NHL 09 Review (Xbox 360)
Last year, EA’s NHL 08 took home seven “sports game of the year” awards. In fact, I'm sure you picked up on that tidbit of information somewhere along the way because it has continuously been shoved down gamers' throats. (It's even on the NHL 09 box art this year!) But after such a well-revered title, how did EA Canada take it to the next level?
During the early portion of this console life cycle, EA found a formula for fun and fantastic looking hockey. The NHL series was the one franchise the company completely turned around and revived during the beginning part of the "next generation."
Presently, most people would agree that you don't want to mess with a successful recipe. Perhaps that is why on the surface, NHL 09 appears to be much of the same. However, once you dive into '09 you will notice some nice new features, and you'll wonder how you lived without them.
Let’s start out on the ice. I quickly realized that I couldn't carry the puck through all five of the opposition’s skaters, ram home one timer after one timer, or even just simply hold on to the puck at all times. That is because two new features have been introduced to help out the defense.
Lifting sticks is rather prevalent in hockey, and is probably the quickest and most successful thing you can do to try and break up a play or stop an opposing puck carrier. This has finally been added to a video game and has given EA's NHL series a new dynamic.
NHL 09 is back and wanting to repeat it's performance as one of the best sports games of the year.
Along with the ability to lift sticks is the new 360-degree poke check stick. No longer are you stuck trying to fork a pickle when you poke check. Now you have the option to swing that stick all around your body in an attempt to poke a puck free or block a passing lane.
These two features definitely give the defense a fighting chance against some of the deadliest offensive players, both online and off. The only downside thus far is that stick lift may be a little too effective while playing defense. Sometimes I feel like it's overly hard to find time and space with superstar players because of the stick lift. Basically, it just seems a little overdone when you see a ton of sticks coming up nonstop. Nevertheless, it's still a great addition -- I just hope that it is re-tuned a bit in the future.
Luckily, there are penalties that come from using these new features haphazardly. High sticking and slashing can occur while using the stick lift, and tripping is a possibility with the sweeping poke. So that should at least give users a little risk/reward for jamming on those new button assignments.
Another rather large addition, or re-addition to the NHL series is the puck dumping button combination. This is a great way to clear the zone when in trouble defensively, or even better, a wonderful way to attack the offensive zone when trying to mount pressure. My most satisfying moments in NHL 09 stem from dumping the puck high and softly into the zone while sending someone in deep to blow up the defender and free up a loose puck for a quick setup on the doorstep. This is just one of those features that adds to the realism of the game tenfold.
(A side note as it relates to this feature: the delay of game penalty has been added for clearing the puck over the glass from the defensive zone.)
The faceoff, one of hockey's many unique selling points.
When attacking the goalies, going through the goaltender's five hole is realistic and useful, as is sending that hard low initial shot for an attempted crashing-of-the-net rebound goal. Also, the whole dynamic of watching the players in front of the net attempt tip ins and screens, while goalies peak around and try and snag shots -- sometimes missing them because they don't pick up the shots in time -- is impressive to witness.
Finally, you may notice some new animations that go along with the new feel and play of the game. Gone are the annoying hip checks that everyone seemed to be able to pull off -- the magnetic hip-check animation will not be missed much. In its place are new ways to send your rival to the ice in a hurry. You can double someone over on a devastating check into the boards, or just lay someone out and watch him slide across the ice. But this year, the timing needed to land a big hit on someone isn't a given, so it is rewarding as ever when you succeed.
But this is just scratching the surface of what's new in NHL 09. EA had something up its sleeve this year: a new mode that may make this game a must have even for casual gamers and sports fans.
Online you can play in a league this year just like last. Having up to 32 users is nice, but having no option to run a season or franchise like NCAA Football had this year is a disappointment. The statistical tracking has been expanded upon and there's also an option to trade players, which should be interesting. Still this is not the secret EA was waiting to unveil during the pre-release hype.
Hockey is a team sport. It takes many components to put together a winning squad; a team filled with one type of player rarely succeeds. This year NHL 09 has added the EA Sports Hockey League to fill that need.
Looks like someone has gotten themself on the stat sheet.
All the features mentioned above, when combined with an already solid gameplay foundation, equal a stellar experience. But when you can take this core experience into an MMO-like online domain where you can be on a team (think of it like a MMO guild) with friends, you start to realize just how big the EA Sports Hockey League is to sports gaming as a whole. The fact that you can take the experience one step further and create yourself as a player, then team up with 50 of your closest friends online, makes me think it will be a quick winter.
(If the MMO thing isn't your style, you can still play via online team play, which has been tweaked for NHL 09. This year you have the option to play as any team in any league in a full six-on-six game.)
There probably won't be a feature as fun as the EA Hockey League in online sports gaming for quite some time. Getting six people to work as a cohesive unit on the ice is hard and requires patience and communication; but, when you pull it off, it's a rewarding feat. Add in a grading system that keeps track of your progress and all your stats and you will be hooked to this mode -- even if you choose not to play on a team in the EA Hockey League.
If you do join a team, then you should know that teams compete for points that are weighted by wins and losses, opponents played, and how many people you have online for each game. You can play as many games as you like at the same time, meaning if you have more than six players online at one time, your team can be playing in more than one game at once. Divisions are kept and EA speaks of a tournament with prizes and an actual trophy to hoist if you are lucky enough to survive the whole thing at the end of the season. It should be noted that the EA servers have been a little touch and go at this point, which is making it hard to always set up club/team games. EA is working on the issue, but at the time of this writing there are still some hiccups.
The new gameplay dynamics put NHL 09 a cut above the competition.
The franchise mode is essentially exactly the same, for better or worse. You can still only take control of one team. You are in charge of running the lines and keeping a roster with a salary cap. Full AHL rosters are still in the game, and you can play all of your farm team’s games or simulate them.
Basically, everything in this mode looks the same, though, EA did happen to fix the bug that kept you from re-signing certain players in the offseason.
Simulated stats are a little low, and scores of 3-2 are the average. I would like to see the occasional 7-4 game, but overall it is not a "game killer" by any means. The nice thing about your own stats is now you can set your period clock to any time interval from 4-20 minutes. This is something that was missing for a really long time, and playing a seven or eight minute period can really go a long way towards giving you realistic results since five minutes felt too short and 10 minutes felt too long.
Other Offline Notes
Not adding a multiple player franchise is a little disappointing. But some might be even more flummoxed by the lack of a true NHL-style playoff mode. I don't think there's a championship in sports harder to win than the Stanley Cup, and the lack of a mode where you can just pick 16 teams and play by conference to try to win Lord Stanley is inexcusable. There is the World Tournament in '09, which can almost be setup to replicate the NHL’s playoffs, but still, this not the same.
Other modes include the aforementioned Be a Player mode, which is offline as well. You can use your created player, or take an existing player from any league, and use him in this mode. You can set it up to be more realistic, whereby you go off during line changes and watch the action from the bench, or you can go the more arcade-like route and have it set up so your player is on the ice the whole game.
Either way it is a pretty fun mode, even offline. The default in-game camera works well for the most part, but does take some getting used to. If the camera lacks anything, it is the ability to see the other side of the ice or what is going on behind you as you rush the zone. Due to this fact, it's somewhat hard to stay onside at times -- oh and for the first couple games you may need some Dramamine in case you're not ready for the rotating camera that only comes into play when you get behind the opponent's net or way behind in the play.
Graphically, NHL 09 is about as good as they come.
Visually NHL 09 is as stunning as they come. The attention to detail is for the most part tremendous. Players that have their faces scanned into the game look lifelike. You will also notice tons of detail when it comes to the jerseys and uniforms; you will actually see the different fabrics on the uniforms and stitching in the name plates and numbers.
The ice deteriorates nicely and gets cut up, even though the developers didn’t add the Zamboni lines down the center of the rink for shootouts. This game also ushers in the return of various retro throwback jerseys and a password-enabled third-jersey code will be coming out this fall for all the new Reebok alternates teams will be wearing.
Cut-scenes are a little redundant, and you will probably be skipping over them after a few games. The developers did do a better job with the inclusion of a few more stat overlays for individual players and what not, but there's definitely a long way to go on that front yet.
Goaltenders are a thing of beauty though. The way they move and look in net blows anything you have ever seen in a NHL video game out of the water. Whether it be the look of the pads or the way the goalies come out and shuffle around, it all mirrors the real thing.
NHL 09 features custom soundtracks (on the 360) and in-game songs that you can setup so you feel like you are at your favorite team’s home arena. You can set up songs for all kinds of situations, from penalties to goals to stoppages in play. This is needed in a hockey game, probably more so than in any other sport. If you have ever been to a hockey game, you probably already know how much music and hockey go hand in hand. And this certainly is a great addition and adds some realism to the experience.
As for the announcing, Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are back and they are still solid enough. They both love the game of hockey and it shows during the announcing. In the game, they do a pretty good job of keeping up with the action -- and sure you hear some things repeatedly -- but I would still probably rank them in the top five for all-time video game announcers.
If you don't care for the announcing you can turn them off and hear all the on-ice sounds, from skates cutting up the ice to players calling for pucks. Attention to detail was a priority when making the sound in this game and it is one of those things that can go under the radar when bad, but adds so much when done right.
The crowd also seems to react accordingly. In a blowout you will hear more silence or booing; during exciting moments you get the reaction you would expect.
NHL 09 sounds incredible, which is a feat in itself for a sports game.
Other Odds And Ends
-You wouldn’t keep playing a game like this unless it played well on the ice and NHL 09 sure does. You can play almost any style of hockey, whether it be run and gun, simulation style, or something else between the two.
-Set up a trap to defend a lead or change your power play in hopes of showing a new look to your opponent. There are plenty of options that can be changed on the fly as well as the great addition of being able to change your offense and defensive pairings separately.
-There could be a few more sliders to help customize things a bit more, or even more CPU versus human sliders to give the difficulty more of a dynamic feel.
-You may still find passing a little too spot on though, and face-offs need to be overhauled to work better. The puck still goes directly to someone on every draw and there are no scrums or kicking of the puck to win possession off the drop of the puck.
-Board work is in the game, but it's lacking. You can pin a player to the boards, but it is hard to do and you rarely see it anyway.
-My biggest complaint is the inability to map the controls to your liking. The controls for the most part work well and are placed in fairly intuitive places. Still, there are a few buttons that might be more easily reached, and in a day and age where customization is everything in video games I find it a little disappointing that the controls are not able to be set up more to one's liking.
Time will tell if NHL 09 is a repeat winner in the "sports game of the year" department, but I wouldn’t stop short of calling this one a “must own.” The game is great overall, and while there is still a ways to go, the game has so much replay value that you will not regret having it in your game library.
To me, NHL 09 is the best hockey product on the market.
Final Score: 9.0 (Classic)