NHL 2K8 Preview

While the NHL continues to struggle to garner the attention that it deserves from the general sports gaming public, sliding deeper and deeper into the “niche sport” category, NHL hockey games continue to do very well in the market. Year after year, gamers are treated to a face-off between the two sports gaming powerhouses in their battle to claim victory of the frozen floor. While few will argue that the team at Visual Concepts and Kush Games, the makers of the NHL 2K series, has dominated the competition in recent years, rumblings out of Redwood seem to indicate that we may be in for a virtual shootout this season.

Operation Sports had a chance to participate in a conference call this week with three key players behind the soon to be released NHL 2K8, to hear about some new features and talk about what gamers can look forward to when the game hits the shelf in just a couple weeks. Representing 2K were:

Ben Bishop – Producer (Visual Concepts)
Scott Krager - Project Manager (Kush Games)
Colin O'Hara - Lead Designer (Kush Games)

Here are some of the highlights:

…on “What’s New”

Ben was very excited about the changes that have been made going into 2K8. Many have said that 2K has gotten stale and really done little to improve over the past few seasons – that will not be the case this season. Developers are calling this game a whole new experience and are very excited about the product. The game has a new look, a new control scheme – including the new Pro Stick control on offense and Poke Check controls on D, a brand new face-off system, revamped and deeper Franchise Mode, and host of changes to the AI that many felt hampered NHL 2K7.

…on player differentiation

Player differentiation seems to be the battle cry from the guys at Kush for NHL 2K8. While other games in the 2K family stress signature style and animations, the guys on the NHL team see player differentiation in their game as something bigger. Player’s abilities will affect everything about what a player can do. Their use of the Pro Stick, defensive range with the new poke checking system, and how much time your goaltender spends camping in the crease or coming out to challenge will all be unique to the player that you are controlling. It’s not about making Jaomir Jagr's shot look exactly like Jagr’s shot, it’s about Jagr being able to do the things on the ice that Jagr can do.

Perhaps more impressive is the team’s dedication to visually differentiating players on the ice. The team behind NHL 2K8 actually devoted one developer, full-time, to doing nothing but watching hockey for the past year and picking out the equipment that makes each player unique and bringing it to the game. From unique goalie pads to custom gloves like the ones Sidney Crosby wears, they went out of their way to make sure that the player’s looked like the players they were representing. From the tops of their helmets all the way down to Alex Ovechkin’s pretty yellow laces, if it’s in the game, it’s…well you know the rest.

…on the differences between the Xbox 360 and PS3 release

To answer first what has become the standard question for sports games this year, both the 360 and the PS3 version will be playing at 60 frames-per-second. In fact, Scott told us that the 60fps bogey is something that has always been a priority for them. They devout significant time and resources to making sure that, even with new modes, animations and graphics, they never do it at the expense of the frame rate.

In terms of unique features, 360 gamers will be able to use 2K Reel Maker this season to build highlight reels and will also be able to pump out their own custom soundtracks. PS3 fans will have some 6-axis support, mostly in the areas of checking and goalie crease control.

…on the Wii

There are no current plans to bring the game to the Wii that they can speak about. However, it is always on the radar and, with the Wii proving to be a very viable format, it’s something that they have to look at.

…on Sim vs Arcade

While the guys were quick to point out that, when pushed, they always make choices towards realism; it’s a delicate balance because, after all, we are here “to sell units.” They strive to make a good sim and accurate version of hockey, but they never want to make it too hard for a new player. That’s the main reason that you will see sliders in their games. They have a focus for how they want to the game to play, but they don’t want to stop anyone from creating the experience that they are looking for.

…on the Pro Stick

Pro Stick is, obviously, the new feature that is the lynch pin to the changes for 2K8. While many may confuse it with what the folks at EA implemented last year, the Pro Stick is actually giving you control over your players stick completely independent of your player’s skating and other movement. Perhaps most impressive to hear is that the Pro Stick feature, which kind of has a defensive yang to it’s offensive yin with the new Poke Check controls, will be tied directly to a player’s abilities and they will limit or enhance a player’s chances of “pulling certain things off” depending on who they are. You could actually hear the developers beaming over the phone when they spoke praises of this feature and what it did for presenting the best hockey feel that they’ve had in this series.

…on the new face off system

The new face-off system is something that the developers are very proud of. They feel that it is unlike anything you’ve seen in previous NHL releases. After talking to a lot of NHL players, they realize what an important and underappreciated aspect of the game that it is. Face offs are performed with the RS and have been greatly enhanced to include warnings for getting in early, players being tossed out of the circle, and strategic tie-ups that allow another player to come in and move the puck. Hockey fans know that there are players in the NHL that have practically made a career out of being great face off guys, it’s nice to see that aspect of the game is being highlighted in NHL 2K8.

…on Superstar Moves

There will be 12 Superstar moves in the game this year that can be executed, primarily on breakaways and shootouts, that can be learned in a new training mode and executed in game with the right button combination. But, before you start screaming “money play”, these Superstar Moves are not auto-goals. It will take practice and a lot of trial and error to figure out what players can pull off which moves and from where on the ice. They tell us that it won’t be easy, but very satisfying when it works.

…on one-timers

NHL 2K8 will really “bring one timers to the next generation.” They’ve heard the complaints about one-timers and they’ve tried to add a lot of elements to them that gamers will be pleased with. Things like bad angles and positioning will be a much bigger factor this year. Throwing it across the zone time after time will be very difficult and, even when a pass is completed; aiming the shot on the back end of a one-timer will be much more challenging.

…on goalie AI

Though there are no specific individual goalie animations, goalies in 2K8 are going to play better and smarter, but, most importantly, they will play how their attributes dictate. Some goalies will challenge more, you’ll see more butterfly, there are even combo moves within the goalie animations that results in some things that you’ve likely never seen in a hockey title before.

…on checking and fighting

Checking has been revamped and “toned down” to include a lot more pushing animations versus full on checks. The force of your check and its results are very much determined by speed, angle and the players on both ends of the altercation.

Like the real NHL, fighting has not been a huge focal point in the game. They are still there and it has been cleaned up a little bit, but, in an effort to mirror the NHL, you won’t see it very often.

…on the NHL’s new uniforms

The Developers called the NHL “great partners” on more than one occasion; especially when discussion of the new unis and some new logos came up. Everything will be in the game this year, including some things that have not even been revealed to the general public yet. No worries though, once these are made public, 2K Sports will release codes on their website that will allow you to unlock the content for use in the game. But don’t worry, if the new Reebok unis are not your cup of tea, the old ones are in there as well.

…on Franchise mode

The folks at 2K were very proud to talk about the remodeling of the game’s Franchise mode. Contracts, salary caps, waivers, free agency, holdouts, they are all there and integrated into the new experience you’ll find in Franchise mode. Players will gain experience through individual workout while your club will juggle the benefits of increased team chemistry with issue of fatigue by engaging in full team scrimmages. And while they hold no minor league licenses, the minors are a part of NHL 2K8 and prove to be a valuable tool to the development of your young Superstars. As an example, as a GM, you’ll need to decide if your 19 year old phenom is better served getting limited minutes on your 3rd or 4th line versus being a first line starter in the minors. It’s risk and reward and should add a new level of depth to an already solid mode.

…on graphics and presentation

While gameplay was the primary focus on NHL 2K8, you’d be hard pressed to convince me that the visuals in this year’s release didn’t get just as much love. Brand new lighting models and schemes, real equipment, higher resolution, anti-aliasing, self-shadowing and hundreds of new animations are just a handful of things that have been improved for this year’s offering. That’s without even talking about the revamped player models that have been modified to work with the new NHL uniforms as well as the focus on player differentiation.

In terms of presentation, significant new commentary has been recorded as well as an updated system for cleanly stitching commentary together to create a more natural flow. New stat overlays, updated cutscenes, full screen highlight reels and brand new shootout lead ins have also been added to make 2K8 the most visually impressive in the series.

…on the other little things that you might want to know

  • Same countries and historic teams from last season are back
  • Online mode is largely unchanged
  • No studio show, but the highlight reel between periods has been cleaned up
  • Physics have been improved and will really be showcased on deflections, how the puck interacts with the goalie’s pads, and when pucks leave the rink
  • There are no new camera angles in NHL 2K8

While NHL 2K8 will not even hit shelves for another couple weeks, early work has already begun on NHL 2K9. Although it’s too early to speculate on what they’ll be working on in the coming year, they are very pleased with the foundation that they have built with NHL 2K8 and think that hockey lovers and avid gamers alike will love what they’ve done.

Thanks to Ben, Scott, Colin, Chase and everyone from 2K Sports for giving us the opportunity to bring you some insight on what we’ll be seeing from NHL 2K8. We’ll see you all on the ice.