After years of excellent hockey, 2K reinvents itself. Does the new game light the lamp?

After a seven-year love affair with the NHL 2K franchise, it’s time to break up. It’s not you, 2K Sports. It’s me.

Don’t get me wrong. NHL 2K8 is still a great hockey game. One could even argue that it’s the best yet in the franchise’s

history, thanks to excellent visuals, fast-and-furious action and tremendous NHL atmosphere. But NHL 2K8 does something unforgivable. It ditches the simple and easy to use control scheme for a convoluted mess that tries to mimic EA’s skill stick from NHL 07. It’s as if your smoking hot girlfriend came home from the salon with a big-hair perm and bangs. What?

Of course, you will learn the Pro Stick controls soon enough. And to 2K’s credit, the stick isn’t half bad. You can deke past the goalie and defenders using all kinds of nifty combinations. But then shooting and passing are mapped to bumpers, not at all as intuitive as EA’s skill stick, where all shots are mapped to the right analog stick. To shoot, you hit the right bumper. Hold a bit longer for a wrist shot. For a slap shot, hold the left trigger and then hit the right bumper. Huh? There’s also a slight delay when passing, and oftentimes it’s difficult to pass cross-ice to an open man. Instead, you’ll pass to the closest player and then have to pass again. With face buttons, triggers and sticks in play on the controller, you may get lost in the new control set up. Feel free to switch it back.

Once you’ve got a few games under your belt, you’ll appreciate NHL 2K8 for what it is: an ultra fast hockey experience. In fact, it’s a little too fast. With two different speed burst buttons, you can fly around the ice leaving defenders sucking snow. We actually prefer a more realistic passing game than constant breakaways. When you do get into the offensive zone and begin to cycle the puck, the computer will mercilessly check you to the ice and rarely will an offensive possession consist of more than a few passes. We love the big hits, but defense in this game is defined by checking, and that’s just not real hockey. Then again, a lot of games would be pretty damned boring if they tried to perfectly emulate real life, so there will be a lot of people that appreciate this style of gameplay, especially when you high stick your friends in the face over an online match.

And online has never been a problem for 2K Sports. It still delivers with online leagues and tournaments, making it a favorite among hockey fans over Xbox Live. Dynasty is as deep as ever with a full suite of options, allowing you to negotiate each individual contract or let the CPU handle the nitty-gritty while you focus on hockey. 2K also includes a huge list of unlockable classic teams, something every single sports game on the market needs to do. There’s nothing like recreating the ’80 USA team versus the ’80 USSR game. Do you believe in miracles? EA doesn’t.

Once again, NHL 2K is still the best-looking hockey game out there. The arenas, players and ice are equally gorgeous and immediately suck you into to the game. A lower camera angle brings you closer to the action while also showing you more of the ice, perfect for offensive breakaways and watching plays develop. Replays have been souped up as well, making for a great TV-style presentation. Cinemotion also returns, a presentation option that does away with the basic commentary and replays and attempts to create a live-action hockey movie, complete with a tense, cinematic score that ebbs and flows with the action. It’s a nice touch, especially 20 games in when you are about ready to turn off the announcer anyway, as it happens in many sports games (Madden, we’re looking at you).

In the end, NHL 2K8 is still a blast, once you get used to the strange new control setup. There are just too many buttons in play, and it’s terrible when you want to unleash a slap shot from the point but can’t remember which triggers and bumpers to use. Still, fans of the franchise will not be disappointed in this gorgeous game that remains fun in its hit-em-hard, hit-em-fast approach. Looking for on the ice strategy? Look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for blistering hits and lots of breakaways, NHL 2K8 is still your game. Either way, it’s a great year for hockey.