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NHL 2K8

NHL 2K8 is the gaming equivalent of your favorite band releasing a Greatest Hits album. Although you already own all of the hit songs included on the album in one form or another, often times new material is stirred in. Upon purchasing the album you find that the new or previously unused recordings are lackluster, deprecating an otherwise great collection of material.

That’s what happened with 2K8‘s new content.

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And even then, it’s still all about the hits. Every player on the NHL roster has the capability of laying any other player out cold on the ice, or checking them over the boards into either team’s bench. Accompanying this uneven balance is a dysfunctional fighting system. Characters clip right through eachother, dancing around on the ice with their helmets on until their combatant punches it off. The fighting has more in common with those Rock-em-Sock-em robot toys than it does with actual brawling.

The AI directs itself well enough, drawing from eight “On the Fly” coaching commands. They’re quick to glide into whichever play you see fit, whether it be crashing the net on offense or clearing your own on defense. At any time during a match, Team Strategies can be adjusted with a series of sliders and set play-types. Everything you could think to adjust can be tweaked to your liking through the very same sliders, on the many anti-pragmatic menu screens, which have a learning curve of their own.

One of the 2K Games commentators has a thick Canadian accent, which makes the experience immediately authentic, as he waxes nostalgic over the “Pittsburgh Pengin’s” rich NHL history, or provides relevant details on the key components of the current game. Due to the unrelenting pace of the sport, actual radio broadcasts are nerve-wrecking affairs in which the on air personality spits out a thousand words a minute, constantly correcting himself and trying to find an ample description for five different things happening at once. Reduced to the minimal 2K Games commentary, 2K8 never really connects to the actual speed and intensity of the sport.

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Whereas scoring via the one-timer was a prevalent key to success throughout earlier titles in this series, it’s now irrelevant, if not nearly impossible. The exclusion of an easy one-timer goal is understandable now that Xbox Live play is a major factor for sports games. Preceding online play, I’d usually end games with around 50 or 60 goals. With the care 2K Games has taken to replicate the actually difficulty it takes to score in hockey, almost every game is ending in the single-digits, online or otherwise. NHL 2K8‘s reliance upon clever setups, obtaining the quick breakaway, and dialing in on the net with precision aiming makes this something of a non-issue.

A big part of this seems to be the Goalie AI. Goalies’ are more reactive to the action and, as you will come to find in the Create-A-Player mode, have a wide spread of attributes. Due to most of the goals being scored on wrist shots or back handed snaps into the goal, having a top-tier player in front of the net is now detrimental for any team’s success. Thanks to the new “In the Crease” feature – suspiciously stuck to the select button – it’s now possible to control the Goalie for the entirety of the game. But doing so provides a clear reminder of what is holding most sports game back…

As you waddle back and forth suited in more armor than a medieval knight, you’ll move a solid green line of vision about the ice, prancing back and forth, waiting on a shot from the opposition. When the moment comes, if your line of vision isn’t lined up exactly with the puck, a green and red target appear. You must match your green target (goalie glove) with the red, in order to deflect or cover the puck. Usually each game in which you only play goalie is comprised of the other team over-skating it down into your defensive, taking a shot, watching your CPU teammate do the same on the opposing goal, and then the reverse again. This continues for whatever length of time you’ve defined in the options menu. Of course, a slider’s available for defensive types or whether or not your teammates actually attempt to play hockey, but there’s no sure fire way to tell if there always up for the challange, unless you’re directing every play personally.

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There are more turn-overs and interceptions in modern sports games than can be found in a round of Pong! Highly sensitive offside detection doesn’t help matters, resulting in an inane number of FaceOffs. In spite of the inherent flaw in returning to the FaceOff circle over and over, 2K Games has provided a neat system in which you manipulate the hockey stick with the right analog stick, directing the puck in the direction of your choice.

Beating the opponent to the chase actually makes a difference, as your lines will become weary under poor leadership, and will obtain a motivated boost reflective of their on-ice successes. This applies to the majority of NHL 2K8‘s gameplay. For an extended example, in Dynasty Mode, you’ll find a highly motivated team after defeating rivals. And otherwise, their moral will waver, making it much more likely for the players to seek out opportunities on a winning team, in the following season (or whenever their penned contract happens to expire).

If nothing else, you’re likely to enjoy the visual touches only 2K8 can deliver. Players may not look exactly like their real life counterparts, but their faces seem to be rough replica’s of the average Canadian. That’s not what matters in a hockey game, any way. The visual appeal comes from the ice, which is the best I’ve seen thus far, glistening at the beginning of each period, and depreciating at a believable pace. The finer details reveal themselves through the new uploadable replay format. Saved replays can be transfered from person to person over Xbox Live, and once viewed, can be rated. Same goes for custom game styles and strategies.

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There’s plenty of content in NHL 2K8. In Challange Mode, you’ll play out a long list of historically accurate fantasy matchups, which unlock the featured classic team, permitting that your team won, and a side-objective has been accomplished. The nostalgic trip doesn’t end there, with each team featuring an impressive backlog of jerseys. I was able to find every jersey I wanted, and am impressed by the inclusion of former franchise jerseys’. It’s a lot of fun stepping out on to the ice as your favorite team dressed down in late 1920′s uniforms.

NHL 2K8 reminds me of Sidney Crosby’s efforts to fill Mario Lemeuixe’s skates: even though I’ll still take in a Penguins game no matter who they’re playing, something’s notably less satisfying about watching them play. It’s a valiant effort to rekindle the long-running love affair hockey fans have had with the series, which is entirely unnecessary. Perhaps the series peaked with 2K7, after-all, there can only be so many variations on Pong before someone runs out of ideas, or the waters become over saturated.

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

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