The NHL 09 team isn’t falling into a trap this year, even though, according to EA, NHL 08 won something like seven sports game of the year awards in 2008. Before I recently got my hands on the game though, I’ll be honest and say I was a little bit worried about NHL 09. As remarkable as some of the new online features sounded, the gameplay didn’t look that different in videos. It still seemed to be based around dishing up the wing, skating in, and firing on helpless goaltenders who would inevitably be facing a barrage of shots for the entirety of the game. You’d think at this point I would know better than to assume things before getting hands-on time with a game.
Of course when I picked up the controller and actually played the game, I almost immediately realized I was going to have to create a better strategy than just: pass up wing, skate fast in straight line, and fire on goalie. During my initial rush in NHL 09, I did of course try to go up the wing, only to be stick lifted from behind -- a new addition to the game this year. The stick lift has been talked about, but the importance of the maneuver doesn’t really come through until you get stopped from behind due to this new defensive measure, or get denied a one-time opportunity because a nearby defender lifts your stick just as you’re about to punish the goalie with a wicked slap shot. But, the best part of the stick lift is that now those random people online will have to find a new money tactic, since slap passing is now defendable.
Several new features highlight a refined game all around.
After being stick lifted I realized two more things: the game speed is slowed down, and I couldn’t skate backwards nearly as fast anymore. Last year, NHL 08’s game speed was a contributing factor to the breakneck pace of the game, and while that was part of the appeal for some, it was probably too fast. This year, the pace of the game is turned down just a notch, enough to make me realize speed isn’t everything and that strategy does play into the sport this year. This toned down speed, however, also makes the players who are fast, actually seem fast. As Patrick Marleau of the Sharks raced towards my virtual Derian Hatcher (I was the Flyers) he started to simply skate backwards to try and keep up with Marleau -- any player skating backwards could keep up with even the fastest player in the game in NHL 08. After Marleau flew by virtual Hatcher, I realized that positional defense and angles might actually mean something this year. Later in the same game, I found myself in a similar situation, and this time virtual Hatcher kept Marleau to the outside, before mashing him into the boards in satisfying fashion.
The Sharks first line continued to give me problems though, even after I realized I needed to step up my defensive game. Joe Thornton dissected me at one point with a beautiful saucer pass -- really good passers will now automatically make certain passes if the situation arises -- that inevitably led to a Sharks goal. Later in the game, Thornton muscled his way to the net, attacking my defender by using the new one-handed stick maneuver, coming up just short of a goal this time. Essentially, it felt like Thornton out there, not some fourth liner like Jody Shelley. Superstars act like superstars, the same couldn’t be said about NHL 08.
EA Sports hopes NHL 09 can keep the momentum going from the success 08 campaign.
Most players can still make tape-to-tape passes like superstars though. The new defensive mechanics and certain limitations make the passes less ridiculous than last year, but it’s still not at a point where players will make errant passes enough, and receivers won’t really misplay passes either. If your player is looking the wrong way, or you simply try to carelessly pass from your own zone you will get burnt a good amount of the time, but it seems like the folks at EA Canada do have some issues harnessing the sloppy part of hockey and realizing it in video game form.
Shooting the puck is another area where there still seems to be room for improvement. There will be fewer shots that ring off the post, wristers and slap shots should be discernable in the speed department now, and in general fewer shots will fly out of play; but it doesn’t seem like sticks will break if your shooting motion is too violent or you whiff on a one-timer. It also seems like goalies may still have a tough time stopping the dreaded fly-across-the-crease-and-flip-it-up-high-top-shelf maneuver -- a tactic that has been effective since the inception of EA’s NHL series.
At any rate, perhaps the nicest thing I can say about NHL 09 plays into my attempted hockey pun at the start this preview. After my opponent got a 2-0 lead, he changed up his defensive strategy and sat back in a trap. I couldn’t carry the puck into the zone consistently and instead had to try and use the new flip dump mechanic and grind out some goals. While I was able to grind and fight for a goal -- which felt very satisfying by the way -- solid defense, did reign supreme in the end.
While I can’t say yet how the game will play against the AI since all my games were versus humans, at the very least NHL 09 may be able to please head-to-head fans come Sept. 9.