NHL 08 Community Day: The Play’s the Thing<ADMINNICENAME>

Posted on July 31st, 2007 in Gaming, Xbox 360, Opinion by

box.jpgLast week, 5WG’s Shawn Drotar and Mark Fossen attended the EA Sports/Easton NHL 08 Community Day in the cozy hamlet of Burnaby, British Columbia, and received not only time with the game, but valuable one-on-one time with many of the game’s developers in an effort to learn about what might become the best sports game of the year.

***

Shawn Drotar: After lacing up some skates and taking to the ice in Burnaby, BC, we got a first-hand look at how hockey is really played by producer (and former NHL goaltender) David Littmann and Nashville Predators blueliner Shea Weber. Then, armed with the knowledge that hockey’s a lot harder (and much more complicated) than the pros make it look, we spent some quality time with EA’s latest hockey sim - and I emphasize “sim” - NHL 08.

Mark Fossen: Feel free to emphasize the “sim”… because I’ll be talking about “game”. NHL 08 feels like one of those games that simply gets it right; balancing simulation and game extremely well. I didn’t sit for hours on end with controller in hand because it was a good sim, but because it was a well-constructed and addictive game.

Shawn Drotar: There’s no question that this is one of those games that you can’t easily put down. It might be the best game I’ve seen from EA Sports in years. Seriously - what we played was that good.

Mark Fossen: Like many of us here south of the border, I’m not necessarily a hockey die-hard, and the league further slipped off my radar as it moved to Versus. But hockey is a gaming tradition, one of those twitch sports that translates into a damn fun game experience. A good hockey game - I’m looking at you, NHL ‘94 - transcends its sport. NHL 08 looks like it will follow suit, at least for me. But enough gushing, let’s talk specifics: what impressed you the most?

Shawn Drotar: NHL 08 will completely change the way people play video-game hockey, defensively. Here’s why: 2K Sports’ NHL 2K series is excellent, even if it has become a bit stagnant, in part because “sim” players don’t have to rely on checking as their main defensive ploy - but they still can, and many do. In NHL 08, you simply can’t. Playing a checking-only defense is going to get you burned, and badly. In the Community Day tournament, I put up three straight shutouts before losing in the finals, mostly because I did everything I’ve never even considered doing in a hockey video game before. I focused on positioning - cutting off passing lanes and stopping easy shots for the most part. I didn’t try to roughhouse and end up out of position. Strategic, disciplined defense is rewarded and thuggery most certainly is not. Using the analog stick as your players’ “throttle”, combined with sound (and consistent) defensive strategy makes playing defense almost as much fun as playing offense. I wouldn’t have believed it until I experienced it for myself.

Mark Fossen: I knew you’d make me look like a shallow graphics whore.

Shawn Drotar: Well, NHL 08 does look awfully good, too. Make no apologies there.

Mark Fossen: If I’m being honest, the top thing that impressed me was the frame rate. Running at a rock-solid 60 frames per second on the Xbox 360, the game was so silky and fluid and responsive that it became a whole different kind of EA game. Due to a combination of framerate and branching animations, there’s a sense of immediate, tactile control that’s historically lacked across the board at EA.

Shawn Drotar: Exactly. The right-analog “skill stick” is brilliant, but it doesn’t really shine until you realize how finely you can control it at 60 fps on the Xbox 360.

Mark Fossen: Number #1a, however, is puck cycling. For what seems the first time in … well, ever… you can cycle the puck to set up your offense. Part of it’s a subtle change in the pass back to the defensemen, part of it’s the cleanliness of the controls, part of it’s an AI that will punish you for the kind of slap-shot-happy one-timer-mania that’s always characterized video game hockey. Whatever the ingredients are, EA’s hit on a heck of a recipe for success with their passing engine. It seems like a small technical thing, but the ability to successfully cycle the puck completely changes the game. My biggest problem with it is that it’s easy to fall so in love with the cycling that you can forget to shoot! I often was getting outshot 4-to-1, simply because I was having so much fun cycling the puck.

Shawn Drotar: It does feel just about perfect. If you don’t score on the power play, you feel like it’s completely your fault, while penalty-killing can become downright panic-inducing. There’s a very natural feel to a control scheme that requires minimum face-button pressing, as if it removes you from the “manipulating the controller” experience somehow, letting you concentrate on the game in front of you instead.

Mark Fossen: The control scheme that was implemented in NHL 07 is still largely in place, with a few well-implemented additions. I thought it was excellent then, and only gets better as the animations and physics become more responsive. It is utterly intuitive, yet there’s a depth there that I think will take experts some time to master. You mentioned that the analog stick controls speed, and the complexities of managing that will be one of the things that separates the good players from… well, me. It’s hard to get your mind around not always slamming the left stick in the direction you want to go, but the way that plays into your turn radius and control is a remarkable addition to the game.

Shawn Drotar: To that end, the game’s developers added a clever “stick telemetry” function that’s accessible in many of the game’s practice modes and in replay during a game. You raved about this feature when we played it - tell us about it.

Mark Fossen: It’s one of my favorite features; a simple implementation of the kind of feedback we’re beginning to see in serious online titles. HALO 2 set the bar with the detailed match information available on bungie.net, and HALO 3 looks to be continuing that with the “Saved Films” feature. In many practive modes, and in all replays, you will see two circles at the bottom of the screen. These show what you’re doing with the two analog sticks at any time. It’s a great learning tool to use while figuring out this control scheme, as it completely obliterates that old gamer excuse of “I was shooting! Why didn’t this broken game let me shoot?!” Now, you can simply check the replay and see what went wrong, and hopefully learn how to correct that when you play next. As a control and mechanics geek, this kind of feedback is seventh heaven. It’s also going to help with one of the few drawbacks in the control scheme. In the default setup, the controls reverse depending on if you’re going up or down the ice. Although in theory, it makes sense that you’re always pushing the stick towards the goal to shoot, I know it caused problems for both of us in practice. It can be changed in the game’s options, but the telemetry will be a help in adjusting to the default controls.

Shawn Drotar: No question about it: I’ll be switching the controls so “up” always shoots. Even though going towards the net makes perfect sense, it never clicked for me. But those changes are easy to make from the pause menu for each player, so it’s really just a matter of preference. What’s important is that the two-stick/two-trigger scheme works, and it works very well. In a funny story, the telemetry’s genesis apparently sprang from an unnamed developer who kept claiming that his players were shooting when he wanted to deke. So the producers came up with a way to quiet the complainers; showing them exactly where their sticks were at every moment. There goes my excuse.

21 Responses to 'NHL 08 Community Day: The Play’s the Thing'

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  1. Hank said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 6:58 am

    Great review guys! I loved how geeked you were about the defensive aspects of NHL08 and how cruel the AI can be if you’re caught running around chasing the puck.

    Great job!

  2. Chris said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 7:58 am

    Mark or Shawn, did either of you happen to play NHL 07?

    I’m eagerly anticipating this game after seeing the potential that NHL 07 had. While it was a fun game, the AI was lacking in certain areas, such as defensive positioning.

  3. Wowser said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 8:08 am

    Guys - great news on NHL 08. I have been looking for a GREAT hockey game for a long time now.

    On a different note - what did you think about the game’s presentation? EA seems to be getting some of the gameplay right on a few games here recently but have been sorely lacking in the presentation department. Thanks!

  4. Mark Fossen said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 8:48 am

    Chris -

    I did play NHL 07. The team claims substantial improvements, and it feels to me like they’re there. AI issues sometimes take a while to come out, and much of my play was multiplayer. I’m not claiming the game won’t have an AI flaw, but I sure didn’t see anything. I played the AI on the hardest difficulty level, and the play was excellent. I obviously got my ass handed to me, but it didn’t feel cheap at all … they just played very god hockey and reacted incredibly quickly (the reaction itself, not the skating speed).

    Wowser -
    There’s a lot to like in the presentation, but what really got me was the commentary. They’ll actually point out what you’re doing wrong, and how to fix it: “They need to stop playing so much zone defense, and start checking their man if they want to get back in this.”
    It isn’t the complete TV experience that the 2K games often have, but it’s lively and informative without getting in the way.

  5. Tomymac23 said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 9:01 am

    Great info. guys. Was there any mentioning of the PS3 as to whether it would run @ 60 FPS as well or was this an Xbox only event?

  6. Erick said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 9:37 am

    Thanks guys! Sounds like they fixed what eventually made NHL 07 too frustrating to play (I wanted to break controllers last year)…No doubt what NHL game I’m running with this year

  7. Shawn Drotar said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Tonymac,
    We do know what speed the game runs on the PS3, but we signed an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) and cannot comment on that at this point.

    I can say that the game was running only on Xbox 360s at the event. There were no PS3s there, and a different team creates the PC version.

    There are other exciting things covered by the NDA, as well - after EA releases that info in August, we’ll be able to talk about it. This is standard practice in the industry - we’re not trying to hold out on you, but we do respect EA’s right to formally release their own information when they are the ones that initially reveal it to people like ourselves at hosted events.

  8. Shawn Drotar said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    Chris -
    I played NHL 07 as well, and NHL 08’s defense was a whole new experience for me; smarter, faster and more consistent.

    If you want to rough everybody up, you can - it’s high-risk, high-reward. If you want to hang back, trap and close the lanes, you can. I appreciated being able to shut down the slot and force shots from sharper angles.

    It does reward the smarter and more disciplined player. The guys we played with at Community Day were good - really good - and the fact that I could win at all is a testament to the game’s rewarding smart play over “twitch” play.

    Although, if you can do both - that won’t hurt. ;)

  9. Unorthadox said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    Really enjoyed the writeup guys, its almost kind of strange to read as I found myself completely agreeing with every point as if you took the words out of my mouth. I guess it just goes to further show what an exciting game we have on our hands as everyone really is ‘gushing’ over it and that is something we haven’t really seen for an NHL title in a long time.

    Once again it was a pleasure to meet the both of you, take care
    Joe

  10. pm83 said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Hi guys and thanks for great info! I have one question that have been bothering my small brains a lot lately.

    Question: When deking fastly with skillstick from left to right is there chance to loose the puck just because player is clumsy (low-skilled stickhandling,deking etc.)?

    In NHL07 it was just too easy to handle the puck with low-skilled players and pull some crazy Ovechkin-style dekes on breakaways. It felt like puck was glued to the blade no matter how fast player deked from side to side.

    Thanks!

  11. Shawn Drotar said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    PM83 -
    When he’s in open ice, no, he won’t lose the puck. But when there’s a man on him, count on it. It’s nearly impossible to take a star player and simply skate through the defense.

  12. Mark Fossen said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Joe -

    It was fun meeting a lot of the community. And I kept looking around wondering “Am I the only one who’s completely blown away by this?” … and the answer was no. We all seemed to be having pretty much the same reaction.

  13. ThaGreatBrain said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    The more I read this, the more I feel excited about 08. I haven’t played a EA hockey game since 05 and now I can see this as a game I’m warming up to. My question is that what have they done with Franchise/Dynasty mode? Did you get any of that information?

  14. Shawn Drotar said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    ThaGreatBrain -
    Yes, we did, but that information is under embargo as part of our NDA and we can’t discuss it at this time.

  15. Scott said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    Awesome!!! I can’t wait for this game.

  16. Scottd said,

    on July 31st, 2007 at 8:21 pm

    Very good reading. I like the tag team approach you guys did, very funny. This game looks amazing and sounds like it even plays better than it looks. Great job guys!

  17. brian said,

    on August 1st, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Hi guys - GREAT post….couple questions:

    1) Can you poke check with the right stick like you can in 2k7 (basically you can go side to side with your stick on defense while skating backwards to block the passing lanes)

    2) Can you lay your stick on the ground on defense?

    3) How are the new opening scenes for each team? Anything specific?

    4) Are the goal horns real with real music they play at the arenas????

  18. Dan said,

    on August 3rd, 2007 at 8:50 am

    How is the create-a-player? Can you really customize your player? unique gear? tucked jersey?


  19. on August 11th, 2007 at 7:04 am

    […] NHL 08 Community Day: The Play’s the Thing […]


  20. on September 4th, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    […] In more positive news for EA, two of the most-anticipated sports titles of the year are due to arrive in one week - the ridiculously good NHL 08, which we’ve discussed in depth here, here and here - and “skate”, the anti-Tony Hawk skateboarding title that makes the simple sublime. Both these games have demos available on Xbox Live, and if you haven’t checked them out yet, you owe it to yourself to start downloading them now. […]


  21. on September 12th, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    […] Since I’ve covered this game in complete detail here, here and here, I won’t belabor the point. […]

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