If there is one hockey game to pick up this year, this is it.
For the past several seasons, NHL fans have known which game offers the real-deal hockey simulation, and EA has taken their franchise to even bigger heights in NHL 09. Improving on an already stellar offering last year, EA’s tried and tested formula has been tweaked just enough to offer more variety in NHL 09, without messing with an already great system. With only two options on the market, there is no question that sports gamers looking for the ultimate hockey title in ’09 should side with EA.
Aside from comparing NHL 09 to its competitor, the only other thing to examine is exactly how much more it has to offer over last year’s title.
As soon as you start up a game you’ll notice how different NHL 09 is. You are immediately required to create an athlete (presumably yourself) in a semi-detailed character customization. You’ll modify everything from facial features to hairstyles and your personal gear, with lots of hot licensed equipment to choose from. You’ll assign yourself the position of forward, defenseman, or goalie. NHL 09 has an extremely personalized feel to it, intended for the game’s two new modes – Be A Pro and EA Sports Hockey League – in which you take on the role of a single athlete and are literally thrust into the game.
In Be a Pro, you’ll work your way up from the minors to the NHL, starting out as a less-skilled third-line athlete in the slower-paced, somewhat sloppier AHL. It will take a lot of games to improve your skills as you make your way to the big leagues, though those not willing to invest such time also have the option of playing as a readily-skilled NHL pro to dominate the competition and gain experience points much more quickly. You’ll be controlling your player alone, but EA does an amazing job of giving you more functions, including calling for the puck, directing your teammates when to shoot, and calling line changes. It makes line changing much more in-depth, as you or one of your teammates will have to dump the puck while you make your way off the ice then enjoy the view from the bench. When you’re ready to go back in, call for another change. Watching the game through this first-person perspective from the bench is when you really start to realize how the game is focused on putting you in the game, with big skates to fill. Working your way up from the AHL does not come easy, and for those who really get into Be A Pro, the mode does its job by occupying the player’s time and offering lots of play value.
The other new addition to EA’s NHL experience is the fantastic EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL), which is something unlike we have ever seen in any hockey title. It takes the same functions of Be A Pro and puts them online, where all twelve on-ice players, including the two goalies, are controlled by party members. You’ll take control of your player and fill the appropriate position, similarly calling plays and hitting the bench when you need to. This is something online hockey players have been craving, and because something like this has never been done before, it’s inevitably not without its flaws. Playing a game with 12 different players online can be a tad chaotic, which is why working with a team full of friends will function more smoothly. The EASHL is endless fun and the introduction of this fantastic online multiplayer mode is a fantastic innovation that will inevitably help shape sports games in the years to come.
With the additions of these modes, EA has very wisely decided not to tinker too much with what made last year’s installment so successful. Dynasty Mode is pretty much the same as it has been, offering countless hours of solo activity that allows you to traditionally play as an entire team, switching back and forth between players. Of course, you can always play a simple Exhibition match, choosing from a wide variety of teams from around the globe.
One of the biggest gameplay improvements is with the game’s skill stick, which has been given a significant makeover on the defensive end. Players can now use the Right Analog to poke-check or lift the other player’s stick from under him, potentially causing him to lose control of the puck or screw up a shot. While defense has never been more functional with the skill stick, offensive moves such as flip dump-ins are essential when changing lines. EA has definitely worked harder to give the player more control, using the analog as a virtual hockey stick that functions better than it ever has before. For fans of past control setups, the game allows you to switch button controls to the popular 06 and 04 setups, which involved more use of face buttons, as EA is doing all they can to keep diehard NHL vets just as happy as new school gamers.
Graphically, NHL 09 is extremely clean. Players look incredible, complete with facial expressions during close-up shots. The crowd appears more realistic than ever, as spectators cheer and react to in-game activity. Stadiums are atmospheric, as the camera pans over freshly-polished ice and the reflection of players gleam off of it. NHL 09 is definitely easy on the eyes, and the graphics do a fantastic job of drawing the player into the action – though it too is definitely not without its flaws. The game has framerate issues, especially during pre-recorded celebrations, replays and up-close shots with lots of onscreen activity. This problem isn’t only present in NHL 09. I have noticed shuttering issues in several EA Sports games recently, and I feel this is something that the developers seriously need to nip in the bud. It’s not a serious problem in NHL 09 if you don’t mind the visual skipping of player movement, but it makes for unpleasant and unsmooth viewing, as players awkwardly shutter on and off the ice.
The duo of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement offer some of the best commentary of any sports game I have ever heard. Everything they say is enthusiastic, entertaining, and relevant to what is actually happening onscreen, as NHL 09 and its predecessor have raised the bar for what sports game commentating should sound like. Too often, games are ruined by generic, frequently irrelevant, and annoying commentary, whereas NHL 09 is actually made better by its insightful, diverse play-by-play.
With its beautiful presentation, broadcast-like feel, smooth control scheme, and innovative new online functions, NHL 09 is not only the best hockey title on the market, it may very well be the best of all-time. Simply, it seems that while EA has perfected their brand of hockey simulation, 2K is still trying to figure things out, and NHL 09 is simply too big of an entity to compete with. The key now is for EA to fix up some of the framerate issues while not tinkering with too many gameplay mechanics to top their accomplishments in 2010.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
While stadiums and athletes look great, player movement and other onscreen activity can suffer from blemishing framerate issues. 4.5 Control
Excellent Skill Stick improvements don’t change things too much from last year, while offering a number of different controller setups. 4.6 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Good, energetic soundtrack and stadium ambience. Excellent commentary is a true testament to how play-by-play in sports games should be. 4.6 Play Value
The inclusion of new game modes while leaving past game modes unchanged only builds upon last year’s title. Online EA Sports Hockey League is an innovative feature that will change sports games as we know them. 4.4 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.