Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Online Multiplayer: 2-12
HDTV: 720p, 1080i, 1080p
9 MB to Save Game
September is a great month. Hockey training camps are in full swing and the NHL season is just around the corner. For gamers, it also means the annual battle for hockey supremacy takes place with 2K Sports’ and EA Sports’ NHL franchises going head to head. For years I supported 2K’s effort as EA Sports lacked the level of realism I have come to enjoy. I stayed away from EA’s NHL game for seven years until NHL 07 came along. Ultimately, the skill stick is what did it for me as I found it simply amazing. When NHL 08 came along the series continued to see even more improvements. Now, NHL 09 has been released to the masses and it seems to solidify EA’s NHL series as the top dog in virtual hockey by introducing features that all sports games can only attempt to achieve.
One thing EA Sports have always been known for is great graphics. When you first boot up the game it looks very similar to NHL 08, which is not a bad thing. Player models are top notch and they look very close to their real-life counterparts. The best example of the modelling is the Montreal Canadians Centennial Team. The detail is stunning. You can almost see the fire in Rocket Richard’s eyes when you zoom in on his face. Additionally, today’s top players such as Crosby and Ovechkin also look like their real–life counterparts too.
NHL 09 allows you to create your own player. You choose from different options in terms of head, skin tone, facial hair, hair style, and even eye color. That being said I was somewhat disappointed that it lacks a lot of variety or depth. Unlike Sony’s great baseball game MLB the Show 08 which gives you a countless number of options, NHL 09 could have used more options to really customize your character physical look. Perhaps the use of the Xbox LIVE Vision Camera might be a nice addition in the next instalment of the franchise. After you set the physical look of your player, you then get to choose from a limited variety of equipment such as helmet, gloves, stick and skates.
During the on-ice action players move smoothly and the game suffers no real hiccups that were prevalent in previous versions of the franchise. Some of the replays do suffer a bit in terms of framerate issues however as they are replays they do not detract from the gameplay. Nevertheless, I did notice some clipping issues while playing. For instance, I saw a skate go right through another player’s leg and a stick go through another players body. It is not a major concern though but merely a small glitch. One question I must ask: Why doesn’t the net move when players collide with it?
As I mentioned above, NHL 09 looks very similar to NHL 08 which means many areas which could have been improved have not. For instance, EA did not overhaul much in regards to the crowd. This is an area which certainly could have been improved. It always seems the fans are on their feet with their arms waving no matter what happens. Some more variety would have been appreciated, and how about some female models too?
Another area that could have been enhanced is the overall presentation style. Don’t get me wrong, NHL 09 is solid in this area; however I prefer NHL 2K9’s TV style presentation. Bottomline, EA’s series could improve in this area. Overall, the game will not disappoint in terms of graphics as EA does a top-notch job in this department and it makes NHL 09 the prettiest hockey game around.
Overall, the games sound is an excellent compliment to the solid visuals. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return for another tour of duty. Their commentary is dead on as they comment on the on-ice action. Their observations, similar to NHL 08, actually assist you when things are not going your way in a game. Additionally, I noticed several new comments that were not in last year’s game. As with any sports game where you play a season or two, you will notice some repetitiveness, but as time goes by each version gets better in this area and NHL 09 is no different.
In-game sound effects and the on-ice sounds are pretty darn good. From the sounds of the puck ringing off the post to the sound of your player’s skate cutting into the ice as you turn to backcheck, everything you associate with an actual hockey game is included in this game. I was even amazed how you can hear players calling for passes, yelling that the point is open, or calling for a line change while the game goes on. It is these kinds of things that make for more realistic experience.
The biggest change in the sound department is the addition of custom music for the Xbox 360 version. You can now take any song you have on your hard drive and assign it to different areas such as the player intros, a home goal, penalty, intermission, or home win. I found this a welcome addition as I loved the fact I could play ‘Sweet Child O Mine’ by Guns N Roses for my player’s intro. EA Trax is back and the soundtrack included in this year’s game is decent. Some songs definitely don’t feel like they belong and you do have the option of turning them off. It all comes down to ones taste, but nevertheless with custom soundtracks who needs them?
As with all sports games the gameplay is truly the key component. No matter how beautiful or what features are included in the game; if the gameplay is terrible then the game isn’t worth it. Well, EA Sports continues to deliver in this department. Last year EA Canada spent time tweaking the skill stick and providing an excellent simulation on offence. Unfortunately, the defensive side received very little attention. However, this year some major overhauls have been made. Let’s start off with the A button shall we. When controlling the puck simply press the A button and this enables you to protect the puck when trying to go around the opposing defenseman or trying to breakout out of your zone. EA did a great job simulating this, and every time I use it I feel like I’m Alex Kovalev driving towards the net. On the flip side when you are not controlling the puck, the A button does something wonderful called “the stick lift” which is self explanatory and a thing of beauty when it works correctly. However if you miss your opponents stick you can be called for a penalty such as high sticking. The stick lift is a terrific feature as it eliminates pesky one-timer exploits which certain players are known to constantly use.
To compliment the stick lift the right thumbstick (EA’s skill stick) was overhauled for the defensive side too. Now, when pressing the right bumper you can use the right thumbstick to move your hockey stick around in an effort to prevent a pass. You can also use the left bumper and skill stick to move your stick along the ice. Again, EA does an excellent job with this feature, something which was much needed in the series. But wait there’s more! The poke check has also been revamped making it much more effective this year. In summary, these defensive changes have made NHL 09 the well rounded game that video hockey fans have long sought for.
In terms of the AI and difficulty levels the AI continues to challenge you at the higher difficulty settings. Similar to last year they adapt to your game and as a result it is difficult to score using one particular move or exploit over and over again. That being said, I do have some concerns with the goaltending. I often found that the goalies on lower difficulty settings were often out of position. I have seen many react to passes and start flopping around as they get caught out of position. This could be due to the fact EA added a few new animations for the goalies as well as some desperation saves resulting in goalies overreacting on plays. Everything being considered, the AI does react well and makes good decisions most of the time.
The computer AI when online is another story though. I have played close to 20 games on Xbox LIVE and I have found that the AI makes some pretty stupid moves on far too many plays. For instance, in one game I had the puck in one corner I chose to circle behind the net, looking to pass to a player in the slot area. As I made my move I saw three guys coming at me and before taking the huge hit I passed to the AI who was left alone in the slot. I was flabbergasted as he did not choose to shoot but he made a return pass to me while I was lying on the ice from the hit. Needless to say it resulted in the opposing team scoring the game winner. Things like this can be frustrating experiences and they do occur more often then you would like.
Arguably the best feature in this year’s game is the ‘Be a Pro’ online mode. This killer feature is the first Sports MMO for consoles. Here you can create a player named after yourself and add him to your favorite team’s franchise as a top prospect. When you load the game up for the first time you will be prompted to create your player. This player represents who you are both offline and online. As you play games, and hopefully rack up some points, you will be given experience points to make your player better.
During the ‘Be a Pro’ offline component you will choose your favourite team’s farm club in the AHL and start on the team’s 3rd line. Your coach and GM will give you their expectations for your season. For example, if you choose a sniper’s role they may expect you to score 30 plus goals, but if you choose a playmaker’s role they will want plenty assists from you. During each game you play your coach will rate you on three areas: team play, positioning and stats (e.g. +/- rating). The better you play the better he will rate you. He will also give you feedback on your shifts. If you make some nice passing plays while you are out on the ice he will let you know, but should you turn the puck over or make some poor decisions and he will let also let you know about this too. The offline ‘Be a Pro’ experience is a blast. The NHL 09 team at EA Canada spent some time creating a new camera angle for this feature and for the most part it works quite well. Sometimes you get spun around when the action is going the other way but fear not folks as EA allows us to use all the other camera angles if you like.
The online ‘Be a Pro’ component is equally entertaining and has brought a whole new level of enjoyment to hockey gaming. Online is simply nirvana as you can now play a game of 6-on-6 across Xbox LIVE using your ‘Be a Pro’ player. You can create a club up with up to 50 members as you try to be the best team in Xbox LIVE’s cyberland. My time with this mode has been non-stop and I love every minute of it. On the downside, finding matches online can be a pain. This is most noticeable when you take a full team of six online. With four or less players the time it takes to find a match ranges from 5 to 30 seconds. Once, you actually get to play you forget about the wait as the experience makes it all worthwhile.
Many gamers have long since criticized EA’s servers. Well, critics can put their concerns to rest. Since the first night I played online I have not come across any major lag issues like I had in previous versions, especially NHL 07. The only issue I have found is that there are random drops of players and sometimes you cannot hear your one or more of your teammates. I have only experienced this a couple of times though. Once you get a game going you find that positioning plays a huge role in any win. Players who understand the game of hockey and know how to play will excel rather quickly. As with the offline you earn experience points to make your player better. EA has also included a performance tracker where you can see how well you are doing. This feature will give NHL 09 lasting appeal and propel other sports games to implement it into their respective franchises. Do I hear co-op online franchise with your ‘Be a Pro’ player for NHL 2010?
Of course if ‘Be a Pro’ isn’t your style EA has several other game modes available. For starters, there is a tournament mode. As part of this mode, the developers created a Centennial Habs tournament, where if you make to the end you will face the 100 year Montreal Canadian Centennial Team for the championship. Franchise mode also returns and there are some improvements here as well. For instance, trades are now easier to monitor as they now pop up in a window where you can choose to accept the trade, decline and make a counteroffer. Another new feature in franchise mode is the training area. Here all your players will have certain training drills to do such as work on their stick handling or shot accuracy. The coach will assign the drills throughout the season but you can also go in the menus section and change them manually. On the flip side I would like to have the ability to train my players on the ice. The NHL 09 dev-team has also added a help section detailing all the changes they have made to the franchise mode. It is a nice little addition to the game indeed.
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