Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Electronic Arts
Release Date: September 9, 2008
If you're short on time and just need to read a sentence or two about this game, here it is: NHL 09 is the best hockey game on the market this year, and it makes a strong case for being the best hockey game ever made. It's not the best sports game ever made — that goes to NFL 2K5, in my book — but it's certainly up there with the best of them. If you like hockey games at all, you really owe it to yourself to at least give NHL 09 a try.
NHL 09 is fairly similar to last year's title, which is a very good thing because NHL 08 was a very, very good hockey game. The refinements are numerous, and there are several new features in NHL 09. As a result, NHL 09 is an extremely refined hockey title that is an absolute blast to play.
Back from last year's title is the amazing skill stick control scheme. With this control scheme, you have to think of the left thumbstick as the player and the right thumbstick as the hockey stick. This is a system that works wonders, especially with the vastly improved puck physics from last year's title. It's easy and intuitive to skate one way while simultaneously holding the puck away from defenders in a game of keep-away. Shooting is a simple matter of flicking the right stick toward the goal or winding up by first pulling away from the goal. It's an awesome system that can be initially a little difficult to pick up and get right, especially if you're on defense, since checking is assigned to the right thumbstick, but once you learn it, bringing the other team to its knees feels incredible. If you find it hard to pick up this control style — or have friends who are new to the game and are getting their butts kicked — there are several different control options.
The most interesting one is the NHL 94 control scheme, which is probably an attempt by EA to do something similar to the "All Play" feature found in the Wii editions of this year's football titles. In this control scheme, everything gets mapped to the A and B buttons. Your options become extremely limited, down to checking and changing a player on defense, with pass and shoot being the offensive options. While you won't be pulling off any trick shots in that control scheme, it's a nice attempt at letting beginners hop right into the game.
As mentioned, defensive play can be a little difficult to pick up this year. The skill stick has gotten some defensive upgrades that allow you to counter some of the offensive moves, like one-timers. These can be a little tough to pick up, but the computer-controlled players have no problem abusing these moves, so while you're learning how to do it, you'll frequently find yourself frustrated about missed passes that can be attributed to the CPU using the defensive skill stick. Checking has also been changed around this year. With last year's game, the open-ice hip check was a frequent occurrence, and most checks would end with at least one player sprawled on the ice. This year, things have been toned down, and while you can still take players down, it looks a lot more real and checking is generally going to knock someone off the puck or stop him from shooting, passing, receiving a pass, or doing anything offensively. Checking is done with the right thumbstick, and it can be difficult to judge what's going to hit and what's going to result in your player gliding around on the ice and ready to knock out whatever he hits first. Once you get it down, though, the other team becomes an all-you-can-hit buffet.
This is assuming that you can get yourself set up to take out the AI-controlled players. NHL 09's computer-controlled teams put up a much bigger challenge than last year's. Open-ice hits are difficult, controlling the AI's offense can be tough, but it generally feels pretty fair, and any goals that the AI manages to score feel as if they're your fault. The goalies seem to be superhuman in ability, frequently making crazy saves. Things would get a little cheap toward the end of games, when the other team would suddenly become a team of all-star players. On several occasions, I found myself winning 3-0 with three minutes left on the game clock, but by the time the counter reached zero, I was losing 3-4. It's very frustrating to play a nearly flawless game and then have it ripped away from you in a matter of seconds by what feels more like cheap AI than mistakes on your part. It's not something that comes up all the time, but it's very frustrating when it does.
Other than the standard graphics and animation updates to this already very pretty and well-animated title, the biggest addition to NHL 09 this year is probably the Be a Pro mode. This is the same thing we saw in FIFA 08, only translated to work well with hockey. It's an awesome mode that does do a great job of making you feel like you're playing as that guy. You can either create a player and take him from the minors to the top or just pick a regular hockey player and live out his career. Generally, you're given goals that the organization wants you to achieve by the end of the year, and they'll also give you tips about what you're doing right and wrong.
NHL 09 grades you on three things: position, stats and team play. Whenever you really play out of position, the game will let you know with a large arrow on the ice pointing to where you need to go. Team play involves passing the puck and not being selfish. Stats are just flat-out the numbers that you put up. As you skate around, your player will get tired, and you'll need to change the lines and watch for a minute as your skater rests. You need to time your departure from the ice because your entire line comes off with you, which could leave almost no defense if the other team has the puck. When you come off the ice, your coach will give you a grade for how you've been playing in each aspect and tell you some things you've been doing well and need to work on. It all works together in a fantastic manner and really makes you feel like you're some new rookie climbing up the ranks to becoming a legendary hockey player.
While many of the changes and new features are fantastic, there are still a few things that didn't get changed and stand out in the crowd of features. Other than the Be a Pro mode, the other main single-player offering in NHL 09 is Dynasty mode. This is a basic franchise mode with a number of good features, but it isn't as deep as the franchise mode in the NHL 2K series, and it seems completely untouched from last year. Another largely unchanged aspect is the announcers. While they do a pretty good job of calling the game, only rarely making a mistake (only, they called it a 1-0 game when the actual score was 4-2), it's a little disappointing to hear almost nothing new from them. Finally, EA really needs to pick some better music for these games. While there are about 14 songs in the game, I never heard anything other than the Panic at the Disco track and the Coheed and Cambria song, neither of which are anything that even remotely resembles a good fit for a hockey game.
Heading onto Xbox Live can be both an incredibly fun experience and a frustrating one at the same time. Actual people play the game a lot differently than CPUs do, and just doing standard 1v1 matches can be an absolute blast. Even better is the inclusion of leagues and bringing the Be a Pro mode online in a spectacular way by allowing for 12-player online matches, where each player has permanent control over one position on the ice. When these matches get going, things get crazy in a hurry and it's a blast. However, there are some very noticeable lag issues online, which result in dropped matches, random lag spikes, and occasionally unplayable games. It's aggravating to try and deal with this when the rest of the title is so good. I still enjoyed my time online with NHL 09, though; it just needs some better net coding.
NHL 09 is as real of a hockey game as it can get. It looks great, sounds good (if repetitive), plays great and has an amazing set of features. Some occasional AI issues, a mostly untouched franchise mode, and some online lag issues drag the game away from pure hockey perfection. It still stands well above the competition, and if you've ever enjoyed a hockey game in the past or have wanted to play one, NHL 09 is your best bet for hockey fun this year, hands down.
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