Name: NHL 09
Genre: Sports - Hockey
Platform: PS3, PS2, PC, Xbox 360 (Reviewed on PS3)
Last year, EA changed the face of hockey video games with the release of NHL 08. With its innovative control scheme, gorgeous visuals and incredibly realistic hockey action, it made every other hockey game ever released seem cartoonish and silly by comparison. NHL 09 takes over where the last game left off, utilizing the same control scheme and hockey mechanics, and raising the bar in terms of presentation, and in doing so, easily claims the title as the best hockey game available for any system. It might even be the best sports game ever.
If you played NHL 08, picking up the controls for this year’s version shouldn’t take more than a minute to master. Movement is still mapped to the left stick, passing to R2, and the right stick (or “Skill Stick”) acts as your hockey stick, letting you deke, body check, poke check and shoot. The face buttons are still rarely used, but the “X” button now lifts your opponent’s stick to prevent one-timers. Basically, the game plays almost exactly the same as it did last year, and that’s a good thing. The scheme is so perfectly tuned to the game of hockey that you’ll wonder how we got by with face buttons all those years. Other than the new functionality of the “X” button, the only real changes are that the triangle button now hooks your opponent instead of slashing them (though it still slashes after the whistle, thankfully), and that you now have greater range and control with your poke check. Fighting has been revamped completely, making for a more wide open affair. It’s decidedly different than in last year’s effort, but to call it better would be a misstatement. It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different. For those who haven’t played the series in a few years, and don’t want to learn a new control scheme, the face button-based controls from NHL 94 are available as well.
Pretty much every tweak that’s been made to the game serves to create a more convincing hockey experience. For example, on the default settings, this year’s NHL is a half step slower than its predecessor, a change that actually makes the game seem more realistic. Checking is more difficult than last year, but when you do connect, the hits are absolutely bone-crushing by comparison. The “magnetic puck” effect that allowed you to easily complete rink-wide passes last year has been significantly reduced this year, as well. This means your player will actually have to gather the puck on his stick before rushing towards the net. It also makes it much easier to poke check pucks away from opponents, further improving the game’s pacing and realism.
At first glance, NHL 09 doesn’t look much different from NHL 08. From the default camera angle, players seem to have the same level of detail that they did last year, but when you get up close, you see the drastic improvement in both facial and body modeling. Whether you play on the PS3 or 360, players now feature a ton of new animations that, at times, make the game look indistinguishable from real hockey. Despite the improved visuals, the game never suffers from slowdown, except, inexplicably, during between-play cut scenes. It’s not quite as jarring as it is in the Xbox 360 version, but the frame rate still takes a significant dip, and textures frequently pop-in during these cut scenes. To be fair, it’s the only visual hiccup in an otherwise flawless presentation. The game sounds as good as it looks, with perfect sounds for shots, passes and checks. Play-by-play man Gary Thorn and color commentator Bill Clement call the action, and, as always, they’re at the absolute top of their game. Not only are their lines well-read and well-recorded, they’re almost always perfectly timed.
All of the game modes from last year’s game are back, along with the new “Be A Pro” and “EASHL” modes. In both modes, you’ll create a player and control them through a season with an NHL club. “Be A Pro” mode is a single player affair where you start off a s a third line player for a minor league hockey team. As you improve and help your team, you’ll gain more and more recognition until you get brought up by your NHL franchise. It’s a cool idea, and the blue arrow that appears under you when you’re out of position is a good tool for learning proper positioning. The EASHL, on the other hand, is basically a MMO based on the same principal. After you make your character, they are drafted by an online team, and you play through a season of online games alongside your teammates, each one controlling a player. If you play with line changes on, you’ll actually need to sit on the bench while your line rests. It’s one of the most innovative features to appear in a sports game in a long time, and if EA can deal with their server issues, especially for the PS3, it could revolutionize online sports gaming.
NHL 09 is simply a joy to play in any mode, and it truly shines when it comes to multiplayer, whether online or off, though lag is a bit of a problem on the PS3 version. With barely a visual hitch, exceptional presentation, engaging online, improved controls and an unmatched level of realism, there’s almost nothing to prevent a full recommendation to any fan of hockey or sports games in general. Even if you aren’t a fan of sports games, the game is so good it could turn you into one.