A championship season is both a blessing and a curse. Obviously, everyone always wants to come out on top, but doing so raises expectations considerably for the next year. Such is the case with NHL 09 whose predecessor is widely regarded as one of the best sports games in memory. Luckily, this year's hockey offering from EA Sports not only doesn't disappoint, it raises the bar set by NHL 08 in nearly every way, from awesome new modes to slight refinements, to the already stellar controls.
The first feature that hockey nuts are going to want to dive into is Be A Pro. As soon as NHL 09 begins, you're prompted to create your virtual likeness, complete with all the customization options that you'd expect from today's crop of sports games. You'll find more licensed products than you can shake a stick at, plenty of hairstyles and lots of other little nuances to toy around with.
From there you're given a brief tutorial on the right analog stick controls and then it's time to jump into your fledging career. You'll begin in the AHL unless you elect to control an already established NHL player (aka the weak sauce route). Before heading into your career, be warned, Be A Pro is a mode that is built to last quite some time.
Each attribute for your player needs to be advanced individually and with experience points being handed out in increments as low as 16 (it takes over 200 points to advance some attributes a single point) there's little question that you could spend dozens of hours with the mode. You'll slowly work your way from the third line of your minor league squad and, if your talents impress the coaches enough, you'll get bumped up to the big time.
On the ice, Be A Pro is very similar to what we've seen from other EA Sports franchises. The camera angle drops down behind your player for a more intimate perspective on things. The game allows you to call for the puck and direct your players to shoot when you feel it's appropriate, but for the most part you are controlling your player and your player alone.
Of course, you can't be on the ice all the time. That just wouldn't be realistic. Instead, you'll have to also manage when to come off and back on to the ice. It adds a big strategy element that is usually missing from a standard game where line changes are set to be handled by the AI by default. If you call for a line change to come off the ice when your opponent is attacking you're leaving your defense wide open for a goal. You'll need to dump the puck deep into their zone and then make the swap, and the same goes for coming back on to the ice.
It's that kind of realism that really drives NHL 09. If you play your position properly, chances are you'll find success, both in the eyes of your coach who breaks down your performance throughout the game, as well as on the ice. Your coach's advice does get a tired in a hurry, but it's usually quite accurate.
Another nod to the realism of the gameplay in NHL 09 is the discrepancy that you'll see when making the jump from AHL to NHL. As you'd expect, the minors feel like the minors. Long passes go astray, shots are less accurate and the skating isn't as precise. Get the bump to the show and you'll see the difference. Just as you should.
But for as awesome as Be A Pro is, it does bring its fair share of issues to the table. The camera, for one, can be a bit squirrely, sometimes rotating a full 360 degrees, which can make tracking the puck a bit of an issue. There are also framerate issues that, while they are present in every mode, are more prevalent in Be A Pro for whatever reason. The stuttering typically only happens during close up camera pans and replays, but it's still a slight annoyance.
Despite its few flaws, Be A Pro is still where most will spend the bulk of their time. For others, EA Sports Hockey League brings the Be A Pro gameplay style online for the first time. It's a persistent online league. Every player on the ice is human-controlled (including the goalie, which is surprisingly fun) and it makes for some of the best hockey seen in video games.
Providing you can get a group of players who know what they're doing and how to take advantage of their player's specialties and positions, the Hockey League can be a real blast. The same deep stat tracking and attribute progression that is seen in the offline mode is available online, but since your personas are separate, there's no persistence between the two. Attributes need to be built separately, thus doubling the length of the game's two biggest modes.
The dynasty mode is just as large and expansive as ever, but doesn't really deviate from what was seen in last year's game. There's still awesome attention to detail, like being able to check a free agent's team preference and scout guys for recruiting purposes throughout the season. You can also send guys up and down from your AHL and NHL rosters should their performance warrant a change. The only thing that's really missing is the ability to do things like set ticket and concession prices and make modifications to your team's stadium. The on-ice action is also largely unchanged except for one new addition.
The flip dump pass is something that has been added to NHL 09 and its presence is also felt in the Create Play mode. You'll now be able to sculpt breakout players where, should you nail the timing, you can dump the puck into your opponent's zone while your teammates streak up the ice to retrieve your pass. It's tough, but once you score a goal from one of your created breakout plays, the reward is worth the effort.
The core hockey action that drives the standard five-on-five play is very similar to what was seen in NHL 08. A few tweaks have been made to the artificial intelligence so that the CPU's defense is a bit tougher and more aggressive than it was last year, but most everything else is the same.
Collisions have been retooled and now feel much more natural. You'll need to preload your hits a bit more than in the past, but the reward is great. Players can quite literally have their skates wind up above their head after some of the pops delivered on the rink.
Graphically NHL 09 is reminiscent of what was seen last year which is both good and bad. On the up side the player models feature nice details, like facial animations, on close ups and doing the "Gretzky Tuck" with their jersey. Animations are also very intricate, especially on the massive collisions that are in the game. Crowd detail has also been stepped up a notch as there are now more varied models that react to the on-ice action better than they have in the past.
Of course those details do come at a price. The framerate is fairly unstable during replays and close ups, but thankfully it doesn't hurt the core gameplay. There are also rare moments of collision detection issues.
The audio side brings back the classic duo of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement to deliver their solid as ever commentary. They've been some of the best in the video game sports business for some time now and this year is no different. Their quips are insightful, accurate and sound as authentic as any other game out there. The soundtrack itself is solid, but songs are repeated for intros and goals. Luckily all of that stuff is customizable. Hits, slapshots and the goal horn all sound as realistic as you would expect.
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