Every now and then a game comes along that redefines the way we look at what a video game, and in this case a sports game, can be. NHL 08 on the XBox 360 is one of those games. As this game got closer and closer to release the positive hype continued to build. I generally pay no attention to previews since they are usually more or less written by the publishers themselves, but these were "hands-on" accounts and they were all glowing. That, along with my pressing need to have a good hockey game to play, convinced me to bite the bullet and upgrade to an XBox 360 in time to grab NHL 08 the day it hit store shelves. Was it worth the investment?
From the moment I first "took to the ice" in NHL 08 I knew that I was in for something special. EA Canada's new skating engine is easily the best and most realistic representation of hockey skating ever produced. The skating in this game feels 100% real and natural and that makes it a joy to just cruise around the practice rink, let alone lace up the virtual skates to play an actual game. The game also looks gorgeous. The player models look great, but more importantly the animation set for the players (especially the goalies) really brings the game to life. Having real looking players doesn't get you very far if they move like robots. Thankfully that is not the case here. The enhanced controls mapped to the right analog stick also help to give players unprecedented puck control during play. The control scheme in NHL 08 will take a little getting used to for anyone who didn't play 07, but once you get the hang of it the game feels completely natural.
Where NHL 08 really shines though is in the AI department. A lot of the hype around the game went into the adaptive AI system and how it learns and adapts to your playing habits. This has seemed a bit superficial to me so far, but I've never been one to run the same play over and over so I may just be beating the system without trying. Aside from that though, the AI in this game is what takes it to another level from any game of hockey that has come before it. Put simply, the CPU controlled players just play great hockey. Player positioning and decision making is awesome and it really helps the game play like a real game of hockey. This also helps produce the first truly challenging sports game I have played in ages. This isn't a hockey game that tries to provide a challenge by pitting you against superhuman goalies (like in some incarnations of the NHL2k series), you are going up against teams that just play smart and take advantage of your mistakes. Leave an opposing forward alone in the slot and you're going to pay. Get caught pinching on D and prepare to get burned by a streaking winger. I can't stress this enough, for the first time ever you feel like you are participating in a real game of hockey. Frankly, some of the teams in NHL 08 play smarter than their real life counterparts.
As I'm sure you've caught on by now, I'm pretty much in love with this game. Hockey fans no longer have to hearken back to the glory days of the Sega Genesis to recall NHL video games at their peak. EA has gone back to the drawing board and produced the best hockey video game and one of the best sports video games ever made. Yes... EVER. If you are a hockey fan you have to buy this game. If you are a fan of sports games in general you have to buy this game. If you hate hockey and sports games but own a 360, you still owe it to yourself to give this game a try. I can sum up my thoughts on NHL 08 quite easily in two words: best ever.