NHL 08 Review (PS2)

American sports games released in the UK like ice hockey, American football and basketball simulations have something of a reputation for being niche titles despite solid game mechanics and impeccable TV-esque presentation especially since the titles in question are usually EA products with just as much attention paid to aesthetics as the gameplay.

Puck control is intuitive thanks to the new Skill Stick system
The action is fast, furious, frenetic and fun

The title in question this time is the annual update in the long-running NHL series (it first made an appearance on the MegaDrive in 1991), which features Carolina Hurricanes centre Eric Staal on the cover and includes all the teams, players and leagues from the 07/08 season.

EA usually link their games with some sort of special new feature with a snazzy name see FIFA 08's new trick system and this new hockey title is no different, with the worldwide games behemoth touting the revamped 'Skill Stick' system that, in theory, binds most of the major controls to the right analogue stick, creating a pleasing fluidity as you stroke the puck around the ice. And you know what, it works.

The simplicity of the new control system also means that it's incredibly intuitive, too, meaning even total hockey novices will only take around half a dozen games to get to grips with the fast-paced action, and more seasoned players will be flicking the puck around the ice and crafting speedy moves up the rink to slash open opposition defences. The left stick controls movement and the right stick, broadly, moves the puck hold L2 and move it to pass, or simply flick it up, down or sideways to produce a variety of different shots, body checks and skilful moves depending on whether your team is in possession. There are also classic controls for the more traditionally-minded that will be familiar to anyone playing the EA Sports range on a regular basis. Circle shoots, X passes, with triangle and square tackling and checking.

There's evidently a big bucket in the NHL 08 production office marked 'innovation' that drains pretty quickly because the Skill Stick system is about the only area of the game where any major differences from last season's update are in evidence. The game modes are still in plentiful supply, with Dynasty mode being, arguably, the main attraction. It's a bit like the ever-popular Master League from Pro Evolution Soccer take over a team and manage their finances, tactics, transfers and on-ice performance to guide them to the Stanley Cup and beyond. Six leagues are available: the NHL and minor American Hockey League, as well as the top divisions from Sweden, Finland, Germany the Czech Republic Europe's big hockey-playing nations.

Cover-star Eric Staal is a Canadian hero who eats beaver and bathes in Maple Syrup. Maybe
Goalkeepers are tough to beat as their padding takes up most of the net

Dynasty mode only lasts ten seasons, though, so you can't really create any sort of team without the end of the game hanging, spectre-like, over your shoulder. Thankfully, there's exhibition games, international tournaments, regular seasons from any of the aforementioned leagues, the NHL playoffs, penalty shoot-outs, multiplayer modes including the frantic 'Free For All', where four players compete to score in the same net and online play available. There's also an improved creation mode where you can mould and craft your own team of hockey-playing hell raisers complete with comedy hair and facial features, naturally to scare any relatively normal-looking teams off the rink.

Graphically and aurally, it's a typically slick EA package, although not far removed from last year's game and understandably lagging behind the next-generation consoles. Every player is accurately modelled, though compare that to Pro Evolution, where you're hard-pressed to pick out a player unless it's a global superstar like Ronaldinho and the rest of the game is pretty impeccable. The arenas you play in are solid, bright and attractive, and the chunky crowd isn't that bad for an ageing machine like PS2. The animation is, also, suitably weighty, providing a real feel of excitement to games. Commentary, too, is excellent, sounding genuinely enthusiastic with the various pre-recorded lines still sounding fresh and spontaneous. There's also a stellar range of chart-topping tunes provided by EA Trax, as usual.

On the ice, it's just as slick and polished. For hockey aficionados there's an extensive range of tactical options so you can alter team line-ups and formations. Whilst these options aren't as deep as those you'll find in sports games like Football Manager, for instance, they'll enable anyone who knows what they're doing to alter squads to their liking. For the majority of the UK crowd, though the ones who know little about the sport like, I confess, me the option is also there to let the game manage things like line-up changes so you can just dive in and play a quick, fast-paced game of hockey. It's a tremendous advert for the sport, with every match serving up excited commentators babbling over frenetic action that's punctuated by hard-hitting, quick-shooting ice dynamos. Realistic or not, it's hugely entertaining and, perhaps, that's what matters here when the game is more important than a sport not followed by too many people on the British side of the Atlantic.

The problem is that it was an excellent advert for the sport last year, too. Apart from the analogue stick control that adds fluidity and speed to the matches, there's not much new, and only really recommendable to die-hard fans who need the latest players or people who haven't bought an NHL game before. If you've already got the last game then purchasing the new one may leave you feeling under whelmed, as it's basically the same underneath.

You're constantly changing your team to suit certain tactics and situations

The game is, in many ways, a typical EA product: the robust engine, entertaining matches, slick presentation and attractive graphics mean that it's a good enough game, but it's punished by the lack of innovation borne out of a corporate culture that demands yearly updates to please shareholders. It'll still sell in huge numbers, especially in North America, and will entertain anyone who picks it up it's just a shame that EA aren't willing to invest more time in an already well-produced game to make it even better.

Top Game Moment:
Putting together a slick, flowing move up the rink as you carve through the opposition defence to win the Stanley Cup the biggest prize in hockey.

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