Thursday, February 21, 2008

EA Sports: O Canada

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear

With profuse apologies to Buffalo Springfield, what IS happening here?

EA's team sports games have been so dependably poor for so long that I never expected to see a great one again. My narrative about this was that EA's development process for annual sports game releases was so broken that the system itself ensured that great games wouldn't, couldn't, get made. This narrative had been so correct for so long that it seemed to be set in stone.

Deus ex machina, anyone? And can I even use the phrase "deus ex machina" in reference to a hockey game?

NHL 08 (360) is so extravagantly polished, so spit-shined, so gloriously fun that it must have come from someone else.

Sure, it's not perfect. There's not nearly enough action along the boards. Passes are tape-to-tape. Penalties aren't evenly distributed. Fourth lines don't get enough playing time. There's even a bug where a point gets awarded incorrectly in the standings in games where a penalty shot is taken. On very rare occasions, the puck might get stuck in or near the net.

Like I've always said, though, a great game overcomes its weaknesses. Damn, this game does that ten times over.

Positives? Hell, get a drink--this is going to be LONG.

First off, the game menus are logically designed. Almost everything is where you expect it to be, and almost every function in the game is easily accessible and easy to understand (with a few minor exceptions in Franchise mode, scouting in particular).

Loading times? Minimal. This game boots up and loads/saves dynasties faster than any sports game I can remember in this generation of consoles. The music is even well-selected.

NHL 08 goes completely against the grain of other EA team sports games, because it is totally flexible when it comes to presentation. As an example, if you don't want to see the scoreboard, you can completely remove it.

I've wanted that in sports games for years.

In this game, though, you don't even have to, because the scoreboard is both small as well as intelligently managed--when the puck nears the scoreboard overlay, the scoreboard simply becomes transparent. That's an example of the remarkable clarity of thought used in the design of this game.

Want to watch a CPU vs. CPU game to help in the development of sliders? No problem. That seems like a small thing, but it's not if you want to play a game seriously, because CPU vs CPU play is incredibly effective in developing effective sliders.

In addition to a clear, flexible design, it is impossible to overstate how fantastic this game looks in HD. It's shocking. And the framerate is silky-smooth at all times, so there are no gameplay sacrifices for the stunning look of the game.

Animation? It's fantastic, some of the best animation I've ever seen in a sports game.

Camera angles? Almost perfect, and hey, there's even more than one!

Sound effects? Spectacular.

Commentary? Superb, and particularly notable is the dynamic nature of the commentary depending on your strategy. If you try to do the same thing over and over again, you'll hear about it in no uncertain terms, and it sounds entirely realistic.

Controls? They're intuitive and easily learned, but that doesn't imply that they're inadequate. They're just not needlessly cluttered, and using the right analog stick for shooting feels totally natural.

Accelerated clock? Check. Fully playable minor league? Check. Just about everything else I can think of? Check.

The game does play too fast out of the box (adjustable with sliders), and like I said, it does play too "pretty," but man, it's just incredibly fun. Fun, fun, fun.

Here's one brief example of how well-designed this game is, and it's by no means the only example. When there's a stoppage in play for a face-off, there's a very brief replay while players are ostensibly skating to the face-off circle. During that replay, if you're using automatic line changes, you'll see a small overlay in the corner that tells you what line is coming on to the ice, and a simple push on the D-pad will let you cycle through the lines. The replay ends, the face-off takes place, and the line you want is on the ice. It's a small detail, but the small details are brilliantly handled in this game.

Money plays? I haven't found any. Superstar, in particular, is damned hard, at least for me. The A.I. is challenging and different teams play very differently, as they should.

Here are some sliders for Superstar difficulty, and some of the changes (game speed, pass speed, etc.) would apply to any difficulty level. Sliders are on a 0-6 scale.
Skill Level: Superstar
Game Speed: 0
Puck Control: 2
Fight Difficulty: 2
Fatigue Effect: 5
AI Learning: 6
Fatigue Recovery: 1
Player Acceleration: 2
Hitting Power: 2
Aggression: 4
Poke Effectiveness: 5
Pass Speed: 0
Saucer Pass Speed: 3
Pass Interceptions: 5
Goalie Passing: 2
Shot Accuracy: 6
Shot Power: 2
Shot Blocking: 3
Hook Effectiveness: 5
Penalty Shot Frequency: 6
Goalie Cover Puck Frequency: 2

Here's a fair question: if this game is so damn good, if it's sensational (it is), why didn't I write about it before now? There were a few little things I wanted to see addressed in a patch, as well as one not-so-little thing (a bug with penalty shots and how points are awarded in Dynasty mode), and I kept waiting for them to be addressed.

And they weren't.

At some point, though, I realized that this game's greatness even overcame the bugs, and by a wide degree. It's just a great, wonderful, fun game.

This game, by the way, was developed by EA Canada.

Coincidentally, every time in the last few months that I mentioned Winning Eleven/PES (which seems to be going sideways as a franchise, not forward), you guys would e-mail me and tell me to try the FIFA 08 demo.

Seriously, I thought, you must be kidding me. FIFA has been shit for so long that downloading a demo would be a waste of hard drive space.

Last week, though, I did download the demo, and I was totally shocked. Yes, it was just a demo, but that game has seriously improved. It's light-years ahead of any other version of FIFA I've seen in the last five years.

Oh, and it was developed by EA Canada as well.

Skate, which has gotten excellent reviews and breathed life into the skateboarding game genre? EA Canada.

What the hell is going on in the Great White North? NHL, in particular, is so much better than Tiburon's efforts on the NCAA/Madden series that it's downright embarrassing.

Do you hear me, Tiburon? EMBARRASSING. Every employee at Tiburon should be given a copy of NHL 08 and required to play for twenty hours, so they can understand how a team sports game should be made.

Sure, EA Canada has whiffed a few times. They also develop NBA Live (let me get a clothespin for my nose). Maybe even that game, though, has hope.

So when I talk about EA team sports games from now on, I will properly acknowledge EA Canada's efforts. As far as I'm concerned, NHL 08 is the Sports Game of the Year in 2007. And I'll be playing it for a long, long time.

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