by Adam Hill


If I didn’t have so much respect for those who read my various reviews and columns, I might have attempted to insult their intelligence by submitting the exact same review for this game as I did for NHL 07.  Knowing full well my readers are way smarter than that, and because I do hold those who actually read my stuff in the highest regard, I will try as much as possible to be as objective as I can when it comes to NHL 06.3.1 – or, I mean, NHL 08.

As sad as it sounds, EA Sports has, for the most part, abandoned those who still play on the Playstation 2, the first generation Xbox, and of course the ever reliable PC, the now “current gen” of gamers.  They seem now, more than ever, to be in favor of the “next gen” consoles, those Xbox 360s and Playstation 3s of the world.  Can we really blame them, though?  With piracy at an all time high on the PC, and with fewer games being produced for the older consoles (not to mention their hardware limitations), it only makes sense from a marketing standpoint they’d focus their efforts on creating the most visually stunning game for the aforementioned next generation consoles.  But here’s what doesn’t make sense to me – Microsoft released a new Windows operating system this past January, computers are at least three times as powerful as when I built mine five years ago, yet – the computer I have still exceeds  the requirements of the current NHL 08 PC game two fold!  And for those of you who don’t already know, the Xbox 360 is nothing more than a computer running a modified version of Windows anyway!  Now here’s what really gets me – EA earlier this year acquired Valve, the PC gaming company responsible for the Half-Life games, which run on the extremely scalable and versatile “Source” gaming engine – do you mean to tell me EA Sports couldn’t have built NHL 08 using this engine, giving those with the most powerful computers the best experience, but allowing older PCs the ability to scale back the various attributes, allowing anybody to run it?  All one has to do is take a look at Half-Life 2 Episode Two on my current PC and you’ll have your answer – the real question is – why wasn’t EA Sports willing to even go there?  Well, I guess, just like life in Toronto, there’s always next year!?

So there’s the bad news about NHL 08 if you’re like me and not prepared to go “next gen” just yet.  As always, the version I was able to review for you here was the Playstation 2 and PC versions, which are virtually identical, with a few exceptions which I’ll more or less reiterate as we go along.

The good news?  EA Sports, even though not much has been done on the older systems, have still been able to add enough new things to call it a new game (depending on your point of view).  In case you haven’t noticed, the NHL, with the help of Reebok, have this year outfitted every team with brand spanking new “Rbk Edge” jerseys, which prompted many teams to revamp even their logos.  Upon the game’s release, all the old jerseys were still in the game, but on all versions (except for PC which later received an update patch), you have to enter a code to unlock the new jerseys.  It wasn’t exactly the best kept secret in the world.  The intent was to release the code on opening night, but somehow Reebok’s webmaster leaked the code almost three weeks in advance (never post anything on the internet for testing purposes if you don’t expect it to spread across the world within seconds).  If you still have no idea what I’m talking about, if you want to unlock the jerseys, enter the following in the “RBK EDGE” section of the game: “h3oyxpwksf8ibcgt” (without the quotes).  This will even unlock the AHL jerseys which look like practice jerseys when you first start the game up.

What was that I said?  AHL Jerseys?  Ah yes, EA has managed to secure licensing for all 29 AHL teams and logos, which means you can now play with your favorite team’s farm team.  As the ever popular Franchise (formerly Dynasty) mode enters its third year in the game, when you send a player down or call a player up from the minors, they’ll actually be associated with the team’s AHL franchise.  In addition to regular games, you can play all of your farm team’s games, to get a better look at all of your assets, and better yet, watch your prospects develop.  This enhancement has been a very long time coming.  I must have spent at least a day pitting AHL teams against NHL teams when I first got the game.  It certainly helped soften the blow of an almost identical game from years past.  In fact, this was the only reason I even considered picking up the new PC version of the game, I may have waited for a bargain bin sale otherwise.

The franchise mode itself has developed very well.  It now comes with everything you need to take your team to the next level – a fantasy draft, contract negotiation feedback, trophy leaderboards, and more.

If there’s a silver lining to be had with an updated version of the same game we’ve seen for the past three years, it’s the fact EA can improve upon many aspects of the game we’ve been used to playing for awhile.  They continue to somehow improve the controllability of the game – with a much improved analog control (very important for me because I use Playstation controllers on both the PS2 and on my PC).  Although I’ve yet to figure out how to make it work (and because I’m too impatient to try it), evidently the “skill stick” movements from years past continues to receive facelifts.  This year, an all new player communication “rumble” feature (which is apparently only available in multiplayer mode) allows the player to call for the puck by tapping the ice with your stick – this just blows my mind, and if I can ever get a multiplayer game going I’m going to try it the first chance I get.

Graphically, the game is more or less the same as previous years, unless you’ve got the newer consoles, then we’re talking an entirely new ball game (and if you haven't already figured out, to avoid embarassment, the only screenshots available on the net are of the next generation pictures - these pics you see is what you won't see with PC or Playstation 2!) .  This is where I prefer the PC version over PS2, for the same reasons as always – I can download add ons and roster updates from the internet.  Musically, EA has again hit it on the head with another great selection of the hottest alternative acts this side of the Atlantic.  Again, the PC gets my vote because I’m able to edit my own tunes into the game (even though EA doesn’t exactly encourage it anymore, for obvious reasons).  As far as the players are concerned, Eric Staal was the cover boy for this year’s version.  EA continues to lead the industry with their motion capture technology, and the result – Staal plays like the real Staal plays – if it’s in the game it’s in the game.  The same is true for all players who had time to allow EA to capture their movements.

Don’t look for anything to change on the audio front, with the exception of a few newer player names and a couple of updates to the audio commentary.  EA must be jumping for joy over the fact Hockey Night In Canada has hired Craig Simpson to call games alongside Jim Hughson, because they’re still sticking with the tandem, even though Simpson was a coach for 2 years.  They are supposed to be the eventual heir to the Bob Cole and Harry Neale throne – in fact, Neale has already moved on to call Buffalo Sabres games with the legendary Rick Jeanerret.  As always, I play with commentary off, as I like hearing the sounds of the game emanating through my subwoofer.

At the end of the day, this game remains playable, entertaining, and a relevant representation of the coolest game on earth, but I just hope next time around EA remembers us PC gamers and gives us a taste of what the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 gamers are already enjoying.  As for PS2, I figure if NHL 98 was the end of an era for Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, then in all likelihood NHL 08 is the end of the line for current generation.  I hope they take some heed as to my suggestion for the PC version in future editions (just don’t forget us folks still running Windows XP).  If it’s true “no game is ever the same”, let’s really work towards making it true for NHL 09.

Gameplay and Controllability: 9/10  – As usual, no complaints here.  I’m still trying to master the new skill stick plays, but for me I can still play the old school way, and this gets top marks from me.

Graphics: 5/10 – A few enhancements to the ice and some newer players from last year added, but virtually no change from NHL 06 and 07.

Audio: 5/10 – Add 10 new songs to the menu and leave the same old rink sounds/announcers/color commentary – sounds good to me…

Replay value: 9/10 – EA still knows we’ll play, regardless of our many complaints – the addition of the AHL will help secure that theory.

Final verdict: 7/10 – EA Sports, through all of my criticism, still is able to provide the best overall hockey experience on the market – but I know having seen what they can accomplish on “next gen” consoles they can do better.  Maybe it’s time to abandon the old school consoles in favor of a better overall PC experience, given this will probably be the last PS2 version.

EA Sports, it’s more of the same, unless you're willing to upgrade.


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