the hell happened?

In a way, Gary Bettman happened. His push to make hockey more appealing south of the border spilled into the video game realm. Maybe a realistic hockey simulation bored the Yanks as much as the live version did.

Whatever the reasons behind the EA’s recent hockey shittiness were, we need not worry anymore. NHL 08 puts the NHL back in NHL…or….puts the….well, you get it. The game is friggin’ good. It’ll please the feces out of hockey purists but still packs enough “zap!” “pow!” arcad-y modes to stimulate the “I can’t see the puck” fake hockey fan contingent.

Keep in mind, I’m referring to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions. It’s an unwritten rule that when the newest of the new console starts releasing second and third editions of sports games, the programmers mail it in on the old console. So don’t be surprised if NHL 08 on PS2 is just NHL 07 with new rosters and another cheap analog stick gimmick like “New! EA Sports Call for the Pass Control.”

NHL 08’s graphics obviously don’t disappoint. The cut sequences are amazingly detailed; the camera tricks include pan shots and focus shifts so realistic you’d swear a real camera man was working the game. The in-game graphics are also silky smooth – especially with the tight angles for shootout mode – without treading into that “too smooth” territory that makes every guy fly around the screen as like a fairy (see: Madden 08). Not surprisingly, NHL 08 dominates its competition in player face recognition. Art imitates life; real hockey broadcasts give you more isolation shots than NFL broadcasts, and we can see players’ faces much easier, so NHL 08 players naturally look like the real deal.

The controller layout polarized NHL franchise fans last year; some liked to pass, shoot, deke and hit with the same analog stick and some hated it. Thankfully, the hybrid control lets you use classic mode – good old fashioned button mashing – and the new stick at the same time. You can use buttons to pass and shoot but deke with the right stick. Pretty cool, and it gives you unprecedented control of your player.

Complementing the improved controls is the best, most realistic gameplay in years. For one, speed burst is out. Daniel Briere will blow by people with his natural speed while Wade Belak will lumber about like a Brachiosaurus…and there’s nothing you (or the Leafs) can do about it. Hitting ain’t easy anymore. You can’t just touch any skater and send him sprawling across the screen; you have to line him up. And while runts like Martin St. Louis can still throw hits, they bump guys away from the puck without knocking them down.

The hitting really seems to divide the purists and new-agers. I, for one, am a purist; I walked uphill in the snow to my grandad’s cabin and played NHL ’94 between firewood-chopping sessions, so I think the new hitting is amazing. Others I’ve talked with say their only complaint is “it’s so hard to hit guys now.” Suck it up, babies. Go watch Mystery, Alaska and play Wayne Gretzky 3-D hockey.

One-timers are back. They’re no longer impossible to pull off a-la-NHL 07, though we haven’t returned to the “every one-timer goes in” age either. Why? Because the goaltending is actually good. Netminders are no longer dead to the world after making the first save or going down; they recover to slide across the crease and make big stops. Your first few games will be filled with “OHHHH” moments as goalies stop shots you expect to go in. You can still score on one-timers, but the play has to be well-executed.

Another thing EA finally got right: the power play. Gamers weren’t used to penalties actually hurting. Usually, a five-minute boarding major against you meant “Sweet. The clock slows down for five minutes. I’ll steal the puck from the D and score five shorthanded goals.” Now, because the game allows for real power-play puck movement, killing off penalties becomes important. Egads – the defencemen actually keep the puck in at the point! You can cycle the puck like never before in the corners and actually use the open ice to set up a cross-crease pass or one-timer from the point. Badass.

Fighting leaves a bit to be desired. You throw seemingly unlimited bombs back and forth and, while that does sound a lot like real hockey fighting, it isn’t. Instead, your guys stand there, bolted to the ice, popping each other in the face like Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots. It’s cool that you can angle the right stick to throw different types punches, like in EA Sports Fight Night, but overall the fighting just doesn’t work.

With the controls returning to their formerly easy-to-master mode, multiplayer rocks. You can pick up the controller layout and play high-quality hockey against a bud within minutes of cracking open the game. Co-op mode is cool, too, if you can handle your buddy constantly going offside, throwing the puck to the other team when he controls the goalie, and trying a nifty drop pass to you when he’s on a breakaway. Seriously, though, it’s really fun if you need a bigger challenge.

“Are the franchise mode and off-season mode good?” essentially means “Are they anything like the Madden franchise mode?” NHL’s dynasty mode still doesn’t measure up to Madden, but it’s getting closer. The salary cap matters, players mull over offers from multiple teams, and the scouting is neato – you can send your scouts to different countries during the season and have them peek at prospects in advance.

The minor-league system is also vastly improved, giving you full control over American Hockey League affiliates. You can play as your team’s affiliate, develop players on the farm or send Andrew Raycro – er, struggling guys down to hone their skills.

The NHL franchise doesn’t pride itself on difficulty; it never had an answer to All-Madden. But thanks to better goaltending, tougher hitting physics, and “AI learning,” which apparently makes the computer adapt to you if you keep trying the same old crap, the game is tough enough to give you your money’s worth.

Thanks, EA. You finally got off your asses and gave us the game we’ve been waiting for. Here’s hoping you don’t mail it in until Xbox 720 or PS4 comes out.

-- M.L.

1 comment:

malcolm said...

Couldn't agree more; what a great game.

The AHL rosters are kinda weak, though. I've got no Carey Price -- what the hell?

But yeah, great game.