Inside Pulse 12

Review: NHL 09 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

NHL 09
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Genre: Sports
Release Date: 09/11/2008

The one thing about EA’s annual sports titles is that each year, they feel compelled to change something. Maybe it’s a subtle change; maybe it’s a big change. But they never leave things as they are. Look at Madden 06. They took a perfectly good game and ruined it by adding in a stupid passing cone. So as NHL 09 approached, gamers everywhere feared the worst. After all, NHL 08 was a superlative game; why would they want to mess with such an obvious winner? If you were worried to death about EA ruining last year’s game, you weren’t the only one.

You can also stop worrying.

Believe it or not, EA not only didn’t butcher the considerable gains they made with NHL 08 – they took what worked so well last year and made it better. While there are some new features this year, perhaps the best testament to NHL 09 is that the average game plays better than it did last year. And again, if you didn’t think that was possible, you weren’t the only one.

Let’s start with the big differences. The most notable inclusion in this year’s game would have to be the Be A Pro mode. This is similar to the Superstar mode we’ve seen in the Madden games over the past few years. The premise is simple – you control one player, and only that one player, for the duration of an entire career. You can pick a current pro and play as him if you’d like, or you can create your own player, cut your teeth in the minor leagues, and move up to the NHL when you’re ready. Whichever you choose, get ready for a pretty tough challenge.

As anyone who’s played the FIFA Be A Pro mode is painfully aware of, at least half of your work as a “pro” comes while you’re not in possession of the puck. Forget about making a great pass or taking a shot; your toughest job will be getting open enough to even get the puck. Arrows do their best to guide you to the best possible spot, but it’s up to you to get there. Do you go where the arrow says, or do you double-team the puck carrier? That’s all up to you. But make sure you know what you’re doing, or else you’ll hear it from your coach.

Your “coach” is, aside from the game score itself, your evaluator of sorts. If you do good things, he’ll say good things. If you screw up, he’ll get on your case. Sometimes, he’ll do both at the same time. For example, if you get into a fight, he might commend you for sparking your team, but simultaneously admonish you for taking a bad penalty. You’re also graded in three different categories: positional play, team play, and stats. Ultimately, your grade determines if you’re bumped up to a better line or, eventually, the NHL.

Be A Pro mode is extremely addictive, partially aided because the games go by so quick. But this is one of those features that you can play over and over again without getting bored. Sure, goals might be hard to come by – in one four-game stretch, my team had four games go to shootouts – but just like in real hockey, it just makes scoring goals that much more rewarding. And you can now preserve your accomplishments for all of time, thanks to the new instant replay editor. Not only can you save replays and photos, but you can upload them to X-Box Live and show off to your friends.

With Be A Pro mode getting so much positive publicity, you might be worried about the traditional Dynasty mode becoming obsolete. Not to worry. There’s still enough in Dynasty mode to keep you coming back, even if much of it is familiar. You don’t have to worry about team finances anymore, just building a winning team and staying within the salary cap. Pretty much everything is as it was last year, including the layout; the only real difference is that there’s no e-mail system anymore. Instead, alerts just show up when you’re done with a game. There’s nothing really special about Dynasty mode, just the chance to make the games you play more meaningful, which is good enough for most people.

So, how do all these games play, anyway?

Glad you asked. Remember how last year’s game seemed pretty much perfect? This year’s version is even better. When Bowen told me every issue with NHL 08 was fixed, I didn’t believe him at first. But he was right. Even the things you sort-of kind-of wished were better are vastly improved. No longer can you just march up the ice, colliding with guys but never losing the puck. Now, you have to actually move the puck around. Not in a “neutral zone trap” kind of way, but gaining center ice is not to be taken for granted. Also, that across-the-crease pass that always seemed to be there for you in NHL 08 is long gone. It’s been replaced by defenders who slide in the way of the pass or tie up your stick as you’re trying to shoot. There really are no sure-fire scoring tricks these days, though deflections seem to be EA’s preferred tool to score goals this time around.

One of the more notable changes in this year’s game is the fighting system. It’s something that’s impossible to get right in a video game; usually, fights devolve into button-mashing battles. Not so in NHL 09. This time around, we get to fight like the actual players do – grab onto the other guy’s jersey with the triggers and fire away with the face buttons. In all honesty, it sort of makes you miss the button-mashing, if only because that got your blood going and the whole point of a hockey fight is to wake up the team and the crowd. This new fighting model, while more realistic, is a bit underwhelming, especially because just about every fight is over in five seconds. Still, it’s a more realistic take on fighting, one that should be refined in future versions.

While EA has pushed the envelope for a few years now in terms of what players can do with their controllers, they also threw a bone to those looking for some uncomplicated puck. This year’s game features “NHL ’94 Controls” which pretty much mimic the classic controls so many of us used on the Sega Genesis games of yesteryear. This is a pretty neat addition, as some of the default controls are a bit daunting for newcomers. It’s hard to say if someone could get through a full season with the simpler control scheme, but it should serve as a nice gateway to casual gamers who loved the older NHL games, but grew out of them as they got more realistic. Make no mistake about it, NHL 09 is as real as you choose to make it.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of EA’s devotion to making the most perfectly customizable hockey game yet – not to mention evidence of how far technology has come – is that you can create custom playlists that translate to the music you hear during the game. In NHL 09, you can rip the song of your choice onto the hard drive and have that be the song your team takes the ice to each game. You can do the same for each goal you score, for stoppages in play, or for pretty much anything you’d like. While custom soundtracks are nothing new, this is just a wonderful addition to this particular game. How many hockey nuts out there daydream about walking down the runway and hitting the ice to one of their favorite songs? This is one of those subtle things that goes such a long way with gamers and only enhances NHL 09‘s considerable replay value.

Not that the soundtrack on NHL 09 is particularly bad or anything. It’s just more of the same – EA Trax consisting of bands you’ve heard of and a bunch of people you haven’t. One can only wonder why they haven’t done the obvious thing and made a soundtrack full of hockey-themed songs. God knows there are enough bands out there. I’d take a soundtrack of The Zambonis and Two Man Advantage over EA Trax any day.

Sound in general has always been a key element to the NHL games, and this year’s offering is no different. Gary Thorne, the greatest hockey announcer ever, and Bill Clement return to provide commentary that hardly ever gets repetitive and, get this, actually describes what’s going on. It’s hard to find any flaws in this year’s commentary track. In fact,the only issue is that by default, the commentary is played during Be A Pro mode. Which is odd, because real players don’t hear commentary when they’re playing their games. So if you choose to turn the commentary off in favor of the natural sounds of hockey – not a bad idea, even though the commentary is great – you would then have to turn the commentary back on if you exit Be A Pro mode. For some reason, you can’t have customized options for each of your game modes, which is a bit frustrating.

Graphically, the game looks similar to last year’s; virtually everything from last year’s game is found in this year’s. The intro, the menus, and the gameplay appear to be carbon copies of NHL 08. Things are a bit more refined, though, and the transition between menus is more smooth. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but makes for an overall better gaming experience. Last year’s game presentation wasn’t broken, so we can work with it looking similar this year. However, there are a lot of new animations, particularly as far as goaltenders are concerned. In shootouts, goalies look and behave exactly like they would in real life. Shooters have new moves, and close-ups look even more lifelike. You sort of wonder how much more realistic things can look with this franchise, because everything looks quite real as is.

NHL 09 has all of the basic online options, with a few twists. As stated, you can upload highlights and photos, but there’s more. EA has finally introduced online leagues so that you can play something other than Dynasty over the long term. These leagues are a wonderful addition, though they probably should have been included years ago. There’s also a space for a “NHL 09 Code” from the main menu, something we saw last year. That time, it was the unveiling of the RBK Edge jerseys all teams now wear; this year, all indications are that this code will unlock all the third jerseys that teams will wear in 2008-09. Of course, X-Box Live will do all the upgrading, rendering such a code useless to anybody with online access.

Online or not, NHL 09 is a serious winner. It’s hard to find any serious flaws with the game, even with the introduction of so much new stuff. Kudos to EA for not just resting on their laurels, yet not tampering with what made NHL 08 so great. They found a happy medium, and should be commended for it.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Great
Graphics: Good
Sound: Good
Control/Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Great
Balance: Classic
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Great
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD

Short Attention Span Summary
After scoring a hat trick with NHL 08, EA went back to the drawing board and only changed what needed to be changed. What’s left is a wonderfully refined game that offers more than last year. The Be A Pro mode is a welcome addition, one that indicates a new direction for this franchise. Those who would consider NHL 09 just another “roster update” game are dead wrong; this is a great game in its own right.