By Joseph Phung
Score: 9 out of 10
Reviewed on: Xbox 360 (also available for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 2)
There’s a good reason why Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf is the cover boy for EA Sports’ NHL 09, as this year’s game is all about delivering punishing “D.”
With a focus on defense in NHL 09, the gameplay is now more challenging, especially on the higher difficulty settings. The AI does a great job with its defensive zone coverage; they will do whatever they can to prevent you from setting up a play or shot by executing hits and pokechecks, blocking shots and passing lanes and now even lifting sticks, too.
To counter the defense you can now pull off some new moves, like protecting the puck or changing your team’s forecheck strategy. But, if you find yourself on a breakaway, performing a one-handed deke on the goalie is highlight-worthy stuff only superstar players like Alex Ovechkin can successfully pull off.
While the gameplay in NHL 09 isn’t too different from last year, that’s not necessarily a bad thing as the series has only needed minor tweaks over the past few years. One area that does need work, though, is the faceoffs as they’re still too easy to win. Incorporating more realistic elements like faceoff tie-ups and warnings from the referee - much like their competitor NHL 2K9 did - is what the series needs next season.
To make things more accessible to new users, NHL 09 now has an option to play the game using NHL 94-style controls, which are much simpler to use than the default controls. However, if you decide to use these controls or the classic setup, you won’t be able to manually change your lines, which can be annoying.
Another addition to this year’s game is the ‘Be A Pro’ mode, where you take your created player and work your way to becoming an NHL legend. Starting out as a third-liner on an American League team, you’ll have to meet certain expectations for the position and role you’ve selected. Once you do, you start getting more ice time from the coach. For example, a playmaking center is expected to dish out a certain amount of assists to his teammates by the end of the season.
By consistently meeting expectations, you’ll eventually get promoted to the NHL and, from there, try to make a name for yourself. However, if you don’t want to go through the process of creating a player you can play ‘Be A Pro’ mode using your favourite NHL player and guide their career.
If you’re struggling at being a pro, you can always try your luck at being a GM in the game’s Dynasty Mode. Just like NHL 08, you’ll take control of your favourite team and try to win as many Stanley Cups as possible over the span of 25 seasons. Fans of this mode might be disappointed to see nothing new has been added and there are still some minor quirks with the simulation engine. For example, Johnny Oduya can win the Norris Trophy over Nicklas Lidstrom.
The ultimate challenge in NHL 09 is the online play. Not only can you play ranked matches or join a league, but you can also take part in the first sports massively multiplayer online game (MMO). You can also take your created player from the ‘Be A Pro’ mode and form a team with other users to compete against other teams in the EA Sports Hockey League. It’s definitely worth trying out.
Visually, NHL 09 is the best looking hockey game so far with its high quality player models. The animations are excellent, too, as plenty of new goalie and checking sequences are in the game, which add to the realism. One disappointment with the presentation aspect is that other than the new team intros and three stars of the game selection, the rest of the cut scenes are exactly the same from a year ago.
Once again, Gary Thorne and Bill Clement do a great job providing the play-by-play. Another plus with the audio in the Xbox 360 version is that you can take songs on the system’s hard drive and have them played in each arena at specific moments. So, Leaf fans can finally hear Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400” every time the Buds score.
Overall, EA Sports delivers another hit with NHL 09. With its realistic gameplay and innovative modes like ‘Be A Pro,’ this is the game for serious hockey fans.
Joseph Phung is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. You can read his blog at joe2400.blogspot.com.