When the most recent NHL lockout led to the cancellation of the entire 2004–05 hockey season, the popularity of the sport in America -- which was already not that high to begin with when compared to the other three major sports (football, baseball, basketball) -- absolutely plummeted. The sport still hasn’t quite been able to make up the precipitous drop in followers that it suffered as a result of the lockout, which is a damn shame, because it’s so much fun to watch.
Hockey has also typically lent itself very well to videogame adaptations. Salient moments in hockey gaming include the arcade/NES classic Blades of Steel (“BLADES OF STEEL!”), mid-90s EA Sports efforts (NHL 95 for the Genesis is my personal favorite of the bunch), and Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey on the N64 (the goalie temporarily turning into a literal brick wall is an unforgettable image). And while hockey sims have always been solid, there hadn’t really been any standout titles in the past two console generations that would be remembered for years, like the aforementioned games from the days of yore.
That was the situation until last year, when EA Sports released NHL 08. The game was widely recognized as one of the finest simulation hockey titles ever created, and it garnered “Sports Game of the Year” awards from seven different gaming publications. Gamers everywhere wondered what EA Canada could do to top that effort in 2008, and the developers answered with NHL 09. Read on to find out if the 18th installment in EA Sports’ venerated hockey series is the best yet.
NHL 09 (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, PC)
Let me say this at the outset: EA Canada has truly outdone itself with NHL 09. Last year’s already-solid gameplay has been refined to near-perfection with the addition of the Defensive Skill Stick; the game looks better than it ever has; and not one, but two entirely new revolutionary game modes are present. So if you’re looking for a fantastic game of hockey, just stop reading this review immediately and go buy NHL 09. Really, go for it -- I won’t mind.
Still here? Great! Now I’ll explain what makes NHL 09 so awesome.
In NHL 07, EA debuted the Skill Stick, transferring control of shooting, deking, and checking (body checks as well as poke checks) to the right analog stick. After getting over the initial shock of having to play a hockey game without touching the face buttons -- which took some getting used to -- most people agreed that it was a fantastic addition to the franchise. But the past two years of the series have been rather unbalanced in favor of offense; defense had yet to receive an upgrade. NHL 09 adds a flip dump, which allows for dump-and-chase hockey, and loose puck dekes, but what about ‘D’?
This year, that long-awaited upgrade is here with the Defensive Skill Stick. A game-changing addition, it allows for much more freedom and control on defense than was ever possible before, which is wonderful -- after all, doesn’t the old saying go, ‘defense wins championships’? Classically, playing defense has been all about flattening your opponent with thunderous body checks, but in NHL 09, the poke check is the most powerful technique available to defenders. Tapping R1 will perform a poke check, and if you hold the button, the game will automatically do a “contextual sweep.” But holding R1 in conjunction with turning the right stick allows for 360° control of your defender’s hockey stick (he’ll sweep his stick around, much like real penalty killers do).
The other side to the DSS is pass blocking. Holding L1 will lay your player’s hockey stick flat on the ice, and again, you can use the right stick to control the direction in which your stick faces. Finally, another method to prevent scoring is by using the new “stick lift” option (press X). This will, as advertised, lift the stick of your opponent off the ice. It’s a very useful technique to stop someone from receiving a feed for a potential one-timer, or just to make him lose control of the puck. Stick lifts combine with the DSS to provide a highly effective toolset for players, giving them access to more moves that real-life NHL defenders use. Unfortunately, having the checking and shooting mapped to the same stick can create issues -- namely, taking cross-checking penalties when you wanted to hit a loose puck -- but the controls work well overall.
Speaking of checking, NHL 09 features a revamped physics engine for checking and fighting, and it shows. While it isn’t quite as true to life as NaturalMotion’s Euphoria engine, of GTA IV fame, you’ll definitely see a great variety of animations for collisions between players. Try to take on a brawny defenseman with a puny winger, and you might be able to give him a shove -- but he’ll brush you off as a minor inconvenience and continue without losing control of the puck. As for fighting, well, I couldn’t really tell if the engine made a difference -- unfortunately, EA Canada also completely changed fights so that most of them end within two or three punches. Whatever happened to the epic bouts of a minute or two, as made famous by Slap Shot (R.I.P. Paul Newman)?
If these analog stick controls sound daunting to you, Ms. Casual Gamer or Mr. Typically Not A Fan Of Sports Games, fear not: EA Canada has included a simplified two-button control scheme straight out of NHL 94. All you need to worry about with the NHL 94 Controls enabled is using the left analog stick to control player movement, the X button to pass, and the circle button to shoot the puck. On defense, circle controls checking, and X changes players. So if you’re playing a hockey game with your toddler for the first time, or if you want to take on your non-gaming friends, you can do so without confusing the hell out of them -- and they can still compete with you, Mr. or Ms. Kicks Ass At Sports Games. Each player can choose which control scheme they want.
But gameplay isn’t the only area in which NHL 09 is better than its predecessors -- not by a long shot. Two brand-new game modes, Be A Pro and EA Sports Hockey League, bring a level of depth to sports gaming that has never been seen before. The innovative modes are intertwined, and they’re all about making you the star in your own hockey fantasy -- living the dream, as it were. BAP provides a near-bottomless single-player experience, while EASHL has you team up with gamers around the world to take part in true cooperative gameplay. Together, they’re what I love about NHL 09 the most, and they’re also what I’ll be playing long after January ’09 actually arrives.
The idea behind BAP is to put your likeness in the game and take yourself from the minors to the big time, and hopefully to Legend status, eventually. After you’ve created your player and chosen his equipment (which affects his attributes), you pick an NHL team to play for and are placed on the third line of its AHL (minor league) affiliate. You can also just take over the career of any existing NHL player, but it essentially defeats the purpose of the entire mode, which is to make you feel like you’re ascending the hockey ranks.
I was talking to fellow Dtoider and New York Rangers fan power-glove about Be A Pro, and he said something to me that I think perfectly encapsulates the mode: “It’s everything that Madden’s ‘Superstar’ mode should be.” If you saw my review of Madden NFL 09, you know that the game’s Superstar mode is still just as lame as when it was introduced two years ago. NHL 09 eschews the maddening drills (SiegelPun™) of EA’s football series for a simpler starting system: your player is assigned attributes based on the type of player you want him to be (e.g., Sniper, Offensive Defenseman, Butterfly Goalie) and the equipment that you pick (e.g., the curvature of your stick affects where your shots tend to go).
When you’re on the bench (or in the penalty box), you’ll take a first-person perspective, and you’ll automatically follow the puck. It would’ve been nice if you’d been given control over the direction in which you look, but perhaps that’ll be added next year. During play, there’s a third-person camera (unique to BAP and EASHL) that always stays behind you. After each shift, you’ll be rated by your coach (A+ to F scale) in three areas: Positioning, Team Play, and Stats.
In BAP, the game provides a blue arrow to tell you where you should be (if it’s not there, that’s a good thing -- it means you’re doing your job and are in the correct position) and that affects your Positioning rating. The game doesn’t tell you exactly what Team Play comprises, but I presume the rating is determined by, well, how you help the team (e.g., defense, lack of turnovers). The Stats rating is pretty self-explanatory -- for example, if you’re a forward, then you want to rack up goals and assists.
Once a game is completed, the RPG aspect of Be A Pro comes into play. After playing a game, you’ll be awarded with a certain amount of experience in three areas: Offense, Defense, and Skills. This experience can be used to upgrade your player’s attributes. It’s obvious that the developers wanted gamers to play BAP for a long, long time -- you’ll receive 10-20 EXP, per area, from a typical game, and attribute upgrades are very expensive. Adding one point to your shot accuracy, for example, costs over 150 EXP -- so you’ll have to play many games before you have enough experience to increase your attributes.
Be A Pro mode is an undeniable success as a mode that really makes you feel like an AHL (and NHL) star. You’re much more attached to every penalty, every assist, every goal, and every shift because you have a vested interest in the player. It’s you in the skates of the player, and it’s your name on the back of his jersey. The unbridled elation I felt when third-line left winger Samit Sarkar (#21) of the Hartford Wolf Pack (the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate) scored his first goal is almost indescribable. And I went absolutely nuts the first time I won a game with an overtime goal. Everything just feels that much better because you’re literally in the game.
This dovetails nicely with EA Sports Hockey League, the game’s ground-breaking online mode. In EASHL, you take your created Pro online and can play on a six-person team -- i.e., you control your Pro and five other gamers around the world are each controlling their own Pros -- in a game against another six-person team. That’s right, folks: NHL 09 is the first console sports MMO in history, with up to 12-player online games. Previously, console sports games’ online modes have involved one gamer controlling an entire team versus another gamer doing the same, but EASHL actually promotes team play online.
EASHL is quite ambitious, too; it doesn’t just end with 6-on-6 online play. You can form teams of up to 50 players, where everybody’s stats are aggregated, and those teams compete in the first-ever EA Sports Hockey League Cup. Teams can choose their own names and select their own jerseys, and the leveling-up part of BAP is present online. Unfortunately, offline and online upgrading works separately, so if you’ve brought your Pro up to a 92 overall rating in BAP, he’ll still start back in the 70s online.
The mode has a few problems, though. First of all, as you might expect, there are plenty of connection issues. In a full 12-player game, what are the chances that everyone is going to have a rock-solid connection? But even aside from that, it can be tough to get into a game, and the interface doesn’t help -- it took me a while to find my friends list. In addition, online players tend to take advantage of certain “glitch” goals -- for example, everyone seems to aim for the top corners, because the game’s goalie A.I. tends to have a tough time getting its glove up. Still, issues and all, EASHL is definitely worth your time. I played a few games on a team with Dtoider CountingConflict, and working together as a team (i.e., screaming at each other over our headsets) felt really, really cool.
As for other gameplay modes, the full-featured Dynasty mode is back if you want to try out the GM and coach side of the game. It’s deep and just as good as ever, but one of my hopes for the franchise’s future is that EA Canada adds an Owner mode, just like the MVP Baseball and Madden NFL games. The Create Play mode is back, and it has been improved greatly with the ability to create breakout plays -- start out with a defenseman behind your own net and go from there. There’s also a Tournament mode, where you can play through five different European leagues or complete an eight-team gauntlet to unlock the Montreal Canadiens Centennial team (included in honor of that franchise’s 100th anniversary).
One of the coolest additions to the series comes in the form of its brand-new Instant Replay system. It’s a fantastic tool to capture that unbelievable save or game-winning goal for posterity. EA Canada really went all-out with this feature, and it now has some great options for all you budding Scorseses out there. You can place markers in the review memory to create a clip, and then you can edit that clip to your heart’s content -- choosing different camera angles, varying the speed at which the video plays, or even changing the color (B&W, sepia, oversaturated).
When you’re done editing together your own mini-movie of a bone-rattling big hit, you can not only save it on your console’s hard drive, but you can also directly upload the video to EA Sports World, a new online portal for EA Sports games. There, you can check out videos of sick goals and strange glitches uploaded by NHL 09 owners around the world, like this clip of some precise passing and a goal. I’d link you to all the videos I’ve uploaded, but I still haven’t been able to set up my EA Sports World account correctly (you might have seen that in my Tiger Woods 09 review).
The NHL series has a history of looking fantastic, and that trend continues with this year’s iteration. The amount of detail in player models is absolutely astounding -- check out the mesh of a jersey as a player steps onto the ice from the runway, or the stitching on his skates while you’re sitting on the bench. Faces also look unbelievably good -- individual hairs in five-o’clock-shadow stubble are visible in close-ups. The crowd is fully polygonal, as opposed to being a 2D sprite in recycled animations. Often, in sports games, it’s the little things that matter, and animations like pained reactions after someone blocks a shot or takes a high stick to the face add a lot to the experience. And the game is also the most fluid sports title I’ve ever seen -- I can’t really put it into words except to say that, for the most part, it looks like real hockey.
But NHL 09 isn’t perfect, of course. There’s a very strange flickering issue that tends to rear its ugly head toward the end of a game where player models will quickly disappear and reappear. It doesn’t last long, but it’s very annoying when it happens. And sadly, the PS3 version doesn’t feature Trophies, custom soundtracks, or even vibration. Trophies would’ve been a nice bonus, and I like the game’s alternative/indie rock EA Trax -- but no vibration seems almost inexcusable at this juncture, considering that a number of EA Sports titles that were released a month or more before NHL 09 offered DualShock 3 support.
Regardless, I can’t really fault NHL 09 too much for its few foibles because they don’t detract from the overall experience in any measurable way. The game is a vast improvement on what was already a fantastic product in NHL 08, which is due in great part to this year’s pioneering (and addictive) modes. I had high hopes for this game, but those expectations were exceeded by leaps and bounds with the phenomenal title that EA Canada has delivered. NHL 09 is the pinnacle of hockey gaming -- and it may very well be the best sports game I’ve ever had the sublime pleasure of playing.
Score: 9.6 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)