NHL 09 Review

Lee Abrahams

I suppose I could wax lyrical about how, by playing this game, it’s as if you’re playing for your favourite team and taking them all the way to the top single-handedly. However, we all know that's a load of garbage as no game can ever replicate the real thing (unless there is some crazy revolution in virtual reality gaming right around the corner). Suffice it to say that this game is there for those of us that either love hockey or have very little idea about it at all but are prepared to give anything a try. I fall firmly into the latter category but I’m always eager to be impressed by the latest sports title. After all you don’t really need a background in sport to enjoy the virtual equivalent.

To be honest, I don’t really need to say much about the brains behind this franchise as unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll be well aware that EA are firmly at the reins. As with their other franchises this year it would appear that this game has undergone only superficial changes but if you scratch a little deeper beneath the surface you’ll soon find that it is actually somewhat of an improvement on last years title, though I’m not going to say the nineteen different versions over the years have been entirely justified.

Now you see it, now you don't!

It goes without saying that the presentation and options on offer are the usual high standard among sports titles, in fact it’s pretty easy to consider EA as the benchmark when it comes down to it. As ever you have every NHL team at your disposal, complete with up to date kits and rosters, not to mention teams from the Russian, German and Czech leagues. With a plethora of options and teams to choose from, it’s hard for hockey amateurs to come to grips with it all, but the Play Now option is always your friend if you just want some quick action.

The graphics have only been given some minor touch ups, as there is only so much more gleam that they can give to the ice. Any more shine and we’ll have to wear some shades before we pick up the control pad. The players move and act just like their real life counterparts and you can’t argue that it’s a highly accurate representation of the great game. The commentators from last year are back again too and are on hand with all manner of random banter and superfluous statistics. They do grate after a while but you do have the option of using your own custom soundtracks to drown them out, or if you get tired of the generic rock fest present on EA Trax.

The single player modes on offer are wide ranging, as you can jump into a quick game or attempt to take a team of your choice to glory through Dynasty mode. All of the information you’d expect from an NHL season is thrown at you with rosters, drafts and trades all being present and correct. It means that you can manage every facet of your team in a bid to make them triumph but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Of more interest is the ‘Be a Pro’ mode which allows you to create an outfield player or goalkeeper in your own image (or maybe slightly better looking ... I’m not judging you) and try to turn them into a hockey legend. It’s a welcome addition as it means you care a bit more about your player and perform that little bit better when using them, do well and you can improve your skills and join a bigger team, not to mention scooping a few trophies along the way. It’s something EA have used in their other titles but it feels more at home here despite the initial awkwardness of the different viewpoint. Also, being a full time goalie can sometimes be a bit of a bore, as you’ll have periods of play where you do very little and most of your time is about being in the right position as most of the saves will happen automatically.

The real issue for newcomers will probably be the controls as it can take a bit of getting used to if you’ve never played before. Basically the right stick can be used for a variety of skills, including passing, shooting, dekes and (new to this years title) defence. So you may struggle to even find a team mate with your first few attempts or find yourself passing when you want to shoot. Mercifully you can switch to the simplified "Classic" system or the NHL 94 two button scheme – which is like the classic system but apparently more deserving of a mention on the box. These two schemes designate the controls to individual buttons making things run more smoothly, though it does mean some of the more advanced skills are lost by the wayside, so at some point you’ll want to step up and master using the Skill stick system. At least EA have finally recognised that the controls might be getting a tad much for the casual player and have taken steps to keep things accessible.

Who cares about puck it’s stick duel time.

One of the biggest changes comes online, as although the usual ranked and unranked options are present, you can now form large teams of like minded individuals. With the chance to have up to fifty players on a team you’ll never have to bully a mate to go in goal again. Basically it gives you the chance to step online, either as your ‘Be a Pro’ player or a more recognisable actual pro. While you’ll hopefully have a massive pool of talent to choose from, you can only have six players in a match at once. But the chance to arrange grudge matches with your nearest rivals and take all of your teams big hitters to the rumble is one that’s too good to miss. If you don’t have the willpower to be part of a regular team, you can also try to jump into a one off match as part of an impromptu team. It’s less fun this way as there is more a sense of team spirit and camaraderie among the bigger teams, even though you might already struggle to pick up any wins against the teams of NHL veterans that have already formed.

If there are really any gripes to be had, it’s that you’ve probably seen and done most of this all before. Sure the game looks a bit prettier and the ‘Be a Pro’ mode and big team online options do add a certain something, but I’m not sure whether it’s enough to justify splashing out yet again. I also had a few issues with the game freezing up on me at random points, a problem that seems to have cropped up with a few other people too. Hopefully it’s just a case of them shipping out a bad batch of discs as it doesn’t seem to be game related. I’m also not too impressed with the ability to create your own plays, as they never seem to work too well when you actually try to put them into practice, which is strange considering the A.I. is generally top notch.

The face-off is just the calm before the storm.

What’s this? A good achievements list from EA you say? Surely my eyes must be deceiving me. Maybe that’s being a tad harsh but it’s safe to say that many achievement junkies are known to have more than a few EA games cluttering up their gamercards. This year though it seems a bit of thought has gone into the process as there are a number of easy points out there (for uploading videos and pictures for example) while at the same time you’ll be made to work for some others. The biggest challenge will be completing you’re online and offline cards – which set you a number of tasks so that you can advance to Legend status. Here you’ll have to play and win a lot of games and trophies whilst maintaining a high average grade. It’s a nice touch that encourages a natural progression while still offering the tasty points reward at the end of it. Kudos indeed for a more novel approach.

For once EA have actually added some features that truly enhance one of their franchises and the game is truly better for it. The "Be a Pro" mode is slightly awkward to get used to at first, but give it a chance and you’ll soon be going all out to be the new great one, it still has me hooked which is unusual for a sports game. The online mode is also a major plus as it always allows rookies to mix in with veterans on the same team which can only benefit everyone. The graphics, rosters and commentary are exactly what you’d expect and enhance what is an already great hockey experience. Despite this lavish praise, this game is still mainly for hockey fans, and newcomers will still struggle with the normal controls and the evil icing rule (give it time and you’ll ‘get’ it, trust me). Give yourself time to learn the rules and grasp the nuances though and you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise. Plus, it’s one of the few sports where fighting is encouraged – what’s not to love?

The commentary is usually repetitive but at least it’s fairly well done and entertaining. The music is a bit generic for my taste so you may find yourself heading for the custom sound track option

Beautiful looking rinks clash with the pretty static crowds, the players and uniforms on offer are top notch though and everything runs smoothly online and off.

The option of simplified controls helps make things a bit more accessible for rookies who can dive straight into a game. The hockey is super smooth and immensely fun either in teams or going solo.

The game has a lot deeper solo mode now, in addition to Dynasty, you can now select Be a Pro and train up your own future superstar. It means that with all the single player options and the superb big team online modes all the bases are well and truly covered.

A pretty good mix considering some of EA’s previous offering. Most of the achievements can be grabbed in double quick time but the online and offline cars mean you’ll have to gradually improve your skills to accomplish everything, which is not a bad thing.

Once again this is the best ice hockey game around, with flawless presentation and a sublime playing experience. Thankfully EA does seem to have pushed the boat out and added in some extremely welcome solo modes and the ambitious online offering. May not do enough to win many new fans but it’s worth a shot even for newcomers.

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