There are few moments in any sports video game more satisfying than scoring a goal in NHL 09. It's more than aiming top-shelf and pressing a button before the goalie gets into position. No, you have to outmaneuver the defense with quick skating and smart passing, work your way into scoring position, and then manually put the puck where the goalie isn't. But if you played EA Sports hockey in the past two years and experienced the stellar control mechanic known as the skill stick, you already knew all this. In NHL 09, EA expands on its already outstanding gameplay with a host of addictive game modes that make this, quite simply, one of the best sports games of all time.
With skill-stick control, your right analog acts as your hockey stick. Move it left or right to deke, press up for a snap shot, down then up for a slap shot, and to the side then up for a wrist shot. On defense, you have 360-degree control to clog passing lanes, deliver poke checks, and pull your opponent's skates right out from beneath him (two minutes for tripping.) There's also a dedicated stick-lift button that, when used in proper position, will whack an attacker's stick away from the puck. When not in proper position, you're likely to be whistled for high-sticking or slashing, but this aggressive defensive move adds another risk/reward element to the action.
If anything, the new skill-stick additions transform NHL 09 into a defensive-focused game, forcing you to use actual hockey strategy to get past the blue line. Indeed, flip-dumping the puck into the offensive zone--another new maneuver this year--will allow speedy wingers to get behind aggressive defenders sliding in for the pinch. You'll have to take what the excellent defensive AI gives you; working passes into the slot or behind the net and cycling the puck to create scoring opportunities. Simply zigzagging past defenders on the breakout isn't going to work, especially on higher difficulty settings. Rest assured, there are fewer scoring opportunities than in years past, and NHL 09 is a much better overall hockey experience because of it.
But in large part, the overall gameplay on the ice remains very faithful to last year's game. Checking is mapped to the right analog stick, and the physics have been improved so big hits can only be delivered at direct angles (provided the defender has a full head of steam). A stationary defenseman is more likely to harmlessly shove an attacker than knock him off his skates. This eliminates arcade-style hit fests and forces you to play more conservative defense. If you pull defensemen out of position to deliver a big hit, you'll open up the slot, and skilled opponents will take advantage. Hockey purists won't like all the off-the-puck hits that could easily be whistled as interference, but these concessions to video game fun are balanced well against the game's dedication to realism.
Because this simulation approach forces you to play real hockey, casual players that loved the old arcade style may feel lost. Fortunately, several tutorials are included that introduce player controls and some basic strategy tips. And if you still hate the skill stick, you can opt for the two-button NHL-94-style controls.
Most of the development time on NHL 09 appears to have been spent off the ice on two new modes: Be a Pro and the EA Sports Hockey League. When you first pop in the game, you're asked to create and customize your own Be-a-Pro character, from the length of his mullet to the flexibility of his hockey stick. You can then plug him into the AHL affiliate of your favorite NHL team and try to take him from a wet-behind-the-ears rookie to an NHL legend. This Be-a-Pro mode is similar to Superstar mode in Madden NFL 09. A third-person camera follows your character on the ice, and experience points earned in-game can be used to upgrade your attributes. The first time you find yourself alone on a breakaway, you'll be absolutely hooked. As satisfying as scoring is in the normal game, a Be-a-Pro goal will have you jumping out of your seat because you're so much more attached to the player scoring it. There are some occasional camera issues as you move behind the opponent's net or transition from offense to defense, but overall this mode stands head and shoulders above similar modes in other sports games.
The EA Sports Hockey League lets you take your Be-a-Pro character online and join friends for six-on-six matches, expanding on the three-on-three online matches of NHL 08. If you choose to create your own team, you can select your jersey from any of the NHL teams, international teams, AHL teams, or European league teams. Then, you can select a team name and motto before commencing your assault on the leaderboard. It's an engaging online mode for sure, but it's not without its problems. We suffered significant connection issues, and the interface is confusing. Game invites are terribly frustrating because accessing your friends list isn't intuitive in the slightest. Even though you play as your Be-a-Pro character, your skill attributes do not carry over from one mode to the next, which is a shame because it takes several games to earn enough experience points to gain just one attribute point in a category. On the ice, there's also a strange bug where a computer-controlled defenseman will rip a slap shot into the stands if he receives the face-off. Despite its foibles, though, the EASHL is a mode you just have to play for yourself. Forget scoring goals. Simply playing good team hockey is an addictive thrill that will have you coming back for much, much more--if you manage to connect to a game.
If you love playing head coach and GM, the deep Dynasty mode makes a welcome return. The create-a-play feature has been expanded to include breakout and sideboard plays, which are perfect for triggering dump-and-chase plays for those who can't dance around defenders at will. With the AHL license, you can call up hotshots from your minor-league team and send down aging veterans or simply place them on waivers. If you don't care to participate in any of the hardcore management, you can play your way through the schedule and let the computer handle those decisions for you. A Tournament mode rounds out the game modes, letting you play through the SM Liiga of Finland or Elitserien of Sweden--there are five European leagues featured in all.
Where NHL 09 does not fall behind is with its slick player models and excellent animations. There are hundreds of new player animations, including some bone-crushing checks into the boards. The frame rate holds at a smooth 60 frames per second on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, although you will notice some slowdown during replays and cutscenes. In the booth, the former ESPN play-by-play tandem of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement is arguably the finest duo in sports video game commentary. Gary Thorne's voice alone can carry the action of a little league baseball game, and Clement continually drops insightful hockey knowledge, even if some it is recycled from last year's game. Regardless of the fact that ESPN no longer broadcasts NHL games, Thorne and Clement add even more color and authority to NHL 09.
If you even have a passing interest in hockey, you owe it to yourself to play NHL 09. EA has raised the bar yet again for its hockey franchise with engaging gameplay, excellent presentation, and enough game modes to tide you over until Christmas. Move over Blades of Steel, NHL 09 has earned its place among the greatest sports games of all time.