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NHL 2K9

 

NHL 2K9

ESRB: Everyone 10+
Platform: PS3
Category: Sports
 
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Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports

Features

Players: 1-7
Required HDD Space: 4113 KB
PLAYSTATION Network Compatible
Players Online: 2-12
Supported HD Output: 720p, 1080i, 1080p

The NHL 2K series really got me back into videogame hockey. I remember firing up the first of this long running series on my Sega Dreamcast and falling in love with what it had to offer. Since that time consoles have come and gone but the series has continued to plug along. Improvements over time gave the 2K series strength to beat down the long running NHL series of sports competitor EA. But as with all dynasties it usually comes to an end, and last year NHL 2K8 took a backseat to EA’s revamped effort NHL 08. Well it is a new season and 2K has come out swinging, and although still behind EA once again, it definitely doesn’t mean that it is a bad game as it definitely offers hockey fans some enjoyable moments. Now, let the EA/2K Sports comparisons begin.

Graphics

After having a chance to sit and play NHL 2K9 I have to honestly say that this game is due for a visual overhaul. It is almost as if they have done everything humanly possible with the original code that was ported to the Xbox 360 during NHL 2K6. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty game, but it is just that EA’s game has evolved a lot visually, and although there have been improvements in 2K’s effort; there is still room for more.

Arenas are faithfully recreated and the crowd that surrounds the ice is very well done. Something I have always hated in sports games is how developers make generic people who all seem to be wearing the same thing over and over again. However in NHL 2K9 it seems that Visual Concepts made an effort to really amp up the crowd. There really seems to be a good group of individual looking people, and not a core cookie cutter group all wearing the same thing. Of course they react like a crowd too and this helps pull you into the game.

As for players, they are not bad looking, but they are not top tier either. Most of the marquee players are quite recognizable, so Sidney Crosby from the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Sedin Twins from the Vancouver Canucks all manage to look like they should. The detail in the uniforms is pretty good too, but again it looks like they have maxed out the graphics engine as there could be more detail in this area. Something new to the series, and kind of a neat touch, is that the players sport ‘playoff beards’ during their respective team’s run to the Stanley Cup. It is something that caught me off guard and shows how Visual Concepts is looking at the little things that make a game look good.

Technically the game runs pretty smooth on the PS3. Supported HD output ranges from 720p, 1080i to 1080p, so depending on your display you get full HD no matter which way you go. I found that the game’s framerate was relatively solid too, at least during the actual gameplay; however there seemed to be some slow down during cut-scenes such as goal scoring celebrations. I know that fellow reviewer Frank N, who is currently reviewing the Xbox 360 version, feels like there might be frames of animation missing. That being said, I didn’t feel the same as things looked pretty good to me.

Regardless of my criticisms of the visuals, NHL 2K9 it is a good looking game, but I still can’t help but wonder when this game is going to get the visual overhaul to take it up to the next level.

Sound

NHL 2K9 manages to put forth a solid effort in the audio department. From the commentating to the music to the sound effects no one should find any problems here.

Commentating in NHL 2K9 is done by Randy Hahn and Drew Remenda. Although I have been a big fan of most Canadian commentators in the past (e.g. Harry Neal and Bob Cole) these two don’t do that bad of a job. The majority of their comments are bang on and they manage to have a few time specific comments (e.g. playoffs) that will catch you off guard. The majority of the time everything they said was pertinent to what was going on down on the ice. They even manage to through a few funny comments too.

The music included in 2K9 is a pretty good mix and it really helps add to the excitement of the game. From Bad Religion’s New Dark Ages to The Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop, all the music really mixes in with the overall presentation of the game. It seems that a lot of work went into choosing the music for specific reasons. In a recent press release that we here at GameBoyz put up on our site, Tim Rosa, 2K Sports’ director of brand and lifestyle marketing stated that they had “...licensed a few of the more popular hockey stadium songs, so when a player goes to the penalty box after a fight, gamers will hear tracks such as “Bad Boys” from Inner Circle or “Knocked Down” by Pennywise after a big hit, as they do in hockey stadiums across North America”. And after my time with my copy this reviewer thinks that he wasn’t kidding.

Finally, what would an NHL game be without the sounds of the game? From the big hits, the on-ice banter to the reactions of the crowd when a puck rings off a post, everything one has come to associate with hockey is loud and proud in 2K9. I have to say that even the big hits managed to rock my media room when I took the game home to play over the weekend. Anyone who is a hockey fan will definitely appreciate the whole audio presentation in 2K’s latest hockey.

Gameplay

The areas of gameplay and presentation are really important for me when a developer tries to bring home the on ice experience of hockey, but in videogame form. This latest version of 2K Sports effort is somewhat of a mixed bag in gameplay, but a solid performer in its presentation. Let me explain.

2K Sports has made the control options very accessible to any level of gamer as there are three styles to choose from. Basic is the simplest. This is a throwback to the control schemes that were included in earlier versions of past NHL 2K games. Pro Stick Evolution is the more complex version that was introduced last year. It is a multi-button configuration that many said was a bit of a hindrance given that there were so many things to memorize or modify. Finally there is the Hybrid control scheme which combines both the Basic and Pro Stick Evolution and it does so with positive results. The Hybrid scheme will no doubt be compared to EA’s NHL control scheme as there are a lot of similarities. You control your player with the left analog stick while you shoot or deke with the right analog stick. You push the right analog for a wrist/snap shot while you pull back and then push forward for a slap shot. To deke you only need to do a simple tap of a button and then some slick thumb work with the right analog stick. I found that I really did enjoy the control using the Hybrid scheme and although I am more of a fan of the Xbox 360 controller, my time with the DualShock 3 was still enjoyable and I was able to pull of quite an array of moves.

In the past the 2K series of NHL games set the bar in terms of what a simulation style hockey was all about. Previous versions managed to have just the right feeling in terms of putting the realism into the game which allowed anyone playing to feel like they were in a hockey game. The AI was realistic, speed was realistic and even the physics were becoming more and more realistic (e.g. puck physics or your player ‘cutting’ the ice to turn and back check). However it seems like the 2K9 is a lot more arcadish this time around.

Something that really caught me off guard about this game was the actual speed. I found it pretty fast, almost too fast, then what I would have really enjoyed. This is the first reason I found it a little arcadish. To add to this, 2K has also included a turbo button again, something that I really think takes away from the realism. I found that I could hold down the turbo button way too much as it was quite generous in this area. I like the fact that competitor EA went away from this and I think 2K could benefit from doing so too. Give the player a natural burst of speed at the beginning but have them slow down as they level out, none of this holding down of a turbo button. Sure, you can choose not to do this, but too many people tend to want to use this feature as much as they can.

Another reason for feeling that the game is too arcadish was the end results for each game that were quite high scoring. I could rack up quite a few goals in any given game on pretty much any skill setting. Don’t get me wrong, I had to work at it, especially in the more difficult skill settings, but the fact that I was able to do this more then I should have was a little disconcerting, especially since I don’t consider myself a diehard sports gamer. I attribute some of this to the computer AI, from the defensive moves of the computer opponent to the inconsistent goaltending. It is not nearly as smart as I have seen in the past. For example, the goaltending used to be a highlight in this game. Even though there were exploits, should you have played like a real team and/or a real player it could be tough. However this year the goaltending is suspect as they just don’t react nearly as consistently as they have in the past. They allow too many suspect goals (e.g. floaters) and this is not indicative of what has been produced in previous versions.

So the last two paragraphs you just read may make you think that the game is not that fun, well nothing more could be from the truth. There are still simulation elements and you can tinker around with the settings to change things to make it a little more ‘life-like’. I guess the bottomline here is that the game is pretty much living up to its goal of trying to become more accessible to everyone and not just towards the die-hard hockey fans. And hey, if it takes a little more arcadish of a style, then so be it, at least it will get into the hands of more people and hopefully make more hockey video gamers out those who did not consider it before.

Many of the modes from last year’s game have returned, from franchise mode to ‘quick play’ mode. So there is no need to rehash these as there is enough here for any wanna be manager to those looking to just play a quick game of hockey. There are also some mini-games for those looking for a break from traditional play. You can play some old school pond hockey, you can play a little 3-on-3 in a mini rink, or you can drive a Zamboni to test your ice cleaning/driving skills. These mini-games are a nice break from the usual rigors of playing regular hockey. And who doesn’t want take control of that famed ice cleaning machine anyways?

I mentioned in the beginning of this review that presentation is also a key factor in bringing real hockey into the realm of the virtual world. Well this is where 2K once again shines. It is the little things from the menus that get you started to the ambiance and surroundings of the arena when playing (e.g. crowds, sounds, etc). There are even game summary replays that add to that feeling of watching hockey on a Saturday Night (Editor’s Note: being Canadian means Hockey Night in Canada on a Saturday night was a weekly ritual). You can even participate in the on-ice celebrations once you win the Stanley Cup as you can interact and actually control what you do when celebrating your time with ‘Lord Stanley’. It is these little things that allow NHL 2K9 some redemption as it really does add to the overall atmosphere of the game.

Along with the single player game 2K Sports has added the usual fair of online modes. In the past this is where the series has held its head up high, and it can do so once again. Up to 12 players can hook up for some online madness, with each player locking into a specific position. I myself really enjoyed playing either left wing or left defense. This mode forces you to work as a team, so playing with people whose game style you know really does become beneficial. During your play you earn points (and lose them too) based on your performance. Once you decide to go online you can create a user avatar, hockey based of course, and you are able to enlist in weekly team tournaments hosted by none other then 2K themselves. Of course there is also support for online leagues and given how much time and effort 2K Sports has put in this area in the past, it is once again a well implemented feature.

My time online, although somewhat limited, was surprisingly enjoyable. The PS3 has always lived under the Xbox 360’s shadow when it comes to the online arena, but 2K plays no favorites here and the experience was pretty much lag free allowing for some pretty intense and hit-filled games. That being said, it seems that people are already starting to find a few exploits for scoring and I really don’t have the time of day for these types of idiots. I really think you need to find a group of online players who play hockey like it really it is, and not just playing to exploit some poor AI or money play for high scoring games.


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