The pinnacle of video game hockey has always been NHL 94. Delivered by EA Sports almost 15 years ago, NHL 94 offered an amazing balance of gameplay, entertainment and replay value that most sports games seem to lack…until now. Finally, EA Sports has truly done it again. With the release of NHL 09, gamers will once again ascend into hockey heaven with wings spread wide. If you felt NHL 08 was an outstanding improvement a year ago, you haven’t seen anything yet. NHL 09 literally raises the bar on every aspect from its predecessor in terms of game modes, replayability (which is saying something) and true value for your dollar.
The moment you turn the game on, you’re presented with the greatest addition to sports gaming since Franchise Mode. You’re immediately prompted to create your own player, whether it is a defensemen, forward or goalie. You choose a name, position, height, weight and other assorted attributes until you’re finally complete. From there, you’re given a brief overview of the analog control system, which offers seamless play for both first time and veteran players. It’s from this point forward that the all-new Be A Pro mode truly shines.
Be A Pro puts you in the shoes… no skates, of your created up and coming superstar in order to work your way through the AHL (American Hockey League) up into the NHL (National Hockey League). Here, you’re finally given the opportunity to fully customize your player from head to toe. This will include several licensed hockey sticks that allow you to choose the flexibility of your shaft and the curve of your stick. On top of this, you’re given an ample supply of helmets, gloves, color choices, skates, and much more in order to create a truly unique character.
From this point, you’re stuck with the decision of which team you’d like to play for. This is where your career will start but not necessarily end, depending on how well you perform. Once you’re set with a team, you’re ready to increase 3-4 player attributes before starting. This is where the game earns its longevity. You’ll notice that each attribute has to be raised individually and sometimes takes upwards of 250 experience points to budge. Experience points themselves will come in numbers that range from roughly 14-30, meaning you'll have to put in a considerable amount of game time in order to crack the higher-end skills. As such, Be A Pro mode will likely have you hooked for months, something of which many other sports titles have failed to achieve.
Much like Superstar mode in Madden, the camera will be fixated on your position alone. While there are some instances where the camera obscures your view of the puck, it does little to hamper the experience, with the overall camera work bringing a certain dynamic quality to the title. There is also a ton of strategy in order to advance yourself through the ranks. If you’re a goalie, you’re going to be splitting time, however if you’re a player, you’re going to start off on the third line. In order to move up, you must impress the coaches in Team Play, Positioning and Stats. You’re given a grade numerous times throughout a game and though the coach’s remarks will become tiresome, they’re severely accurate. Positioning is scored on how effective you’re able to follow your assigned arrow to get to where you need to be; stats are scored through your goals, assists, wins, shutouts and are sometimes hard to come by, while team play is judged on your ability to stay onside, not take long shifts (that’s right, you have to line change on your own) and to make great passes without too many turnovers.
One thing in particular to make sure you take note of is the difference between jumping from the AHL to the NHL. Be prepared to feel like a boy amongst men from the very get go. It’s that realistic.
The next relevant step for Be A Pro mode is to be able to take your very own Gretzky online. Conveniently this process is releasing with NHL 09 also. EA Hockey League online will allow 12 players to compete 6 on 6 in order to watch their baby Lemieux’s grow into something magical. Not only are you able to show off your talent to the world, but you’re also given the same in-depth stat tracking, as you are offline. Furthermore, if you’re able to get a competent group of players together, there is no limit to how much ownage you can deliver unto your opponents. Thankfully if you’re paired up with a bunch of unskilled players, it will not affect your offline character, as their personas are not intertwined to that degree.
Naturally, NHL 09 still offers your standard Dynasty Mode that gives you the chance to take any team to the Promised Land over a certain amount of years. While this may have been the meat and potatoes of last year’s installment, it now plays second fiddle to the aforementioned Be A Pro challenge. Dynasty Mode delivers everything gamers are used to with the exception of the ability to raise and lower ticket pricing and things of that nature. It seems that EA Sports is removing a lot of the “owner” aspects from their Franchise/Dynasty modes across all titles as of late. However, you’re still capable of dropping players from the NHL to the AHL or vice versa. Outside of these minor changes, you can expect the same type of offering as the game’s predecessors.
While the core of NHL 09’s gameplay is better left unchanged, EA has given more power to the defensive style of player. Last year’s entry saw the skill stick pave way for offenses to utilize the analog stick for perfect one-times and beautifully crafted wrist shots. This time around, the defensive has received a skill upgrade of their very own which enables them full 360-degree movement via the analog stick. You’re capable of lifting up an opponent’s stick to prevent a one-time or just attempt to block the passing lanes. Regardless of how you utilize it, the defensive aspects of the game have been vastly improved.
Speaking of defense, EA Sports has revamped the artificial intelligence of the defenders to be more aggressive and to check harder. This small change has sparked a far greater realistic gameplay experience. The developers have also improved the collision detection within gameplay and replays, further complimenting the overall authenticity of the title, enabling users to feel closer to the action than ever before.
Visually, NHL 09 remains fundamentally similar to last year’s outing. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Indeed, EA holds true to this philosophy by upgrading some finer details of each player, while still leaving the base of their character models intact. Some of the dynamic lighting and reflections in NHL 09 are vastly superior to those of ’08.
Elsewhere, NHL 09 recreates a memorable atmosphere during play with great commentary from Bill Clement and Gary Thorne. The dynamic duo truly grasps the user and pulls them into the action at an unbelievable level. The Madden team could definitely take a few tips from the announcer team from the NHL franchise. These two guys are so good they make a simple pass sound exciting.
NHL 94 is slowly becoming an afterthought as more time is being poured into EA’s latest hockey release. NHL 09 will not only win Sports Game of the Year, but could definitely hold a strong argument for greatest sports title of all time. EA Canada has truly outdone itself this time around the rink.
-The Final Word-
NHL 09 will unarguably go down as one of the greatest hockey titles, if not sports titles, ever created. EA Canada has done a fantastic job developing this vision of hockey heaven and gamers will find themselves playing it for months down the road.
|Platforms reviewed : PlayStation 3|