STAFF REVIEW of NHL 2K8 (Xbox 360)

Tuesday, October 9, 2007.
by Aceattorney

NHL 2K8 Box art Ice hockey is a sport largely misunderstood, unwatched, and garners little interest compared to other sports. It is understanding therefore, to a degree that developers have taken some time to get ice hockey right on console gaming. 2K Sports and its direct and sole competitor, Electronic Arts, both have made strides in the past two years in this genre not only graphically, but also by creating a more accurate and immersive experience for gamers.

This year, 2K Sports delivers a brand of ice hockey that shines in its presentation and attempts to bring a more direct level of control for gamers. Taking EA?s lead from NHL 07, 2K Sports implements a control scheme that is intended to bring players directly onto the ice through the use of the right analog stick to control the hockey stick. However, instead of being innovative, NHL 2K8?s new control scheme comes with a steep learning curve that borders on being counter-intuitive. The training modes, while designed with the best intentions, include very sparse instructions, leaving one to guess how to perform certain moves required to complete some of the training sessions.

So while many signature moves (and other moves, like kicking the puck back to the stick) look really cool, attempting these moves during a game, while trying to focus on scoring, largely results in a button-mashing fest due to the clunky interface, requiring multiple button presses. In a game as fast-paced as ice hockey, flying down the wings towards your opponent?s net requires on-the-fly decisions. Worrying about how to get by a defender by using one of several available moves and how to follow-up by executing a hard wrist-shot unfortunately detracts from what the game offers. On the defensive end, the controls are much more simple, but highly effective. Poking a puck out of the zone or checking a man against the boards are done with single-button modifiers, coupled with the right thumbstick. Even hooking and laying a player?s stick across the ice to block a pass is done rather easily. It really is unfortunate that the offensive controls lack this simplicity. There is no question that spending a lot of time in the training modes will help with your muscle memory in grasping the controls, but the high level of patience and tolerance required may turn away many ice hockey fans.

That said, there are several redeeming qualities found in NHL 2K8. The improved AI makes playing ice hockey as a team (instead of as a solo star on the ice), much easier. On the offense, teammates will put themselves into the corners, and in front of the net to be open for one-timer opportunities, or for taking advantage of rebounds. It is refreshing to see AI teammates on the wings pushing towards the other side of the ice to create a breakaway. Defensively, AI players will box opposing players out to the boards, relaxing pressure on the goaltender. They will place themselves in front of a flying puck ? just as real hockey players would. In other words, it is as if the AI?s understanding of the game came straight from the NHL?s playbooks.

One of the gameplay?s more interesting (and perhaps controversial) features is not the turbo button, which it has, but 2K8 goes a stride further and offers, with the touch of a button, the ability to skate harder and faster than turbo. Holding down the sprint button makes the player skate at top speed, but one does have to wonder what the point of the turbo button is with the sprint button available.

In terms of presentation, NHL 2K8 has never looked better. Not only are the graphics bumped up by a slight degree, but the dramatic camera angles and shots truly make this title wonderful to look at. Player animations are again outstanding, and the faces of all the big names are actually recognizable this year. One of this title?s best features is the unique isometric camera angle that is close enough to feel the chill of the ice, but wide enough to see all of the action. Unfortunately, the good looks do not translate to an intuitive menu system. Navigating through the main menu screen lacks fluidity, much akin to the game?s control scheme.

Not only are the game?s graphics solid, but all the sounds of an NHL game have been dutifully captured for 2K8. From the sounds of the puck impacting various objects in the rink, to the dramatic orchestrated music, there is no doubt that the 2K team prioritized immersion and drama for gamers. The music selection, filled with a variety of rock though probably designed to pump you up may ultimately send you to the options menu where you can thankfully import your own custom music (or deselect particular songs).

Unfortunately, gone are the realistic training drills and challenges from NHL 2K7. However, 2K8?s offline mini-games can provide a challenging and enjoyable departure (for up to four players ? offline) from a long season. In addition to the mini-games, progression through the season can reward you with items to fill your skybox. From trophies to an air hockey table, you can make your skybox your own.

A deep franchise mode is included in 2K8, allowing you to get knee-deep in the world of franchise finances, dealing with trades, and managing your team?s growth throughout the years. Fortunately for those of us who are management-challenged, there is the option of letting the CPU manage all of the nitty gritty details in running a hockey club.

Despite 2K8?s many highlights, the frustrating control scheme forces gamers to abandon many of the available moves, and leaves them with a basic style of gameplay, but one that at least looks and feels amazing. It is certainly difficult to envision an improvement to the control scheme without blatantly copying EA?s controls, but only the most patient gamers will take the time to learn to master these controls. As a game with much to offer, some may be able to overlook the more complex control options in the game, or may even take the time to master the controls. However, with EA?s NHL 08 as an immediate alternative option, gamers may ultimately choose a game that will not be frustrating to play.

Be sure to check out Xbox Live Marketplace and download the free demos for both NHL 2K8 and NHL 08 and compare them for yourself!

Overall: 6.0 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.4 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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