Publisher: Take-Two Interactive
Developer: Visual Concepts
Release Date: September 8, 2008
Ah, the NHL, one of the few sports where EA and 2K Sports continue to duke it out for the consumer's dollar. EA has control on the football market and 2K has had the baseball market for the last few years, so it's nice to see some competition. However, it appears that 2K never got the memo that there's competition for the hockey game purchase because what they've issued this year feels like a trip down memory lane … to a game that's remarkably similar to NHL 2K5. NHL 2K9 is eons behind EA's current efforts in the hockey game department.
When you start to play NHL 2K9, it quickly becomes evident that this isn't a game that strives for realism. It is more on the arcade side of things, which is fine if you go all-out with it, and NHL 2K9 does not. You're treated to a very arcade-style shooting system with abysmal goaltending. (Why can't my goalie save a wrist shot from the blue line but stop a slap shot from point-blank range?) However, collisions will knock down both players for several seconds, players will stumble around with the puck when they get hit, getting up to speed takes time, lining up open ice hits are difficult, etc. It's a bizarre combination of gameplay elements that almost makes it feel like two different games. On one side, you have the shooting gallery where the goaltender will regularly come out of the net by several feet to get a shot that was nowhere near the net, along with freakishly good shooting by almost every player. Yet when you're not shooting, NHL 2K9 feels like you're wrestling with reality to catch the superhuman shooter.
From a gameplay perspective, the only things that feel any different are a camera angle that's closer to the ice and your movement around the ice. The movement has been slowed down to a point of frustration because offensive shooting is the most entertaining part of NHL 2K9.
Touted as new features for this year's iteration are several little small things, although none of them come across as very fun or valid selling points. First you have the Zamboni mini-game, in which you're tasked with cleaning the ice between periods using the Zamboni, which looks hideous and is covered in Best Buy labels. This should be the first red flag. The second should be that you literally just spent three minutes driving around a hockey rink trying to drive over every single square inch of it. Driving around in circles for three minutes is not fun at all. It's mind-boggling how 2K thought this was a good idea.
The second new thing is a "brand new fighting engine," which is better than the Zamboni mini-game but still doesn't do much to capture fighting in the NHL. When a fight kicks in, the skaters will circle each other for about 10 seconds before they grab each other's jerseys and throw down. You get two punch buttons, and the triggers control your balance. As you hit the other player, you can get hit. Once out of that region for a few seconds (or there's no area left for your balance meter), you fall to the ground. In every single fight I had, both on-and offline, I didn't lose once. I also never really felt like I was in a fight, as it felt more like a button-masher on a balance beam.
All of the other new touted features are either completely useless or things that you expect out of sports games on a year-to-year basis. Updated animations and graphics are there, but the graphics generally fail to impress, with flat-looking characters, far too much use of depth-of-field camera effects, and players that only barely resemble their real-life counterparts. User-controlled celebrations aren't anything spectacular, and "play-off beards" are just laughable as a new feature. There's even an Achievement for scoring a hat trick with a player who has fully grown out his "play-off beard."
At least when you play, you're given plenty of options on how to control the players. By default, you're assigned to the classic control scheme, which plays with generally sharp controls, just as the NHL 2K series always has, but when looking at what EA's series has done with the controls in NHL 08, it's hard not to look at these controls as clunky and ancient-feeling. As a response, you have two new control schemes: one is more or less a clone of the EA control scheme, minus the awesome feeling of using the right stick to check other players. You also have a hybrid control scheme that sort of gets the job done.
On the audio front, the announcers are miserable, frequently miscalling things and generally having nothing interesting to say. At least a dozen times, I heard them miscall the goalie being pulled from the other team's net. Otherwise, you have a mixed bag of a soundtrack. There's some great stuff on there, with artists like Bad Religion, The Offspring and Joe Satriani, but some not-so-great songs are also present.
There are a number of throwaway features, such as pond hockey and mini-rink, which are just smaller games of hockey with no rules and no announcers. However, the franchise mode is incredibly deep, and by far the best offering for the single-player modes. In here, you control almost every aspect of your team, or, if it seems overwhelming, the CPU can control it for you.
Even if the rest of NHL 2K9 seems somewhat lackluster compared to EA's NHL series, the online component is incredible. There are fully featured leagues, rankings and weekly tournaments. You can customize your online avatar, go and chat in lobbies, and even put down when you have free time for your leagues. It's an amazing system that works even better due to almost no lag online. Seeing as the AI never really puts up a decent fight, being able to instantly jump into a lag-free online match with the increased challenge of real people is awesome.
While the gameplay itself might not hold up very well to its competitors, there's still fun to be had with NHL 2K9. However, its mix of arcade and realism — combined with almost no challenge from the AI, unimpressive graphics, mediocre audio, and dated controls — drag down the title. The new features are generally useless, and while the title can be fun and newcomers will probably have a lot of it, NHL 2K9 isn't stagnating; it's just a really big honkin' house.
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