Name: NHL 2K9
Genre: Sports - Hockey
Platform: Wii, Playstation 2, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
The 2K hockey series always had a special place in my heart. Many a night of my college life was spent playing 2K6 and 2K7 with my roommates. There were some heated battles, let me tell you. Last year’s effort was so disappointing, I played it once, and took it back to Gamestop immediately. I was hoping NHL 2K9 would come out a little better, and once again reclaim the hockey crown. Unfortunately, EA has created such a masterpiece; I don’t think 2K will ever be able to regain the throne.
EA’s NHL 07 was the first game to implement the now standard “analog stick = hockey stick” control scheme. Seeing how well it was received, NHL 2K8 tried to add those controls to their game to compete for the 2007 season. They failed miserably. While EA’s was intuitive, and also had a full year of development to improve it, 2K’s was a pale imitation of what their competition was offering. I was hoping this year 2K would bounce back with an improved scheme that would make up for last year’s shortcomings. Immediately upon setting up a game, I noticed 2K slightly improved their Evolution control scheme, but they’ve also decided to not make those the default controls. Instead they opted for the old button-mapped controls to be the main scheme. Maybe they’re still unsure whether the new controls work, or maybe they’re not quite confident enough in Evolution yet. There are still some issues with the Evo controls though. You can’t really tie moves together when avoiding opposing players, and if you do manage to pull off more than one, the animations don’t really stick with you. Players will often jump sporadically instead of moving fluidly from animation to animation. Shooting with the stick should also react better than it actually does. I would often find myself accidently faking a shot when I wanted to take one. There’s also virtually no discernable difference in how you flick the stick to attempt different shots. Needless to say, it was more than a little annoying.
Hockey is billed as a fast sport. Things are always happening, and there’s hardly any downtime during a game, and 2K9 captures the feel and look of an actual game pretty well. 2K has never been known to push the graphic envelope, but player models and arenas look pretty good nonetheless. Personally, I think the ice is a little too shiny, but the reflectiveness does dull as the ice gets skated on during a game. The presentation is pretty nice in the game as well. 2K manages to incorporate some nice graphic overlays, and though commentary is always a weak point in any sports game, the announcers in this game don’t have annoying voices, so you’ll find it less grating on your ears. Once you get a close-up glimpse of a player who doesn’t have a picture the NHLPA could license out, you’ll begin to see some flaws in the character models. Actual big name players look fine (save for the cleft lip Simon Gagne has), but created players and many minor leaguers look like they belong in another game entirely. Perhaps the strangest addition to the presentation is the zamboni mini-game between periods. Despite looking like a 32-bit model, driving a zamboni is oddly satisfying the first time you do it. Even though it’s optional, it seems strange to add something like this if it has no impact on how the ice will react the following period. Maybe I’m hoping for too much. You can’t tell me it wouldn’t have been cool to not smooth out your defensive zone so it was harder for opponents to skate in it.
There are not a whole lot of new game modes to mess around with. While EA added their Superstar mode to hockey, even going so far as to allow you to play online with 5 other guys as a Superstar team. 2K added Team Up to their online modes, and it’s pretty boring. You play with a group of other people who grade your performance. That is, as long as they all stay in the game with you. They can leave you at any point, leaving you stuck playing against the computer, and only able to control the player you started the game with. Why anyone would play this instead of just a standard online match (which already allows you to play with other people) is beyond me. Other game modes pretty much stick to 2K’s “if it ain’t broke” business model they’ve been using since the 2K sports brand started. Sure AI controlled teams now actively pursue trades in Franchise mode, and you can screw around with Pond hockey, but where’s the innovation? I hate to say it, but 2K’s spent way too much time on top, and they were caught off guard when EA stepped their game up two years ago. But that was 2 years ago, 2K. It’s time you started taking the initiative, and make a better hockey game than the one before it, not the same old game with a spit polish and copy cat controls.
I spent time with both hockey games this season, hoping that 2K could at least be considered a decent hockey simulation for those who still haven’t gone over to the EA side. Sadly, 2K can’t even hold its own against older versions of its own franchise, let alone a game as technically sound as NHL 09. What’s more, most of the 2K faithful have since departed, so I’m not even sure if there’s anyone who would give this game a shot in another year or so if they make some improvements. Like I’ve said so many times this year, and I’m sorry to say again, maybe next year 2K.