As a huge hockey fan (raised in Minnesota; the state of hockey) I've been dying to see an NHL franchise - be it from 2K, or EA - make the first step onto Wii. Despite the slightly less enthusiastic outlook on the sport compared to things like the NFL or MLB by the general public, NHL has always found one hell of a home in videogames, and for those that enjoy the sport outside of the virtual world, there are few things more entertaining than sitting down with a buddy, checking the ever-loving crap out of him, and hitting a top-shelf slapshot late in the third period. As far as sports games go, it just doesn't get much better than hockey.
It's no surprise then that so many Wii fans have been asking about the console's first game of puck, and when we'd see it debut. 2K is first out of the gate with NHL 2K9, but for as wide open as the door has been left after this first effort, we'd expect the company to be back next year with more, and for Wii powerhouse EA to be hot on the company's heels in delivering some stiff competition when it comes to the hottest game on ice. It isn't that 2K was mindless or sloppy with how the Wii works, or the general design overall, but rather it's the execution that kills it. The team has the right idea, it just doesn't deliver in a bit way this first time around.
NHL 2K9 for Wii takes a lot of the core ideas in classic 2K hockey, and blends them together in what should be a pretty impressive first effort on the system. Gone is the button-based icon passing found as a classic fallback for 2K games, instead replaced by cursor passing for one and two-touch puck relays. The goalie cam makes a pretty decent transition from the previous 2K games on the other consoles, now using a mix of general vision cone control and gesture-based saves to deflect pucks, and the same slick (in design) interface makes a return, kicking things off with a quick play option already decided right after the boot of the game, and then bringing up the menu tree from there should you need it. The pacing of the game is fast, the motion control for flicking wrist shots and pull-back slapshots (executed by holding the B trigger, pulling back, and flicking forward) works wonderfully, and the hits - unlike a few previous years on Xbox 360 - actually feel good. Mini-games are missing from classic NHL 2K games, but Wii owners do get pond hockey and mini rink play.
The problem here is execution, as we mentioned above. The interface is a nice design, but looks muddy and poorly aged, taken from some extremely compressed assets or sloppily thrown onto Wii with no clean-up for the graphics or coloring. On the ice, the game visually looks on par with - if not a bit under - NHL 2K3 (and yes, like a good head coach we did check film to make sure. Try it yourself.), and the cursor passing, which would otherwise make the game simply awesome to play, is plagued by the same framerate issues the general gameplay suffers from, making both the skaters and cursor control run at 30 frames per second at best, usually dipping from play to play. Rink announcements are often identical or very, very similar no matter which team you select, though the intro videos for each club are a nice touch, as they're team-specific and projected onto the rink before the faceoff. Still, it isn't enough to make up for the sloppy tech behind the game.
It's annoying to see sketchy tech attached to an extremely smart design, especially when its obvious that 2K is taking the game in the right direction on paper. We can't emphasize enough how vital the cursor passing is, even making this game (which has a pile of issues) still very fun to play at times. Motion control works for body checks and shooting, the aforementioned gesture-based goaltending works great, and outside of having IR-less menus and text entry, it all feels very Wii-like. There's still more that needs to be done though, despite just cleaning up what's broken this time around, as there's no create-a-player, the franchise and season modes are very simple, online is nowhere to be found, and the game suffers from an overall lack of options and modes. You get the core 2K shell, but no specific effort on making the Wii version special. And as for that "sketchy tech" we mentioned, it can be found in pretty common framerate issues, a moronic AI (unless you play on Hall of Fame difficulty), and odd animation glitches and pops. It's almost as if 2K is focusing on the 360 and PS3 builds, and making PS2 and Wii a second priority; almost. With that being the case, maybe the team is stretched too thin, and it's time to find an ambitious outside developer to give the Wii version a serious shot.
©2008-09-09, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved