2K Sports has reigned as champions of the virtual ice ever since Electronic Arts’ NHL franchise dropped the puck, so to speak, back in 2003. With NHL 07, however, EA opened a lot of people’s eyes, including yours truly, with the introduction of its innovative Skill Stick control system. All of a sudden the gap between the two competing franchises narrowed considerably, aided by an uninspired outing from NHL 2K7. How would 2K Sports respond to the sudden challenge to their hockey throne?
2K’s answer, in part, was to implement a new control system of their own. Dubbed ProStick, the new system is identical to EA’s Skill Stick in theory, being that the left analog stick acts as your skates while the right analog stick acts as your hockey stick. The key difference between the two is that with 2K’s ProStick, you don’t shoot the puck with the right analog stick. You only use it to puck handle. In that sense it offers players full range of motion when puck handling so you can not only move the puck from side to side, but also in front and behind your body. Shooting the puck is still mapped to the controller’s buttons, but not the face buttons as in previous years. Instead, you perform a wrist shot by pressing the RB/R1 button, a pass with the LB/L1 button, and a slap shot by holding LT/L2 to increase the power of the shot and then pressing RB/R1 to unleash it. I found it difficult, particularly on the Xbox 360, to adjust to having the pass and shot buttons mapped to the bumpers (as opposed to the triggers, which would have been a better method), let alone having to press two buttons to take a slap shot. It’s a bit of an awkward layout that’ll have even the most hardened veterans shaking their heads early on.
The RT/R2 is used for speed burst, as per usual, but you can also use one of the face buttons to “sprint” up and down the ice. You heard correct, there are two buttons that provide a speed boost. Don’t quite understand the logic there. On defense, skating backwards is achieved by either pressing up on the right analog stick or by holding both RT/R2 and LT/L2. Checking, pushing and pinning are still mapped to the face buttons, as is the button to block shots. Poke checking is achieved by using the right analog stick (again, think of it as your hockey stick). The rest of the layout is pretty much the same as previous years. If you’re not a fan of the new ProStick control system, you do have the option to turn it off and revert to the control system from last year. Personally, I like the new system…in theory. Considering how well EA’s Skill Stick went over last year, I understand why 2K chose the same route and I don’t even mind the idea that the right analog stick is used only for puck handling and not for shooting. I just don’t get the logic behind the button layout (bumpers vs. triggers) or the idea that you have to press two buttons to take a slap shot. Chalk it up to growing pains I suppose. It’s not like EA’s Skill Stick was a flawless system last year either. Just know that there will be a learning curve.
Rounding out NHL 2K8 is a pair of new gameplay additions in the form of a face-off system and superstar moves. The face-off system is really quite intuitive. As the referee prepares to drop the puck, you want to move the analog stick to the right or left side. As the puck is dropped you want to move the analog stick to the opposite side, thereby swiping the puck back to one of your defensemen. It’s a timing mechanism, adjusted for your player’s face-off ability. If you react too quickly before the puck is dropped, you’ll get a warning. A second infraction and you’ll get tossed out of the circle and have to rely on your winger to win the face-off. Sometimes both centers will react at the same time, resulting in a tie-up where the wingers will have to come in and help dig the puck out. It really is the best face-off system I’ve seen in a hockey game to date. As for superstar moves, it’s a collection of some of the best moves in hockey history, including Peter Forsberg’s deke from Sweden ’94, Pavel Datsyuk’s spectacular breakaway move from a year ago, Marek Malik’s through-the-legs shootout move, as well as all-time favorites like the Spid-O-Rama. Any time you’re on a breakaway you can perform a superstar move, to the best of your player’s ability, by holding LT/L2 and pressing a two-button combo with the face buttons. It’s great to see some of these amazing moves put into the game but the reality is they’re very hard to pull off in an actual game. You pretty much have to be on a breakaway from the blue line so you’ll likely only get to use them during shootouts.
So how does the game play? Well, in recent years the NHL 2K series has been plagued by the overuse of one-timers to score goals. I’m happy to report that’s no longer the case. Sure, you can still score using one-timers, but you’ll score just as frequently with shots from the point, now that players deflect the puck, on breakaways, or on simple shots from the slot. You’ll no longer have to rely on running the same one-timer play over and over to score goals and that’s refreshing. Not so refreshing is the amount of checking that goes on in a game. You’ll be lucky to skate five feet without taking a punishing hit. It seems this part of the game has been ramped up and it doesn’t even matter if you’re controlling a bruising checker or a short, swift winger, even the smallest players have no problem knocking down some of hockey’s biggest athletes and that’s just not right. As a result, NHL 2K8 plays a bit more like an arcade game than a realistic hockey simulation and that’s a little disappointing to see.
With one of the deepest franchise modes in any sports videogame, the NHL 2K series has always held the edge off the ice. This year’s installment is no different. CBA features including waivers, two-way contracts, restricted and unrestricted free agents, and salary cap management are all present, and off-season activities have been revamped, including an improved draft and contract negotiating system. The negotiating system in arguably the highlight of this feature set. It’s a tightrope act that’ll have you balancing your owner’s wallet with the asking price of a player’s agent. If you aren’t fair in the negotiating process, you could risk having the player walk away from the negotiating table forever. Rounding out the new additions, there’s a new player progression system and dynamic player types, meaning as the seasons come and go, players’ attributes will noticeably improve or decline as they become star players, veterans and other player types.
The franchise mode isn’t without a few hiccups. In past years there were often trades by AI-controlled teams that made you scratch your head. That’s not so much the case this year but the AI-controlled teams will make mistakes by placing quality players on waivers. Tomas Kaberle, for example, made a late season appearance on the wire. I don’t believe the Maple Leafs would be that ignorant in real life. Also, the results of simulated games tend to be a little inflated. As the GM of the Colorado Avalanche, in back-to-back games against Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks I managed to win both contests by scores of 11-1 and 10-0, a difficult feat to be sure. In fact, my team won by 10 or more goals on three occasions during that season in simulated games. That doesn’t exactly reflect the current state of NHL scoring.
On the ice, NHL 2K8 has improved by leaps and bounds in the graphics department. Player models look much better with accurate equipment (that you can edit for color, size and brand) and updated faces. Player animation is smooth and realistic and the framerate never suffers. Off the ice, I think it’s about time the NHL 2K series received a bit of a face-lift. The menus look dated and the new menu layout, a tree-like format, is difficult to navigate. The calendar has been minimized into a horizontal bar that doesn’t allow you to see beyond a week a time without pressing a button several times. As a statistician, I’m not terribly impressed by the fact you can’t see stats (goals, assists, total points, +/-, etc.) of the top scorers all in one shot, you have to view them one stat at a time (top goal scorer, top assist leader, etc.). Hockey Night in Canada announcers Bob Cole and Harry Neale return to the booth, though their commentary is difficult to hear over the ambient rink noise, no matter how much you adjust the audio settings. The soundtrack features mostly heavy rock from artists like Bloc Party, Quiet Riot and Korn.
There will be growing pains in NHL 2K8 with the new ProStick control system. The button layout is questionable, particularly the idea of pressing two buttons to take a slap shot. The series is in danger of entering NHL Hitz territory with all the body checking going on. Remember, that’s in part what derailed EA’s NHL series years ago. With that said, the new face-off system is intuitive, the superstar moves add excitement to shootouts and thanks in part to the revamped contract negotiating system, the franchise mode remains one of the best and deepest in all of sports videogames. Overall it’s not quite its dominating self, but hockey fans shouldn’t be disappointed with NHL 2K8.