NHL 09

BY Jeremy Steeves  //  September 26, 2008

The year's champion hockey title.


hen the 2K Sports hockey franchise advertised their game as "Bringing the fun back to hockey" I know the team at EA Sports was worried. 2K has playoff beards, you say? Oh, no. Intermission Zamboni-driving? Hot damn. Yeah, I would say without question this motivated EA to produce the finest product they could. Sorry 2K, but there's simply no amount of facial hair or ice grooming that is going to stop NHL 09 from being the champion hockey title this year.

There's not a whole lot of extra visual polish over what you would see in NHL 08 (reviewed on Game and Player last year). Certainly the menu system looks spruced up with new player background images, but in-game there's little worth mentioning. The crowd looks understandably average (with an odd, noticeable lack of females) and at ice level it's hard to tell the game apart from last year's. Animations are noticeably better than 08, with a variety of new hits and goaltender saves, but cutscenes are often choppy with severe frame-rate issues. That being said, everything ties together for an atmosphere that's certainly just as immersive.

Easily the strongest feature:
play 6-on-6 in the
EA Sports Hockey League.
Some of the new value-added features you'll find in NHL 09 include: the ability to save replays and upload them online; historic team jerseys; custom soundtrack input; new European hockey leagues; and the two more significant additions, the Be A Pro mode and EA Sports Hockey League. I recently wrote about the EASHL as having the potential to revolutionize virtual sport and, for the large part, this potential has been realized.

Despite some extremely frustrating server issues that, on more than one occasion, have prevented users from being able to find league matches, the EASHL has been received exceptionally well. Being able to gather a group of friends and form a team to compete 6-on-6 against other user-based teams is easily one of the strongest features of NHL 09. In addition, the fantastic integration of the Be A Pro mode makes league games that much more rewarding to win.

The Be A Pro mode was just introduced to the NHL series this year. It had been featured in a few other EA Sports games last year, and thankfully hockey gamers now get to experience what others have been raving about.

You'll be prompted to create your Be A Pro player when you load NHL 09 for the first time though if you don't feel like creating a player at that time, or would like to make changes later, the option is always available. The premise here is for you to be able to recreate yourself in the game as either a skater or goalie and establish yourself from a rookie in the AHL, to a legend in the NHL.

Presentation here is top-notch, and though you only control your individual player on the ice, the specialized camera and unique controls allow you to indirectly manage what your teammates do by calling for a pass, yelling when to shoot, and even getting on and off the bench for a line change. Between periods and following the game your coach with evaluate your play by assigning letter grades to different components of your play. Good performances translate into player attribute points, which you can then allocate to different areas to improve your created player. Your offline stats are completely independent of your online stats however (for obvious balance reasons). Though you'll be using the same Be A Pro player that you used offline on your EASHL team, you must earn your attribute points all over again.

With so many new features included this year, it's easy to forget mentioning the improvements made to the core game mechanics. The speed of the game has been slowed down considerably which makes for a far more realistic presentation of hockey.

Everything ties together.
Offensively, you'll probably have a much harder time scoring goals with amped-up AI defensemen and goaltenders, as well as a new checking system that works far better than the "homing missile" style checking we witnessed in NHL 08. The offense hasn't been ignored, though, as you now having the ability to flip-dump the puck into your opponents' end by holding the right bumper and flicking the skill stick forwards. There's also a new one-handed deke move that allows players to get creative when one-on-one with the goalie. These seemingly small changes build on what was a good experience in NHL 08, and nail down exactly how a virtual hockey game should play.

There really isn't anything not to like about NHL 09. Whether evaluating visuals or mechanics it's simply hard to find faults that influence actual gameplay. If a sports title could ever win game of the year, this would be it. The only real challenge EA has for next year is to find a name for its new iteration — NHL 10 just doesn't work.

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