Over the years the rivalry between EA and 2K in the field of sports has been brutal, especially in the ice rink. Each year both developers seem to advance their respective series just enough to keep fans coming back for more; last year EA broke the mold with analog stick control while 2K focused on presentation with the introduction of Cinemotion. With this year’s outing 2K Sports has decided to focus on more than one area and continue to show why they are the dominant game in the hockey arena.
The biggest change from last year is the introduction of Pro Stick control. This mode is very similar to what EA introduced with their game last year, but 2K has taken the time to refine it and add a few tweaks that make learning how to play a whole new experience. Basically you have complete control over your stick with the right analog. Moving the puck back and forth and side to side is as simply as flicking the stick in the desired direction. To shoot you will utilize the bumpers and triggers for variations of shots. The mechanic works fine, but veterans of the series will have to learn how to play all over again if they want to take advantage of this new scheme.
Of course you can revert to classic style simply by going into the options menu, but after you learn how to master 2K’s new system you will not likely want to resort to the seemingly ancient style of play. The downside to this new method is that it eliminates the entire arcade feel of the game. Anyone who enjoys simply gliding up and down the ice delivering body checks and ignoring the passing game will likely grow frustrated quickly. Pro Stick makes NHL 2K8 a game of finesse and style and less of a button masher. However, if you are looking for the old arcade style it can be accomplished by simply turning off the Pro Stick control in the options menu.
Learning this system in and out sounds simple enough, but once you figure out the complexities you really begin to appreciate just how deep it truly is. You will constantly find yourself reaching for the face buttons trying to slam an opponent into the boards, but the first time you fake out a goalie and blast a slapshot around him it is easily the most satisfying experience in any hockey game to date.
This incredible sense of control is also carried over into the ridiculously deep franchise mode. Outside of the standard schedule manager, line edits, and roster management 2K8 takes you deeper into the front office by giving you complete control over even the most miniscule of tasks. The owner of your team will fire off nasty emails when your team is not performing well, players will gripe about playing time on a daily basis, and you can even sit down with agents and negotiate player contracts. The interface is much more than a simple set of sliders and numbers and it really adds a layer of complexity to the franchise mode. Of course if all of this mundane stuff bores the pants off of you, you can simply let the computer handle anything and everything you could care less about.
Even with all of these innovations and flare 2K8 does take a few steps backward that will either frustrate or perhaps excite them depending on how they felt about the features last year. First and foremost Cinemotion is still here, but turned off by default. This was the main bullet point for last year’s game and was basically a dramatic approach to the presentation. This year it seems a bit dialed back and feels more like a montage with music as opposed to a full-fledged feature. The second biggest complaint is the new menu structure. I don’t know where 2K Sports focus tested this mess, but it certainly attributes to more frustration than user-friendliness. The horizontal mess will have you switching between wrong options more often than not; couple this with the fact that the 360 d-pad isn’t very responsive and you have even more issues. The PS3 fares a bit better but on the whole this menu structure is simply an abomination.
It is also fair to assume that this day and age every sports game comes with a pretty solid create-a-player feature. With NHL 2K8 this mode feels more tacked on than anything else. There is no option to adjust your face with sliders or even the ability to add facial features individually. Instead they give you heads with different numbers and hope that one sort of, kind of looks like you. While some do not care about this feature it really does add something when you can add your likeness to the game. Where is my Eye Toy and Vision camera support? I paid good money for these worthless peripherals so I could take pictures of my cat and paste them into sports helmets!
Visually 2K8 is a great looking game, in fact I would say as an overall package it is the best looking hockey game to date. While EA may have a bit more detail in its players, 2K easily outshines it in animation and arenas. Subtle details such as the ice getting carved up throughout the game and the expression on player’s faces is worth noting as is the rock-solid frame rate. Arenas look great, especially on the 360, whereas on the PS3 they looked washed out and blurry during cut-scenes. Both versions look great, but it is worth noting that if you have a choice the 360 is far and away the better way to go. The visuals are sharper, the control feels more solid, and we did run into some connection issues over PSN while trying to get into games on Sony’s machine.
If franchise isn’t your cup of tea then 2K8 delivers all of the same extras found in last year’s game; in fact I think these are EXACTLY the same options found in last year’s game complete with the same control scheme. You have your standard season mode, tournaments, online, pond hockey, mini-rink, and mini-games as well as online leagues and tournaments. There haven’t been many additions to any of these modes and as I said the mini-games still use the old control scheme which is evident they were simply copied and pasted from last year’s edition.
The online portion of the game runs extremely smooth with the exception of the connection errors I mentioned on the PS3 version earlier, and the tournaments and leagues are just as fun as they have ever been. It has never been a question of enjoyment, but more of a question of finding enough dedicated players to form leagues and continue to take advantage of this fantastic feature.
While not everyone is going to agree with my assessment of the new Pro Stick feature there is still more than enough game here to keep fans happy. Even if the side stuff has been there done that written all over it, you will be hard-pressed to find a better hockey game this year. It all comes down to preference in the end and ever since it’s release 2K8 continues to improve upon the franchise. While it hasn’t taken as big of a leap as EA’s game over the past two years it still remains the top dog in the rink. However, if 2K Sports wants to keep ahead of the pack next year’s game will have to bring a whole lot more to the table. Still the best game on ice and certainly more fun than getting checked into the glass in real life.