For as long as I can remember, if there's one sport that's always translated well into a videogame, it's been hockey. NHL games from EA's NHL series, to Sony's FaceOff, down to 2K's NHL 2K franchise, have always been solid titles. I've been playing NHL 2K8 for sometime now, and unlike some of 2K's other sports efforts recently (MLB and All Pro Football), I've found myself far more impressed with NHL 2K8 than I'd imagine I would be.
Naturally, with EA and 2K competing for glory, you can expect a fantastic amount of value out of both hockey games. NHL 2K8, specifically, features, arguably, the most detailed Franchise mode of any sports game to date. To go into detail of the mode's depth would require far too much time and effort. The amount of intricacy put into the Franchise mode really is unparalleled, and it does an incredible job of really engrossing you into the entire experiment. It'd be nice to see owners and general managers from the NHL comment on NHL 2K8's Franchise mode, because by the looks of it, it seems to have nearly every nook and cranny covered.
Furthermore, you can continue to expect the standard Season, Tournament, and Challenge modes. What many may find enjoyment out of will be the Extras, which feature mini-games such as Battle Mode, Pond Hockey, and Mini-Rink. Battle Mode consists of a number of "party-style" mini-games; Pond Hockey takes your game outside onto a frozen pond; and Mini-Rink has you playing a miniature 3-3 game of hockey in various different themed areas (Circus, Western, Medieval etc.).
We know that these games are chock full of modes and features, so my biggest concern was specifically the very core: gameplay. Off the bat, I loved the connection and feel of the skaters. The skating in NHL 2K8 certainly feels smoother and more precise than it does in NHL 08. And the more I played both NHL games, the more I realized that the controls feel better in NHL 2K8. Initially, you're going to be awfully confused, but luckily NHL 2K8 allows for controller customization, so feel free to remap the buttons to your preference, and instantly feel at home.
Though it has to be said that NHL 2K8 doesn't allow you to use the right analog as a means of shooting, so if you're the type who really enjoys the Skill Stick feature of the EA games, and refuse to use anything else then you might as well stop reading this review here. The only thing NHL 2K8's ProStick allows control over is the puck handling and dekes, that's about it.
Now, what 2K8 is touting for this year is an all new face-off system that uses the ProStick as a means of swatting the puck away from the opposition. I'm a little mixed on the feature. On one hand it works fairly well and it serves its purpose to always ensure that no face-offs are the same. But on the other hand, it creates far too many locked-up head-to-head grudge battles between both players as they fight for the puck. Usually what ends up happening is another player skates across and scoops it up, and the game goes on. The key is to position and time your stick precisely to avoid the lock-ups, but even then it's still fairly common.
With that out of the way, I found the passing in NHL 2K8 to be more accurate than NHL 08. And by accurate, I don't mean in terms of successful pass completions, I mean in terms of realism. Where as in NHL 08 passing is far too precise, feeling almost assisted, allowing you to make successful passes from across the rink; in NHL 2K8 it's more realistic. You can't just flick and pass the puck in a general direction in 2K8, you'll end up losing it. You'll have to employ a bit of aim and precision to complete a pass – nothing crazy, so don't worry.
I also appreciate the go-getter mentality that your team's A.I. has. I found it all too common for skaters in NHL 08 to just stare at a puck, or do nothing if a puck accidentally smacks their stick and ends up within five feet of them. Those kinds of quirks bother the hell out of me in sports games. In NHL 2K8 that issue is far less present than before. The A.I. is quick to act on a loose puck, no matter if they're your A.I. or the opponent's – and that makes the experience far less frustrating.
In terms of gameplay, with NHL 2K8, the good outweigh the bad considerably. The feel of the game is what really sealed the deal for me. While some may think that checking is far too easy in the game, it's certainly better than the helpless feeling you get from NHL 08, when you're desperately trying to strip the puck from someone in your zone, to no avail. NHL 2K8 controls super tight, and with the one-timers toned down significantly, the game plays better than it did last year.
Visually, if you put both NHL titles side-by-side, there is no question that the victor is without question EA's NHL 08. That is not to say NHL 2K8 looks poor, or even average, but it doesn't quite look as polished as EA's title. Facial details come off as looking blotchy, as the textures look almost stretched, lacking in fine details. Seeing as how you don't really see anything other than a hockey player's face, that's one area 2K8 shouldn't have lacked in.
Detail on each individual character model isn't bad, on the other hand. And the texturing on the jerseys is well done, too. The animation is pretty solid from what I can tell, and there doesn't seem to be any unusually bad transitions from one animation strand to another. But the framerate suffers when you take the game online, and it suffers hard. NHL 2K8, as opposed to running 30 frames per second during a normal game, runs somewhere closer to 20 when it's online, and that's just unacceptable. It'll make the online experience pretty excruciating to play for many people.
Stadium detail is composed of an entirely three-dimensional audience, so you won't be seeing a few rows of polygonal spectators, and then nothing but a paper thin pixilated mess, thereafter. Finally, unfortunately there are no visual options to fix the overscan that'll occur for a number of TVs that don't output 720p properly. 2K/Kush could've at least thrown in faked/upscaled 1080i support to help correct the overscan problem for those who have it, but alas they didn't. Boo.
Audio continues to be the standard sports-game affair, although it is pulled off much better here in NHL 2K8 (a fast paced sport), than it was in MLB 2K7. Commentary doesn't lag behind in NHL 2K8, so the updates are on the ball, for the most part. Furthermore, you won't find much color commentary here, so if you enjoy that aspect of audio in your sports games, you won't find it. Otherwise, if you're concerned primarily with solid play-by-play calling, you should find what you need in NHL 2K8. And of course there's the status quo soundtrack; in NHL 2K8 it seems to be largely composed of rock songs, some emo and crappy, and some more tolerable to listen to. The only time you have to endure the music is during celebrations and when you're practicing or playing one of the extra/bonus game modes.
My hat goes off (no pun intended) to 2K Sports for NHL 2K8. It's definitely a much tighter playing game than last year's version, albeit with room for more improvements to be made. If we could get a revamped ProStick, in addition to slightly tuned face-off mechanics, among other quirks, the next NHL 2K game could seriously go down as one of the best NHL games ever. Still, what NHL 2K8 provides is a superb effort. Visually, the game isn't as polished as EA's effort, and it's framerate suffers online, but the depth of the Franchise mode is surreal. On top of that, the controls are really solid and well connected. NHL 2K8 is a definite must play for hockey gamers.