NHL 09: He Shoots, He scores!

September 19, 2008

The NHL finally started recapturing fans last season, but it took the emergence of the youngest player to ever be an NHL captain, Sidney Crosby, to do it. Now that the general public has elevated the sport above poker once again, EA is hoping that fans of video game hockey will return as well. The good news for the publisher is that anyone who picks up NHL 09 is not going to be disappointed.

The NHL series has been playing catch-up with EA's other sports franchises for a couple years now, but finally the 09 edition is worthy of a cup run. You get the typical season and dynasty modes, and of course with the official license comes all the real NHL teams, arenas, and players. You also get all the AHL squads from the Hershey Bears to the Rochester Americans, and this becomes very important in the brand new be a pro option.

Known as the superstar mode in the Madden series, be a pro asks you to create your own NHL player from scratch, select his position and team, and start slugging it out in the minor leagues solely from his perspective. When you first join the team you'll be a lowly third-liner, but meet predetermined performance goals and you'll move up the depth chart where you'll be skating with much more talented players and increasing your chances of success. The ultimate goal is to make the NHL and win the cup. It's easy to get hooked because you're rewarded with attribute points to help improve your player as you go along. If you're tired of getting checked off the puck or don't have enough speed you can improve. Our one complaint is that the points are doled out in such small amounts that the work eventually outstrips the reward. It takes a long time to finally get to the pros and make your cup dreams a reality.

The final piece of the design puzzle is EA Sports hockey league, and it's big. Here you can play with five other human opponents simultaneously in online leagues against six other humans. To add incentive, your online player levels up as he plays, though you can't take your be a pro player online. In a cool twist, you can pop into other games to scout players that you might want to join your team. It's the closest thing we've seen to a virtual league in a sports video game. You can truly build your reputation until you've become a legend that other players recognize.

There's no other game that replicates the feeling of carving across the ice while controlling a puck the way NHL 09 does. The right analog stick replicates the movement of the hockey stick-allowing you to slide the puck from the forehand to the backhand in a split second. To shoot you simply push the right stick forward while aiming with the left analog stick. It feels incredibly natural, and this is just the beginning of the puck control abilities.

New to the series is the ability to push the puck forward, ahead of danger; protecting the puck from defenders, one-handed dekes, and flip dumps that finally give you the ability to utilize the dump and chase strategy employed by less-skilled, grinding teams like the Flyers. All of the above work well, though utilizing them can be incredibly challenging. In a sport where, literally, tenths of a second matter, trying to hold one button while pressing another as a defender tries to check you to the ice takes a lot of practice.

On defense, things are just as deep. The biggest addition is the inclusion of lifting the stick. A long-time staple of the real NHL, it's incredibly effective at ending a rush without having to resort to checking. Poke checks, stick sweeps, and pass blocks are also new additions, but they suffer from the same challenges as the new offensive controls. There simply aren't enough buttons on the controller. Checking has been drastically toned down from last year's game, with defenders no longer locking onto puck-carriers and delivering unrealistic hits. All of this is balanced by an incredible penalty system. Keep using the poke check or lift the stick too much and your player will be sent to the box for slashing or holding.

The upside to the complexity is that there's plenty to master to separate great players from the merely good, which is a hallmark of any excellent sports game. Once you get the hang of things, everything behaves realistically. The downside is that a lot of players won't have the patience to learn them. For these types, a classic NHL 94 scheme has been included that defers to the pass-pass-one-timer controls old-school fans appreciate. So while the game is about as complex as they come, there are options for every type of player.

The hot new mode, be a pro, is a blast to play, but it's not without its issues. Playing as just one player, you'll see the ice from his perspective at all times, but the camera can have problems keeping up, swinging wildly when the puck finds itself in some situations. That said, it adds some new strategy to the mix as you have to choose your time to leave and enter the ice. Choose the wrong time and you can leave your team in a pinch. In the early going of your AHL career it can be frustrating to watch your teammates flail around the ice, missing golden scoring opportunities, and the simulation options are poor. You can have your team firmly in first place, but if you try to simulate games it does not take this into account and your team can instantly find itself a cellar dweller.

There are some issues, but on the whole, playing NHL 09 feels incredibly realistic. It's a deep, challenging game, but it's so rewarding when everything finally clicks.

Apparently, last year's game tapped the limits of the current consoles because the graphical enhancements are minor, yet the frame rates dip regularly. Player models look great and it's easy to recognize one from another on face alone. The customization options are also beefy-allowing you to get eerily close to your real features if you so choose. The arenas look great as does the ice degradation and showers of ice as you stop on a dime. The physics-based animation also provides a wealth of ways to tumble or otherwise react to the other players on the ice and the momentum shifts. The audio gets the job done, but like most sports game, the commentary can become repetitive rather quickly, and you'll also see plenty of cases where Bill Clement incorrectly calls plays or botches game situations.

NHL 09 is the pinnacle of the series in 3D. A solid foundation was laid long ago, and now the team is simply layering in the subtle nuances that make hockey the great sport it is. The be a pro mode is incredibly addictive, though progress can be a little slow, and the online league structure is the absolute high point for sports video games. On the ice things can be challenging, but the realism it provides is well worth the learning curve. Just like the real sport, NHL 09 is the comeback of the hockey video game. We recommend it even for those who don't enjoy real pucks, as it provides non-stop thrills from one end of the ice to the other.