I’m a pretty big hockey fan so it’s inevitable that I try out the latest hockey games every year. I recently did a review on 2K’s NHL 2K8, so it’s only fair that I now take a shot at EA’s NHL 08. Last year, EA turned the hockey gaming world upside down when it introduced the free-form Skill Stick analog controls, tossing aside the button mash up we’ve been used to. The experiment was a success and it helped EA’s NHL franchise overtake 2K Sports’s series so you can be sure that EA was going to stick with a proven success. Well, the button-free Skill Stick controls returns in NHL 08, but with a few new twists.

The right analog stick can now be used to deke around or through an opponent’s legs, adding an additional authentic stick-handling touch. Shooting with the Stick is also more accurate than in NHL 07 so you’ll probably find yourself scoring a bit more. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you do you’ll be skating up the ice pulling off moves that make you look like you’re an old pro. The stick handling compliments EA Canada’s new skating engine extremely well. The skating in this game is the most real and natural yet, as you glide down the ice or charge into the boards for a check your movements are extremely realistic.

The AI has also been tweaked by EA and for the better. You no longer find players moving at the same speed, whether it was a race to a loose puck or they were casually skating up ice. Players now accelerate and decelerate realistically based on the amount of pressure applied to the left analog stick. This allows for far greater control of skaters and drastically cuts down on over-skating dead pucks or speedy wingers you’re trying to cut off from a defensive position. The AI also has the ability to learn a player’s offensive tendencies and adjust on the fly. An example being if a player favors cycling the puck around the perimeter for a long shot, the AI will cut down the passing lanes and force the player to make interior passes. As you play the more difficult settings it will be more evident, where the AI is in top form as it will make the worst team look like Stanley Cup champs.

One thing that can’t be said enough is how gorgeous the game looks. The player models look great, and EA has injected another layer of realism with authentic player clothing tendencies like shirts tucked in, socks up, etc. More importantly the animation set for the players really brings the game to life. Having real looking players doesn’t get you very far if they move like robots and thankfully it couldn’t be farther from the truth in this case. The best representations of player animation are the goalies. The way the protect their goals and move around their area is extremely authentic. Sitting on pucks, kicking pucks away, making glove saves, etc. This is definitely not the games of old.

The Create a Player feature was also upgraded and is a great tool. You can choose to suit up your player with all the latest hockey equipment from Nike/Bauer, Warrior, CCH, Mission and more. All of the major brands are in the game. The customization feature is particularly intriguing as equipment selection will impact a player’s performance on the ice. You can select different stick flexes, stick composites and even the length of skates. For the Create a Goalie feature you can choose your pads and the sizing of them as well.
Best of all you can test them out in a controlled environment to see if your setup is best for your player or go back and edit your choices. Some gamers might feel a little uncomfortable with the blatant advertising, but it all add us for the sake of realism.

You can also Create a Team, from its name and logo to its location. You can also choose the color scheme for your team since the feature employs a palette to alter uniforms expanding the now limitless potential combinations. It’s the little things like the color of the straps on the helmets, to the striping on the socks that makes the customization extremely realistic and enjoyable. You can also stock your newly created team with the roster of your choosing, as long as you stay within the $50 million salary cap the NHL has in place.

One of the biggest joys I got from the game was the additional of the AHL teams. Being a fan of my hometown Binghamton Senators it was great being able to play as them against other teams from the AHL. EA did a great job getting all of the uniforms, as well as the various arenas right. It’s also great hearing announcer Gary Thorne say, Welcome to the Broome County Arena in Binghamton New York as the Binghamton Senators take on the Scranton/Wikes-Barre Penguins. The AHL rosters are also up to date and correct and they allow you to accept players from their NHL affiliates. You can also play as a team from the Swedish and Finnish leagues, as well as any one of a number of International teams. It’s a bit reminiscent of EA’s other title FIFA 08 and its massive number of teams from different countries.

The online feature in NHL 08 is also a big step up. You can have up to three people playing on the same team in co-op, one on one and you can also join massive 32-team online leagues. With the online and all of the other new features it’s safe to say that EA has regained the title as king of NHL games. Overall I’ve been extremely impressed with EA’s latest NHL outing. This is definitely a game I would recommend you buy.