Reviewed: October 2, 2008
Released: September 8, 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 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 Sports came a new developer. 2K went with Visual Concepts (the same people who do the NBA 2K games) who took over the franchise from Kush Games. We now have NHL 2K9, and as with most total “from the ground up” rewrites, there is very limited success. Maybe they should try using hockey fans to make a hockey game instead of basketball fans.
Check out a detailed comparison chart of NHL 2K9 vs. NHL 09 for all the facts.
2K seems to enjoy the fantasy life. With NHL 2K9 they have really pushed the “2K Sports” TV network to its limits with all kinds of flashy on screen graphics and over the top announcers. It reminds me of what FOX used to do with the NHL broadcasts before the strike. They tried a lot of innovative things like a glowing puck and new camera angles. Most met with about as much success as 2K seems to be having with their “innovations”.
When you start the game you jump right into the quick game menu with a rematch of last years Stanley Cup Final Pittsburgh vs Detroit. There's a lot of graphical change in the menus and the general 'feel' of the game. The menus have been sized down so it seems a bit more slick and less clunky than previous efforts. Those still playing in 480i resolution might as well give it up. The text is unreadable at anything less than 720p.
Video Concepts did learn from Kush's mistakes of last year. The control scheme has returned to a much simpler single button shooting method. It's fine for those wishing to pick up the game for the first time, but it does take away some of the feel of swinging a hockey stick. Thankfully they included other control schemes which make use of the thumb sticks.
The general gameplay has improved slightly. Over 1,400 graphics have been added or tweaked, but they still lag behind EA's NHL 09. There are some nice additions in special moves and stick handling. A lot of the details of the game like “what happens if you get hit by a puck” are included in NHL 2K9. But it just doesn't quite feel like the real game. NHL 2K9 feels more like an arcade game trying to be a simulation and it just doesn't work.
2K made a big deal out of “putting the fun back in hockey” for this release. I guess that is more for the Nintendo Wii version of the game, because on the XBOX 360 a lot of the fun has been taken out by the new developers. 2K seemed to instead focus on minor details that really don't do much for the actual gameplay. They added user control of the Stanley Cup celebrations, and the players now grow beards during the playoffs. These and other items are kind of neat, but they have been behind in the graphical front for a couple years, I would think their money would have been better spent focusing on things that matter.
Let's enter into the touchy subject of teams. Well, it's a touchy subject for me at least, because I'm all about playing with the classic teams from my younger days. 2K has a great history of including some amazing teams in their games, be it baseball, basketball or hockey. It really increases the appeal and shelf life to a game. This year, Visual Concepts did the unthinkable. They removed some teams!!! What's worse is they removed ALL 10 classic International teams and the All Decade All-Star teams. That's right, you can't play with the 1980 USA or Russian Olympic teams, or the 1987 Canada Cup Canadian or Russian teams. There is something seriously wrong with this picture. I am at a loss here... as are we all.
The only hope I see for NHL 2K9 comes with the ominous “codes” menu. Either some bonehead non-hockey fan at Visual Concepts took this product over from the original developers and dropped the teams for no reason, or they are hiding our teams in the game so they can only be unlocked with a code. At press time there was no news about any codes so one has to wonder what is the point of this menu item? Perhaps 2K will be offering downloadable teams on Xbox Live in the near future? Quite frankly this is the only thing that could redeem this game for me. But here it is early October... the NHL season is beginning and most hockey gamers have already chosen their game. It would seem this is a horrible marketing blunder for 2K as well.
The included classic teams are: 2002 Detroit Red Wings, 2001 Colorado Avalanche, 1999 Buffalo Sabres, 1999 Dallas Stars, 1998 Washington Capitals, 1997 Detroit Red Wings, 1997 NY Rangers, 1997 Philadlphia Flyers, 1996 Colorado Avalance, 1996 Florida Panthers, 1995 NJ Devils, 1994 NY Rangers, 1994 San Jose Sharks, 1994 Vancouver Canucks, 1993 Buffalo Sabres, 1993 Quebec Nordiques, 1993 LA Kings, 1993 Montreal Canadiens, 1993 NY Islanders, 1993 Winnipeg Jets, 1993 St. Louis Blues, 1993 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1992 Chicago Blackhawks, 1991 Minnesota North Stars, 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins, 1990 Boston Bruins, 1990 Edmonton Oilers, 1989 Calgary Flames, 1987 Edmonton Oilers, 1987 Philadelphia Flyers, 1986 Montreal Canadians, 1982 LA Kings, 1982 NY Islanders, 1977 Montreal Canadians, 1975 Buffalo Sabres, 1975 Philadelphis Flyers, 1972 Boston Bruins, 1972 NY Rangers, 1971 Chicago Blackhawks, 1968 Montreal Canadiens, 1963 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1956 Montreal Canadiens, and the 1952 Detroit Red Wings. Quite a good list, but 2K9 hockey has gone from 105 teams last year to 91 this year. You won't win fans that way.
Remember all those cool little mini-games you could play in previous years? GONE. Every one of them. They have been replaced by an optional Zamboni driving game between periods. You have 3 minutes to clear the ice with a Zamboni sponsored by Best Buy, Circuit City, or Walmart (presumably they can update the sponsors as they update the advertisements on the hockey boards). You would think video game developers would learn that taking features away from the fans is not going to convince anyone to buy their product... or give it a good review.
About the only thing I can say 2K got right are the fights! This is probably the first time I've seen a hockey game portray fighting as close to how it looks in person. When you have, as Don Cherry calls it, the “odd tussle”, the stadium PA plays “bad boys” and the two pugilists square off for a slugfest. You use the right and left triggers to keep your player balanced while pressing the red B button for a big hit, and the green A button for a less risky hit. This is one of the few areas where 2K really outdoes EA... unfortunately it doesn't have much to do with the actual game of hockey, but it is fun. Especially when you play the Bruins against the Red Wings... let the bloodbath begin!
Xbox Live play has improved significantly. When you first logon you create your own avitar for Team2K. You can pick from about 30 avitars (male or female) and pick your clothes from NHL, NBA, or MLB teams (those are the only ones 2K has a license to use). Once your online avitar is complete, you have leaderboard rankings and other stats to track your online progress. You can even set up your league play time availability for games. Once you play your game, the players can rate each other and add a comment (don't worry parents, bad language is blocked). They also are doing their version of a “be a pro” mode where you pick a position and play it the entire game. It works well, but the downfall of 2K is there were only around 2,000 users even ranked as 2K9 players so finding enough people to play a full 5 on 5 game isn't easy.
2K did follow EA's lead and finally added a customizable sports ticker. It doesn't seem to be affiliated with anyone and is not quite as 'real time' as EA's ESPN ticker, but it is a welcome addition and they at least made an effort. Another area that 2K still has an edge is in player and team creation. EA is close, but 2K still has the most options... right down to picking out the blade of your skates. See the comparison chart for details, but needless to say, 2K still has a slight edge in creation.
2K has been playing catch-up to EA for a few years. They still are behind but the gap is closing. All the stadiums are faithfully rendered and even the fans have improved. Player animations are another area where 2K has a slight edge. But only when off the puck. Collisions and goalie animations are done very well and seem to really have weight to them. However the players still have an arcade feel to their movements. I can't put my finger on it exactly, but it seems like their skating is stiff and not as fluid as the real players. EA of course has this down to a science, but 2K is gaining ground.
2K9 has the players grow beards during the playoffs. Wow, that's a neat feature, but how many of you actually zoom in on the action that much? 2K really needs to get some new talent in the production office. Whoever shifted the focus for NHL 2K8 and 2K9 needs to be shown the door. Their resume should clearly state that they were personally responsible for killing a beautiful game.
Generally the sound in NHL 2K9 is on par with NHL 09. The fans react to the on-ice action and the stadium announcer and music is about as real as it can get. Unfortunately the on-ice sound effects are again similar to an arcade game more than the real game. Shots almost have an Indiana Jones whip sound that echos in the stadium.
Announcers in NHL 2K9 are Randy Hahn and Drew Remenda (courtesy of the San Jose Sharks) with Don Schneider as a bench reporter. All of them do a nice job, however the number of repeated phrases is beyond annoying. I found myself switching the audio over to “on ice” so I wouldn't have to listen to them. The bottom line is EA has the best announcers in Gary Throne and Bill Clement.
There are 14 music tracks in NHL 2K9 ranging from fairly well known musicians like The Offspring and The Ramones to some that I've never heard of like The Night Marchers and Pennywise. Generally these songs are pretty hard rocking but even at 14 songs, it gets repetitive very quickly.
NHL 2K9 is one of those games where if you just play it for 15 minutes, you'll likely not be very impressed and it will go in your pile for the used game store. But if you dig a little deeper, NHL 2K9 does have a significant amount of replay value with season mode. The problem is, they took so many fun little party games out from 2K8, that it seems like 2K9 is just not a fully featured 2K Sports game. The graphics are better, but gameplay is what brings people back (just ask Nintendo). The features that made NHL 2K so special have either been drastically altered or completely dropped in 2K9.
NHL 2K9 has 38 achievements which are for the most part, incredibly easy to get just in the normal course of playing the game. Simple things like scoring certain numbers of goals or assists are rewarded.
We have another year with two hockey games that are so close in features it is difficult to choose just one. It’s great for us to have this problem! This 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. Now as a result we have games with two different presentations. I only wish 2K had kept up with the development of EA. It might already be too late. I have to say I am extremely disappointed with NHL 2K9. It occurs to me that
The NHL 2K Hockey next-gen videogame timeline and prediction for next year:
I left NHL 2K9 feeling a little sad due to the loss of what was a really good sports series. Unfortunately 2K9 feels a lot closer to an arcade game than an accurate simulation. If they are going to go that route, they should have just bought the assets from Midway and made an updated NHL Hitz.