NHL 09 Review
A Review - By Gaetano Prestia
NHL video-games have always taken a backseat to the far more marketable and supported professional league games in NBA Live, Madden NFL and FIFA. Still, EA Sports’ NHL series has consistently provided an enjoyable, deep and accessible hockey experience and with NHL 09, the team at EA Canada have come up with easily the best NHL game to date and probably one of the best sport video-games ever developed.
Those who played NHL 08 will be familiar with the impressive skill-stick that has made another appearance in this year’s iteration. The only difference is that EA Sports have excelled on what they achieved last year and made a scoring and manoeuvring system that excels NHL 09 to sport game royalty. Scoring a goal in NHL 09 requires skill and precision as well as tactical decision making in order to weave through the defence and smash the puck past the goalie. Over the past few years we’ve seen a scoring system develop from a simple direct-and-shoot system similar to the one used in FIFA games, to a direction that is realistic and very, very rewarding. With the former, because the player could get so close to the goal it was far too easy to get it past the goalie. Now, with a controlling mechanic that will be envied by EA Sports' competitors at 2K Sports, you have to direct the puck to where the goalie isn’t, instead of just smashing away and hoping for the best. It’s an amazing mechanic and when you couple that with an abundance of amazing game modes, you have one hell of a hockey game.
Using the right analog for the skill-stick, you’ll have a number of different offensive techniques available to you, ranging from a snap, slap or wrist shot. Being able to distinguish between the three and acknowledge when one should be used instead of the other two comes hand-in-hand with the tough AI defence that must be mastered and out-played in order to be out-scored. The skill-stick also has an array of defensive mechanics that are integral to your ability to stop goals. What’s so special about the skill-stick is that it screams of realism and takes a sport game away from the simplistic and rather obsolete method of button-pressing. For example, instead of pressing a simple button to knock a player off his skates, you direct your players hockey stick to do the action using the skill-stick.
NHL 09 has a definitive dedication to realism. Big hits aren’t as frequent as in previous years and if you choose to move off your line to hit a player, the AI will most likely take full advantage of the open space and move quickly in on their goal.
The skill-stick has been altered slightly from last year’s game and it makes the game a lot more defensive minded. Last years game had a quick, offensive direction to it, but with an improved skill-stick mechanic, NHL 09 feels like a dedicated tactical sports game that relies heavily on defensive tactics and perfect offence. The opposition AI is amazing and the game makes it very difficult for you to skate through opponents. In previous years you could simply skate from side-to-side and easily bypass opponents (even on the more difficult settings) but in NHL 09 the AI gives you no such opportunity and you’re going to have to use every single player on the ice to full advantage if you want to smash a puck into the net. FIFA 08 was applauded last year for its increased difficulty in scoring, and NHL 09 has taken a similar path with increased opponent AI awareness and tough, protective goalies.
The GM mode makes yet another appearance with a solid, lengthy, deep and thoroughly enjoyable experience to be had. You can lead your hockey team to greatness with a very accessible GM management system that allows you to interact with your team’s AHL affiliate and move players up or down depending on performance. There are also five European leagues to play with in Tournament mode, but the real pleasure comes through with a GM mode that offers one of the most challenging and enjoyable franchise experiences in gaming.
Sport game enthusiasts probably never thought that a gaming mode in a licensed title would generate emotion and attachment, but Be-A-Pro in NHL 09 does just that. The Be-A-Pro mode allows you to create a fully customised player and assign him to a B-league team with an NHL affiliate. Your aim is to train him and use his experience points gained in matches to increase his attributes and lead him to become an NHL superstar and household name. The presentation and third-person camera that follows your player while he is on the ice helps generate an emotional bond between you and your created character and the game really makes you want to see your player achieve greatness. We’ve seen similar modes in other games before, but none really grasp the toughness and dedication it takes to make it to the big leagues like Be-A-Pro in NHL 09 does. It’s one of the more addictive and rewarding modes in this title and is highly recommended for anyone looking for an experience that differs from the typical franchise mode.
The player you create can then be transferred onto an enjoyable yet somewhat flawed online mode called EA Sports Hockey League. You can get your created player and five of your mates to create your own online team along with your own logo and name. You’ll play against other teams and ultimately aim to reach the top of the online leaderboards. While this mode is original and can be enjoyable, it has several noteworthy flaws. Firstly, there are terrible connection issues that sometimes make it impossible to get a gaming going. Also, your created players attributes don’t carry over from the Be-A-Pro mode, which is disappointing. There are also a few graphical and gameplay glitches that weren’t present in the single-player mode that ultimately hurt this mode from being a great online experience. There’s definitely enjoyment to be had here if you can find and connect to a game, but some of the problems make it difficult to enjoy.
Graphically, NHL 09 looks amazing. Character and crowd animations are fantastic and slick, however, there is some slowdown when there is a lot happening on screen and during cutscenes and replays. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return as a great commentary duo that rounds out a very, very impressive presentation for NHL 09.
NHL 09 is the greatest ever hockey game and one of the best sport games ever developed. Even if you’re not a hockey fan, NHL 09 is worth checking out for its amazing and realistic gameplay, lengthy GM mode and fantastic Be-A-Pro mode.
Those new to the franchise and skill-stick might want to check out the tutorials before getting straight into it. Once you master the gameplay, it’s one of the most rewarding and realistic sport gaming experiences ever.
Fantastic character and crowd animations.
Bone-crushing sound effects and a fantastic commentary team of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement.
Tournament, franchise, quick-play, Be-A-Pro and EA Sports Hockey League modes make NHL 09 one of the best value-for-money titles on the shelf.
Hockey fan or not, NHL 09 is an absolute must-have for any sport gaming enthusiast.