Drawing Closer to Reality

With every passing season, hockey video games get more and more realistic. Some years, the leap forward is enormous; others, only baby steps are taken. With their latest release, EA Sports has made huge strides, delivering a hyper-realistic hockey video game experience while at the same time capturing many of the qualities that made vintage hockey titles like “Blades of Steel” and “NHL ’94″ so much fun to play.

Their latest innovation, introduced last season and improved tremendously this time around, is the Skill Stick®. The left joystick controls the skating movements of the player, while the right joystick controls his stick movements. The only button needed is for passing (and switching players on defense), which makes the game experience uniquely easy to pick up… yet quite difficult to master.

Luckily, there is a fun shootout mode and also a new, well-engineered practice mode that gives you the opportunity to work on your skating, stickhandling, and—perhaps most importantly—your shooting. And the shootout mode also gives gamers the opportunity to master one of NHL ’08′s most exciting features: the opportunity to control the goalie.

One of the most important innovations in NHL ’94 was the introduction of a goalie control option. Simply holding down the “B” button let the gamer take control of the netminder and immediately put an end to the classic left-right deke that worked nearly 100% of the time in previous versions of the game. As the games got faster and more complicated in next-gen versions (PSOne, Xbox, PS2, etc.), controlling the goalie quickly became more trouble than it was worth.

Finally, with NHL 08, controlling the goalie is fun again. The same two-joystick system used for skaters also now applies to the goalies, with the left joystick moving the goalie and right used for making saves, dropping into the butterfly, and poke-checking the puck away from an unsuspecting opposing skater. The combination of a well-placed goalie cam and easy-to-use (hard-to-master) controls makes controlling the goalie perhaps the best part of this excellent hockey video game.

EA also spent a considerable amount of time and effort improving the game’s AI (artificial intelligence), indicating that for the first time, the computer opponent learns your tendencies and develops counters to your favored strategies. Perhaps here, I should come clean with a confession: I thought they were already doing this. Dating back to the game’s introduction on the PS2, I’ve been mixing up my attack under the misguided belief that the AI was a lot smarter than it actually was. One thing that is for certain is that the results generated in NHL 08 are far more realistic than in previous versions.

Put bluntly, NHL 08 probably represents EA’s biggest leap forward since NHL ’94 in terms of fun, and it is also the most realistic hockey video game EA has ever produced.

And given that producer David Littman is a former pro hockey netminder, it’s no surprise that improving the goalie control was a top priority for EA this time around. I recently sat down with David to discuss NHL 08. Here’s the transcript of that interview…

KG: What were your primary goals for NHL 08?

DL: For NHL 08, what we wanted to do was not only advance the Skill Stick and continue with that innovation, but also add next-gen AI to the mix. In other words, for NHL 07, we just didn’t get the AI to where we wanted it, and for NHL 08, we have incredible innovation in our AI. The AI will adapt to your play style, so if all you do is get the puck back to the point and shoot from the point, the AI will change the style and start playing a tight-point strategy, not letting you get the puck back there. If all you do is set up one-timers to your center, the AI will start blocking those passes.

KG: You mentioned the Skill Stick advancements. How does it work now?

DL: Last year, the skill stick was great for deking the goalie. This year, our main focus was not just on improving the deking to beat the goalie, but also on beating the defensemen with one-on-one moves. One-on-one dekes are some of the most exciting plays in hockey. Our new one-on-one deking system lets you push the puck off your stick in any direction, whether it be through the D’s legs or under his stick, and then hop around him and try to get the puck on the other side. We want to give people the experience of what it’s like to pull off a deke and get around an NHL defenseman. It’s very tough to do, the puck is loose the whole time, so if it hits the defenseman’s skate or stick, you could push it the wrong way, you could get checked at any time. You have to time it correctly, and it’s all about the creativity of the player using it, it’s not just a bunch of canned dekes.

KG: Goalie control has taken a giant leap forward this year. Tell us about how the new goalie control system works.

DL: What we were really looking for was a realistic representation of what a goalie sees, and what a goalie feels. I think the two ways we’ve done that is, it’s all real time, the camera’s low down behind the goalie. If there’s a screen, you’re not going to see the puck. If you’re screened in real life, it’s a tough situation to deal with, and that’s an example of making things happen in real time and seeing what the goalie sees. The left stick moves the goalie and the right stick makes the save. You can butterfly or play stand-up, and having it be in real time makes it a really good representation. The thing that’s missing from most games like this is pressure, but the coolest part is when you go online and there are human players trying to beat you and your own human teammates counting on you. You can’t give up bad goals or you’ll be letting your teammates down, and that’s a lot like a real goalie’s experience. In the shootout mode online, it defaults to goalie control, so someone who’s gotten really good at deking the CPU goalies must now deal with the unknown when dealing with another human player.

KG: You mentioned the online experience. What can we expect from NHL 08 online this time around?

DL: Right out of the box, you can play with up to five other people anywhere in the world, on five different consoles. We call that online team play (three on three). We also have Vs. Mode online, were you can play with multiple people on your home console against people playing on another home console. On the PS3, up to 12 people can play (six players are supported per console), so you can literally have human control for every player on the ice. We have shootout online, so you can be the best shootout player in the world (goalie control is also supported). And we also have online leagues, where you can play with between two and 32 teams from any leagues (NHL, AHL, SM Liga, etc.). The number one thing we worked on was the online experience, and people will see that the difference is huge.

KG: Another big advancement is the addition of the AHL to this year’s game. How does it enhance the experience?

DL: Adding the AHL was a great step because anyone involved in hockey knows how important the AHL is (just like AAA in baseball). Most NHL players have played in the AHL at some point. In our dynasty mode, you can control both teams [the NHL team and its AHL affiliate]. You can play with both teams, so you can go down and play with your AHL team and see who you like and call them up to the NHL team. The more they play in the AHL, the better they’re going to get, so you’d rather them play first line in the AHL than just sitting there on the fourth line in the NHL if he’s a young prospect. If you win the Calder Cup in the AHL, those players will gain more experience and be ready for the NHL. We have one- and two-way contracts in franchise mode, and now, because you’re using the real AHL, you have the actual players.

KG: Did this increase the pool of real players in the game?

DL: Yes, absolutely. In past years, you could only use players who’d played at least one game in the NHL. Now, anyone who’s played in the AHL (and signed a waiver to be in NHL 08) will be in the game. And in the roster updates, when players suit up in an NHL game (or sign the waiver), they will be added to the appropriate active roster.” [Editor's note: Montreal Canadiens goaltending prospect Carey Price has not signed the waiver and not yet suited up for an official NHL game at press time, so he is not yet in the game.]

KG: Are there any major differences between the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions?

DL: The Xbox 360 and PS3 versions are pretty much identical, the only major difference is that the Xbox version will look a bit smoother, 60 frames per second (fps) versus 30 fps. It’s not as big a difference as it’s been made into. Really, there’s no need to compare the two, and if you have a PS3, you’re going to love NHL 08. Last generation, the Xbox was more powerful than the PS2 (60fps versus 30fps). This time, the only difference was time. Last year, we were at 30fps on the Xbox 360, and this is our first year on PS3. It’s also worth noting that our PS3 frame-rate this year is better than our Xbox 360 frame-rate last year. Also, last year, there were a lot of hiccups with online play, but this year, there will be no noticeable difference between the offline and online experiences.

KG: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, David. We look forward to playing NHL 08, and wish you luck with the game!

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