Hockey often finds itself as the butt of toothless jokes and fighting references, but its popularity worldwide can not be denied, even if the sport domestically did lose a TV contract and suffer through some horrible ratings. That U.S. apathy doesn’t translate to the world of hockey video games, though, which come around on an annual basis yet still have fans wondering what’s in store. This curiosity held particularly true with NHL 2K8, after the series saw a massive presentation upgrade last year and promised some radical gameplay changes in this year’s outing.
NHL 2K8’s controls are completely reworked, and while the changes aren’t noticeable to franchise newbies, NHL 2K stalwarts will definitely need a few periods to adjust. Shooting the puck is the biggest change, with the L1 and R1 buttons mapped to hit the puck, and the L2 button acting as a slap shot modifier. Although it starts out being unintuitive, once you get used to the nuances of shooting, this change is actually quite nice. It’s a bit complicated, to be sure, but it gives NHL 2K8 a much more “skillful” feel to offense than the series’ previous outings, in which players would just mash on a shoot button until their thumbs gave out.
Unfortunately, the other control changes aren’t nearly an improvement. Taking a page out of EA’s playbook, NHL 2K8 now maps dekes, poke checks and other moves to the right thumbstick (called the ProStick). Yet unlike EA’s NHL 08, the results in NHL 2K8 are far too inconsistent to really be useful. In addition, icon passing is now mapped to the back button, an odd and inconvenient move that requires players to abandon their athlete’s movement for a second in order to pass. The last time I checked, moving and passing were important to do together to avoid getting checked; apparently 2K Sports didn’t get that memo.
Nor did they get the memo that NHL 2K8 is a hockey simulator, because checking is so outlandishly easy (and at times unrealistic) that some periods were spent just seeing how many times we could knock down opponents without being sent to the penalty box. The inclusion of two different speeds bursts is also a bit arcadey, primarily because they’re easy to abuse — if you can remember which is the right button to hit for the boost you want to use.
So, is NHL 2K8 all doom and gloom? No. If the controls are causing too many problems, a quick visit to the options menu lets players change the scheme to last year’s setup. Granted, this does beg the question that if 2K offered that option, they must have known on a certain level that the controls had issues, so why didn’t they spend more time tweaking them rather than just letting players “fall back” on the old ones? Maybe it’s because they were focused on the most fun gameplay tweak: superstar moves.
The superstar moves are just that: moves that only top players can perform. Some of these moves are a bit over the top, but they add a level of intrigue to shootouts because players can try to trick the goalie with a fake shot or fancy move. In standard play, these superstar moves aren’t something players want to get comfortable with, because like any trick move in a sports game, they leave the skater vulnerable to a defensive check and turnover. But they’re still fun to perform, even if they are a bit unwieldy.
NHL 2K8’s franchise mode is also a winner, and it just so happens to probably be the deepest franchise mode in any sports game to date, not just hockey. EA has tried in several of its football games to introduce dynasties, recruiting, trades, GM modes and the like, but NHL 2K8 is the first to really pull them all under the same umbrella. From contract negotiations and free-agent signings to organizing practices and holding full-on collective bargaining agreement discussions, the simulation aspects of managing a team in NHL 2K8 are astounding. The only caveat is that certain aspects may actually be too deep for all but the most hardcore hockey fan.
But depth, gameplay changes and new controls aren’t enough to catch up to NHL 08. 2K Sports is clearly playing catch-up, as their seemingly panicked attempt at ProStick controls indicates, but EA’s game just has a certain level of refinement, polish and planning this year that easily puts it on top. Much like 2K Sports came out this year (and failed) to challenge Madden with All-Pro Football, the attempt to catch EA with NHL 2K8 just doesn’t have enough gas in the tank. With a bit more thought and refinement, 2K certainly has the ability to get the job done. This just isn’t the year they regain their throne.
- Score: 7.6
- It’s not often we see 2K scrambling, but the controls feel like a panic move. With a bit more focus on the controls’ convenience and practicality, NHL 2K8 has laid the groundwork for an intriguing season–in 2K9.
— Jonas Allen