New NHL 08 hands-on preview

Posted July 7th, 2007 at 5:28 am
Eric Staal NHL 08

Back when I had an opportunity to visit the EA Canada studio and get an early look at a few upcoming games, the most obvious thing was when I saw NHL 08 was that graphically it looked fantastic. We've since seen that reinforced with the screenshots that have been released. We weren't able to actually play it at that time, however the new aspects for this year that were demoed were very encouraging.

IGN had the chance to get hands-on with NHL 08 and posted up an enthusiastic preview. I've pulled some of the key points out below, and you can check it out in its entirety here. Also they have added a bunch of new screenshots which can be found here.

Included in this year's NHL game is one of the best single improvements we've seen in a hockey game in years, and we're sure it's going to change the way people play videogame hockey forever. Enter the new create-a-play system from EA; a fully-functional, ultra-intuitive play creation mode where you take control of the coach and create entirely new attacks for your team's offensive catalog.

In EA's new create-a-play mode, you'll have the opportunity to literally dive into the world of a true hockey player. Up until now console hockey inevitably comes down to the strength of one player, and never really relies on the team effort. Of course hardcore players know how to crash the net, change pressure options, call out specific power play strategies, and use teams to their true advantages, but there's never been a fully-functioning creation tool to literally make entirely new offenses. This year's create-a-play tool does it though, putting you in control of every player on the ice.

Once inside the tool, simply select a play type and entry point for your player. Once there, you'll work inside of what feels like an instant replay camera frozen in time, and actually see each of your five teammates frozen on the ice with yellow "starting point" circles around them. Each circle is about a yard in diameter, and acts as the starting zone that the AI will skate to in the event of a called play.

From there, you take control of each of the skaters one by one, hit the "action" button, and skate the desired route. As you do, a blue coach's marker (designed to look like a dry erase pen) will trace your move. When done, hit the stop button, and select your next player. This time when you hit the action button your pre-made path will be ran by the other player, and you'll in turn act out the selected teammate's path in real time. Continue this with all five of your players, and you've got full team orchestration for your play. If you want to change any character's path, simply select that player, and "re-shoot" it. All the while you'll see the on-screen blue marker showing the paths, making it extremely simply to tell what each player will be doing once the play is initiated.

The most impressive aspect of this mode though is its execution in-game. Calling a play isn't handled with a button combination or buried in some pause menu; it happens live. To initiate a play, simply enter into the attacking zone with your lead player in the predetermined spot you designed, and your AI will fall in line. With the dozens of entry points and play types to choose from (obviously plays change when in different modes, such as behind the net or crash the net), you've got a huge playbook of an estimated 45+ plays you can run. Of course all these are pre-set with your team's playbook, so if you only want to customize a few go-to plays and keep the rest as is you can do that too.

We do know that at this point you won't be able to use custom create-a-plays online (something that EA begrudgingly stated "wait until next year" about), as the team is working full-force to get create-a-play as in-depth as possible this year.

The skating in NHL 08 feels nothing short of outstanding, and we truly mean that. Even with the puck out of play during a practice session we enjoyed gliding between the blue lines, making full use of the new "true analog" control of 08.

Hardcore EA hockey fans know that before 08 skating has basically been a stop/go effort. If you press forward, you go, let go, and you stop. Sure there was acceleration and top speed differences between skaters, but aside from the stroke-to-stroke feel you got when digging each skate into the ice it was generally a pretty uninspired experience until you got teammates and defenders on the ice.  This time around, skating is totally analog, and it feels great. Press a little on the stick and your player will make half pushes with his primary foot. Press a bit farther, and you'll see him step more often, spending less time coasting and eventually switching from foot to foot in order to gain speed. Test the stick's limits all the way, and he breaks into a dead sprint, digging hard into the ice with defined strokes and a bit less straight-on maneuverability. Once you get a feel for the actual skating, it's all about combining quarter circles or slight turns on the analog stick to send your player into crossovers, turning him around for defensive strafing, or doing hard turns or hockey stops to spray up ice.

NHL 08 makes use of a fully-expanded Skill Stick. Fans of 07 know "the stick" extremely well, as it absolutely made last year's experience. This time around, the stick is now entirely analog as well, so you can literally move the puck around you in full circles or slightly push it out to one side rather than shoving it at stick's length away from your skates. To make both the skating and stick-handling experience user-friendly EA has included what they call "Controller Visualization," which is a form of on-screen user feedback that shows two small analog circles in the bottom right of your screen. When making your move, you'll see dots slide around the two circles to show exactly what motion you're inputting. It's a small addition, but it definitely helps tune yourself to the full analog feel that NHL 08 now offers.

In addition to the Still Stick NHL has also included an extremely vital addition to stick handling this year. With the press of the left bumper (or L1 on PS3) you'll actually free the puck as its own physics object, separating it from your character entirely. Combining the Skill Stick with that button you can now fling the puck in specific directions, so should a defender have you lined up you can free the puck to one side, skate around him on the other, and then rejoin with the puck after successfully parrying his check.

Offense beware though. As with all great power, the new offensive tools are paired with immense responsibility. This year's defensive AI will in fact Eat, You, Up. We cap it for a reason; this year's defensive AI also got an entire overhaul.