Reviewed: October 12, 2008
Released: September 9, 2008
Didn't the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs just end? Do you even remember who won? Over the past couple seasons I have been kind of the “Hockey/Soccer guy” at Game Chronicles. I'm okay with that designation. I've watched hockey since I was a kid and played soccer most of my life, so playing two of my favorite sports on video game consoles is no real burden for me. I actually look forward to this time of year when NHL hockey season is starting, MLS soccer season is ending (thankfully), and the English Premiere League soccer season just kicked off.
Over the last few years hockey video games have duked it out. 2K Sports was usually the best game overall. They just overwhelmed EA with an abundance of features so EA was playing catchup every year. But in 2008 the tide began to turn. EA really ramped up the graphics and worked on some of the game features so it was a difficult decision for my hockey game dollars.
But with a new year at 2K came a new developer. 2K went with Visual Concepts (the same people who do the NBA 2K games). They took over the franchise from Kush Games. As with most total “from the ground up” rewrites, there is very limited success... and EA has stepped in to completely bury them with NHL 09.
Check out a detailed comparison chart of NHL 2K9 vs. NHL 09 for all the facts.
How do you improve on such a great game as NHL 08? Better graphics, more teams, better online play, more features. EA improved just about everything. NHL 09 is all about the details. When you start the game you are taken to the main menu where you can pick from various offline and online play options. NHL 09 offers plenty to pick from.
I can honestly say I have never played a videogame that so closely feels like the real game. NHL 09 is simply amazing. EA has the player physics down to a science. Just skating a player around in a circle shows the amount of physical data they used to put into the player models. Skating is fluid and smooth... unless you run abruptly into another player. Everything is as it should be.
The overall gameplay is just amazing. It feels fast and furious. Teamwork is essential and passing is key. You can create plays or use some of the included plays. Do an all out attack or do the trademark of #99 and camp out behind the opposing net to set up a teammate for a goal. If you are a sucker for abuse and at least a little crazy, you can even play as the goalie. All of the above is also in NHL 2K9, however in NHL 09 it just feels like the real game... utterly amazing.
One small area that 2K still has EA beat is in Mini-games. In previous years, 2K had a boatload of party type games based in a rink. This year all those are gone and 2K now has a briefly entertaining Zamboni driving game. EA has nothing unless you want to count the practice drills.
The “Be A Pro” mode is worth the price of admission. In “Be A Pro” you create or pick an NHL player and use him the entire game. You play your position on a shift. When your guy gets tired you have to get to the bench in the most advantageous time or you'll team will essentially be a man down for a few seconds. When you get to the bench, you watch the action unfold from the bench while your energy builds up. When you are ready you can demand a shift change or just wait for your teammate to come to the bench. If you get in a fight you sit out your penalty in the “sin bin”. This is the first 'dynasty/franchise' type mode I've ever enjoyed. I've now played over 100 games in this mode and keep coming back for more.
I decided to put myself in the game. I signed an NHL contract with the Minnesota Wild and was promptly assigned to their minor league AHL team the Houston Aeros. After proving my worth in 24 games in Houston, I got the call to the NHL. I played well for a couple games but the AI quickly learned my tendencies and soon I was demoted to the 3rd line. I decided to do a simulation of a couple months of the season. Before long the GM was warning me to stop being so lazy. Then not long after, I was sent back down to the Aeros. I worked hard and before the playoffs started I was called back up to the Wild and into the NHL playoffs. I improved my skills enough to win the playoff MVP and we won the Stanley Cup! I only had a 1 year contract so I had a couple teams interested in me. I ended up signed with Ottawa, but before the next season started I was traded to Detroit and the fun continued. It's a little more difficult to keep your position on the team when there are so many other highly rated players. Better keep getting points or you'll be in the doghouse.
The one annoyance I found was what I would assume was a joke by the programmers. Some programmer with a hopefully correctable sense of humor decided to put their daughter Sabrina Ladha in the game as a free agent goalie with a great rating. I wouldn't have known except I was playing in career mode and was only able to muster 1 goal against this unheard of goalie. I don't know how things work at EA, but my employer would have fired me for placing such a blatant bomb that effected gameplay. Perhaps she would have been better placed in the stands as a fan instead of ruining my game.
There is a Dynasty mode where you take over all the nuts-n-bolts of team operations as well as playing if you choose. That includes signing contracts, trading players, scouting, training and managing rosters. It's pretty straightforward and little if anything has changed from last year... but there really isn't a lot to do to improve what was already a good play mode.
The teams once again have improved, but not the extent I had hoped. EA NHL 09 includes a whopping total of 164 teams from 7 leagues. Leagues include the North American based NHL and AHL, plus leagues from Germany, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic. This has increased the market appeal of NHL 09 to a much wider market overseas but there is still a lot more they could do.
Once again EA has chosen to pretty much ignore the wealth of amazing historical teams available to increase the shelf life of NHL 09. Of course EA could license other North American minor leagues to increase their fan base even more, but what about NCAA colleges? EA already has the license for NCAA video games. Why not use the license in NHL 2010? There isn't enough of a market to make an investment in an entire game based on NCAA Hockey. So why not put at least the top 25 NCAA teams in the NHL game? It would be a great addition to the “Be A Pro” mode to start your career in college before signing with a minor league or pro team.
The only classic team in NHL 09 is the Centennial Montreal Canadians (obviously EA Canada has some Canadians fans). NHL 09 would have been the ULTIMATE hockey game if they had just included some classic teams like 2K did last year. The Centennial Montreal Canadians include some amazing players like Guy Lafleur, “Rocket” Richard, Jacques Lemaire, and the more recent Patrick Roy. But this isn't the usual 'historical' roster where you have to enter in all the unlicensed names manually and tinker with the player attributes to make them look correct. EA apparently licensed the names and likenesses of all 21 players including their black and white mugshot photos! I was impressed by that, but I was even more impressed when I went to play with the team and the players were not wearing helmets! You can't get any more real! 2K has more classic teams but they (even the old teams) wear unrealistic helmets.
You can make your own teams, but it is limited. With the recent death of Paul Neuman, I was hoping to create the Charlestown Chiefs from his cult classic hockey movie “Slap Shot”. Well, you can make the Chiefs in name since Charlestown and Chiefs are available as selections from the menu. But frustrating limitations come in the creation of team uniforms. There are only 23 non-NHL generic logos available and 18 styles of jerseys. You can select colors to get a fairly close approximation of the Chiefs, but it just doesn't “capture the spirit of the thing”. It would be great if EA licensed the “Federal League” from the movie and the likenesses of the players, especially The Hanson Brothers (including their glasses). The arena organist could even play “Lady of Spain”.
The level of custom player detail has been improved – you can even select the flex and curve in your stick which effects the power and accuracy of your shots. The amount of customization you can put in each player is amazing. There are 19 sticks for skaters to choose from, 11 skates, 11 gloves, 9 helmets and we are just getting started! The goalies have 32 sticks and 21 pads, and 60 blockers/trappers and catchers. They include every equipment brand I've heard of and a couple I haven't.
Another big improvement is in online Xbox Live play. This year EA added online team play where you take your created player and join a team online. EA has full 6 on 6 online team play where you pick a position and play that the entire game. It is great fun... if you get on with a good team, and if EA takes care of some bugs. I tried to play online games, but my xbox locked up just as the cameras were going to the faceoff. I and many others seem to have the same problem. Hopefully an update is on the way to fix this issue. When it works, it's great fun.
The graphics for NHL 09 are just amazing. NHL 08 was very impressive, but 09 improves on every level. The real question is: how does it compare to NHL 2K9? They are very close, but EA just has the best. Every little thing has been improved, from uniform textures to black marks on the rink dasher boards. The only hickup is a framerate issue during cutscenes. However it never disrupts the flow of the game.
It's hard to believe they could improve much from last year, but NHL 09 has even more amazing sound. The arenas have some unique acoustics according to size. The fans react to the on-ice action. The great announcing duo of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return even better than previous years. They do most of the national TV broadcasts and know their stuff. I was amazed when playing a Russian league game as they talked about why some specific players were not in the NHL. There are occasion repetitive phrases about blocked shots, but I've played over 100 games and still hear new comments.
NHL 09 is what a hockey video game should be. While the lock of mini-games and historical teams certainly effect the overall fun and shelf life, the core hockey game and graphics are phenomenal.
NHL 09 has 27 achievements which are much more difficult than NHL 2K9. For example, 2K9 has normal milestones like score 50 goals. NHL 09 has many items such as getting an overall rank of “A” in Be A Pro mode playing as a Goalie on Pro Level. You really have to work to get points on NHL 09.
Last year we had two hockey games that are so close in features it was difficult to choose just one. It was great for us to have the problem! It was (and still is) the perfect example of why we need to have competition for our gaming dollars. The NHL and NHLPA thankfully didn’t sign an exclusive deal with any game publishers. As a result, we have two great games with two different presentations. Well, that's the way it was last year.
2K used to have the best of everything in their NHL game while EA was counting on their EA Sports brand name to capture fan dollars. As 2K quickly received awards for their far superior game, the giant awoke and EA has been working on every aspect of their NHL games to take over the crown. Competition has pushed EA this far and quite honestly they have just about buried 2K in the snow. It would seem that 2K is now going backwards while EA is pushing the limits of the next gen consoles.
The choice for the perfect hockey game used to come down to one question: what features do you enjoy the most? But in 2009, there really is no choice. 2K Sports has completely lost focus, fixing minor problems but also removing features instead of continuing with their 'everything but the kitchen sink' approach. EA has made not only the best hockey game ever, but might very well have the best sports simulation game in history. It really is that good. EA gets the GCM Editors Choice Award, 2K gets the sin bin.