Review: NHL 2K9 (Nintendo Wii)

NHL 2K9
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Genre: Sports
Release Date: 9/09/2008

I have been obsessed with hockey for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories include watching the Montreal Canadiens on television with my dad, cheering for my favourite Habs players, especially Russ Courtnall. As I grew up, I started playing in leagues, becoming quite the amateur player despite learning at a young age that a guy with my skills would never make it to the NHL. When I was not on the ice, I was playing the game on my console of choice, be it Blades of Steel for the NES or NHL 9x for the Super NES. Rarely have I passed a year without buying a new NHL game, but since buying a Nintendo Wii, I have found it to be increasingly difficult to satisfy my craving for virtual hockey. Even with Nintendo’s console selling more than its competitors, it seems like the decision-makers at EA thought that hockey players wouldn’t be a part of Wii’s target demographic, leaving me and thousands of hockey fans with their hands empty.

In the last two years, I had no choice to use my PC for my hockey fix, but the poor thing is now starting to show its age, and I don’t think it will be able to keep up with this year’s version. Things were starting to look bad until Take-Two announced that they would release the first NHL-licensed game to appear on the Wii, despite the console being nearly two years old. Hockey fans were happy once again, I cried tears of joy and everything was right in the world.

Needless to say, I bought NHL 2K9 on day one, and have since spent many hours exploring everything that the game has to offer. So, is this game a satisfying experience, or is it simply a game that people like me will buy because it is the only option available?

Let’s put it this way: if you compare NHL 2K9 to a hockey player, it’s like the utility player that plays on the fourth line and fills the holes when needed. It’s not particularly talented in any area, and it’s not going to carry your team to a championship. It does the bare minimum, but at least its there when you need it.

The first thing you notice when starting the game is the graphics. Not in a way that they amaze you by their technical prowess, but in a way that you think “Oops, I think I forgot to put on my glasses. Oh wait, I’m already wearing contacts”. They’re that blurry. I know that the Wii is the weakest console of this generation when it comes to showing off with pretty visuals, but this is no excuse for the level of strain that this game unleashed upon my eyes. I cannot even remember the last time I have seen a hockey game that was the ugly. I asked my friend to play his copy of NHL 2K5 on the Xbox just to compare, and I think that the four years old game is actually prettier. I actually felt as if someone had smothered Vaseline all over my eyes. Trying to follow the puck is hard to do, and sometimes, so is trying to differentiate the two teams, despite the fact that they don’t even wear the same colors. The icon to show who is controlling the puck is pretty small, and it is the same icon that would usually be around your player anyway, but coloured with the palest shade of blue they could find. It’s nearly impossible to tell who is in control when there are more than two players at the same place. This will often result in extended sequences where you and your opponents are skating at full speed towards each other, hoping that you will eventually knock the puck loose from the pack. There’s also the crowd that need to be mentioned, as they are nothing more than a couple of sprites alternating to give the illusion of cheering. They are thin as paper. I thought that the era of cardboard crowd had stopped with the death of the N64, but this game brings it back full force.

Unfortunately, it’s not only the on-ice action that is ugly. The menus are just as bad, with a font that is so small that I actually found myself getting up to approach the television in order to be able to read the on-screen text. It wouldn’t frustrate me that much if the game was simply bad-looking, but the fact that looking at the screen is physically painful is a bit much to take.

The game is a bit easier on the ears, with sounds that correctly evoke the atmosphere of a hockey game. The hits sound bone-crunching, the slap-shots feel powerful and the sound of the puck hitting the posts is accurate. You will need to get used to the last one as it happens at an abnormally high rate Рunless you are post-hitting legend R̩jean Houle. The soundtrack was pleasing at first, filled with blood-pumping punk-rock songs that put me in the mood for a sport as high-impact as hockey. However, by the half-hour mark, I noticed that the soundtrack was already repeating. The songs that were chosen are good enough, but they get old pretty fast when the selection is so thin.

When it comes to game modes, all the basic stuff we have come to expect from a hockey game is there: quick games, season mode, franchise mode, shootout, player and team creators as well as a competent roster editor. The only extras that could be considered 2K exclusives are the pond hockey and mini-rinks mode. Sure, they are fun little additions, but no matter how you look at it, these two modes are nothing more than a normal game of hockey with a few rule changes. Basically, it all comes down to what type of game you prefer. For an approach that is closer to a simulation, just play a normal game. If you feel like going for an arcade experience, pond hockey is there for you with its 4-on-4 action without any penalties. Finally, if you want a wide-open ice with body checks all over the place, mini-rink mode might be more up your alley. The old NHL games on the Super NES and Sega Genesis had an option to choose how many players you wanted at the same time on the ice straight from the starting menu. Pond hockey and mini-rink mode is essentially the same thing, but disguised as two extra modes with gimmick rinks thrown in. Having the choice is nice, but I doubt that you will devote much time to these two.

As for the other modes, I was positively surprised by the depth of the franchise mode. Everything that you would expect to be able to do as a coach or general manager is there, from signing and trading players to editing lines and strategies. The stats for individual players and league-wide standings are very detailed and easily accessible. The whole interface is sleek (but extremely blurry, as previously mentioned) and well though-out, giving you everything you need right at your fingertips. The other managers in the league are very active too, giving you the impression that you are not alone in the league. Past version of this series often left me feeling like I was the only general manager alive in the league, as I was often the only one attempting trades and signing players. This time around, I often get offered trades and you can see the other teams tinkering with their line-ups. This is a pleasant change from the zombie leagues of past years where nothing would happen unless you were the one provoking the changes.

I also need to give a big “thumbs up” to the roster management option, which includes the players and team creators. First and foremost, the roster editor gives you total freedom over the transfer of players from one team to another, which means that even though roster updates might not be available from the net, you are still able to update every team in real-time as changes happen in real life.

The create-a-player mode is extremely detailed except for one thing: your player’s anatomy. You can choose height and weight, but when it comes to detailing your face, you have about a dozen choices total, with half of them looking pretty much the same. Of course, with the quality of the graphics, it doesn’t make much of a difference since trying to figure out your player’s facial features while he is on the ice is completely futile. Thankfully, the rest of the editor is much better as you are served with a vast choice of equipment to dress your player with, including some of the most well-known models from real equipment manufacturers. If you are a real hockey player, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing your perfect equal on the screen using the same gloves and skates as you. There are contributions by Nike Bauer, Easton, RBK, Sherwood, CCM and Mission, ensuring that 95% of hockey players will be able to find exactly what they want. As for the stats, you are not limited in the amount of points which you can give to a single player, which means that you can create a team full of perfect players. However, it also means that you don’t have to juggle with attributes (the bane of my existence in many create-a-character modes in countless genres), so 2K’s decision to go with a less realistic approach on this side is more than welcome by me.

The create-a-team option is good enough but lacks some of the most fun parts of creating your own team. For example, you can enter anything as the name of the team or the city they play for (so you can set your team in Honolulu if that’s what you want), but you cannot choose your team’s colours. Instead, the colours are assigned depending on the logo that you picked for the team. You can then pick any player in the NHL for your team, or you can sign created players, which is just fine. However, you cannot bring your created team into a franchise mode, which is something that EA’s NHL series has been doing for at least five years. It’s a small omission, sure, but guiding my own team with my own players to the Stanley Cup has been the most fun I ever had playing a hockey game these last couple of years. At least, the basics are there which shows that the developers have the right idea, but it lacks gravy.

Now that I went through all of the different modes, you’re probably wondering “But how does the game play?” I would like to be able to say that it was a completely positive experience, but the game is unfortunately plagued by many issues that suck a lot of the fun out of it all. Still, the end result is at least functional.

Let’s start with the controls. I am all for the idea of making them simpler, especially since last year’s version had way too many button combinations that were mapped to functions that ultimately never came into play. Their proposed solution is indeed very simple but still manages to include every basic function you would expect from a hockey game. However, it relies too much on shaking the Wiimote or nunchuk, which may solve the complexity issue but instead brings two more problems. First, shaking the controllers seems to be unreliable at times, which can be frustrating when it causes you to miss an open net because the game didn’t recognize your shooting motion. The other issue is that it becomes hard to play the game while sitting because so many motions are required from you. Standing up to play brings a lot of excitement to the game, especially when playing against a friend, but it becomes tiring pretty fast. In fact, we were getting pretty sick of it after the third straight game when we usually have the habit of spending whole nights playing virtual hockey.

The on-ice action is once again competent, but feels like an arcade game. NHL 2K9 puts a lot of emphasis on big scores and big hits, rendering any kind of defensive planning completely useless. Poke-checks and puck-stealing do not play much of a role here, and intercepting a pass is nearly impossible to perform. Instead, huge body checks are the most sure-fire way to stop an opponent and gain control of the puck. Slap shots will rarely bring in a goal, but nearly any shot made from the slot will turn on the red light. Fights break out at an alarming rate, often implicating players that would never drop the gloves. I even had one game that involved Mike Ribeiro fighting twice, and anybody who knows hockey in the least will realize how ridiculous the notion of Ribeiro fighting someone is. I’m not saying that the game is not fun; it just doesn’t feel like a real game of hockey. Instead, it feels more like those N64 Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey games, or like an interactive version of the movie Slap Shot.

One thing that really impressed me though is the passing system. By using the Wii remote as a pointer, you can actually choose which player you want to pass to, and even think ahead by choosing a second who will receive the puck as soon as the first pass is completed. This system completely revolutionizes the way things were done in every other hockey game in existence. Instead of just passing the puck to the nearest player, you can try to go for the long pass for an easy breakaway, or you can send the puck all the way to the opposite side to free yourself of your adversaries. It is a brilliant update to a crucial element of hockey games.

While this game doesn’t really look good when compared to its competitor, it still is a competent representation of hockey when taken on its own. Fortunately for Take-Two, they are the only game in town this year when it comes to the Wii. That’s going to help them a lot when it comes to selling this game to the masses. Let’s hope that they step up their game next year though, just in case EA Sports decide to bring their award-winning series to the platform, because while NHL 2K9 will be more than welcome by many gamers for the simple fact that it’s hockey and it’s on a Nintendo console, there’s no way that it’s going to win if it faces any serious competition.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Mediocre
Graphics: Dreadful
Sound: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Good
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Mediocre

FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary

NHL 2K9 is a fun but flawed game. Aside from the fact that it just might be the ugliest game I have ever seen on the console, it does just enough to satisfy the poor hockey fans that happen to own nothing but a Wii. It may do the job this year, but I hope for the developer’s sake that they have something better in store for next year, because there’s no way I am paying the full price twice for a product of that quality, and the game’s shortcomings are going to be severely exposed should a certain series make the jump to Nintendo’s console.

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