Dave Mekelburg
Finally. Hockey has a home outside of Canada – your Xbox 360. (COURTESY OF EA SPORTS)

It’s tough being a hockey fan in 2007.

Ignorant pseudo-sports fans berate you for supporting a sport without a ball, ticket prices are ridiculous and the NHL’s games are nationally televised on a station whose previous notoriety involved “Survivor” reruns and bicycle riding.

Yet all is not lost for fans of Canada’s greatest export. In fact, the year’s best sports video game features Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes as its coverboy. Yes, he’s a hockey player, and yes, the Hurricanes are in the NHL.

As EA Sports’s second NHL title on a next-generation system, “NHL 08” might be the greatest hockey game ever made (and I’m looking at you, “NHL ’94”).

Building on “NHL 07’s” introduction of the innovative Skill Stick, which gave gamers control of their player’s stick via the right analog stick, “08” picks up where “07” left off and delivers an obsessively detailed hockey video game.

Almost everything about the game is ideal. The game play is quick, but not so fast as to seem unrealistic or make setting up a power play impossible. The dynasty mode is thorough, capturing almost everything related to the game, and goals actually must be earned – no longer can you simply manufacture them through easy one-timers.

But most impressive is the way “08” manages to make the most realistic hockey game to date accessible to almost anyone. It’s true to its source material and simultaneously an absorbing, high-tempo game that anyone with a competitive draw will cling to.

So step aside, Mr. Crosby – this game just might be the sport’s best new ambassador.

Channel your inner “Rocket” Richard: “NHL 08” isn’t a radical departure from this year’s outing, but it has refined, deepened and built on it. For “08,” EA added a new one-on-one deke system that allows players to make aggressive moves in open ice. With some finagling of both analog sticks and the left bumper, players can push the pick around a backpedaling defender and burn them to move in on net alone. It’s not foolproof – and it shouldn’t be – but it provides a wicked offensive arsenal when combined with the already deep stick control.

Late Kubrick project: One of the problems with sports games is that playing against the computer is much easier and far less natural than playing against another person. While it can’t compete with its self-aware counterpart, “08” boasts an improved in-game A.I. that claims to learn and pick up tendencies. It can’t read your mind – well, it probably can’t read your mind – but if you try and cut toward the middle every time you enter the offensive zone, it will start putting you on your ass by the second period.

So you want to fail econ . : The online feature set in the game is so deep that I almost don’t want to tell you about it for your own sake. There are ranked quick matches, team matches where you can play with five other teammates, shootouts and online leagues. Yes, you can organize your own little virtual league and guarantee you’ll never be productive again.

Practice makes you a loser: New in “08” is the ability to draw up your own plays and execute them during the game. You can then practice your pre-created plays in any conceivable scenario to hone your skills. Or you can simply practice your power play, penalty kill or breakouts whenever you desire. Depth is always appreciated in a game, but something is wrong when people are seriously practicing video games.

Starring John Forsythe: “08’s” dynasty mode has practically everything anyone could want in an NHL dynasty mode. Not only do players have full control over player personnel, but they also have control of their AHL affiliate, which is stocked with real farm club players governed by one- and two-way contracts. Standard dynasty fixtures like scouting and manipulating ticket prices are also here, and players from the Swedish and Finnish Elite Leagues can be scouted and signed as well.

Better than “’94”?: It’s hard to say. The games represent completely different eras in gaming – it’s the equivalent of comparing Wayne to Gordie. On its own, though, “08” stands as a near-perfect hockey game and a solid foundation for future NHL titles.

NHL 08

XBox 360

EA Sports

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