When you’re a fan of a title that is released on an annual basis, you start to feel like you know what you can expect from the game. I’m sure this is why people anticipate games like Madden, NCAA Football, and other sports titles, because they have enjoyed the previous iterations playing experience and look forward to the new features, the roster updates, and getting to play the current version of their favorite team every year.
What keeps these games feeling fresh is the continual innovation of on the part of the developers to give the player as full and as rich of a playing experience as possible. I imagine for a game that receives as much development and attention as say, the Madden franchise, this gets harder and harder to do each year. As these titles age, the paths the developers take from one season to the next become more set in stone, and barring a complete rewrite (like the one the 2K Sports NHL franchise recently underwent), the title will eventually stagnate.
This is why in my opinion it is fortunate that the NHL titles receive less attention, because they are built less upon the road paved 5 years ago. And this is why I think that the current stage of development, that palpable upswing in features, content, and overall game play is why while I feel like I know what to expect each year from the EA NHL franchise, that NHL 09 is not only the best NHL title to ever be released, but that it still is just beginning to truly reach the potential of a now venerable 18 year old franchise.
I think the first thing that happens when you play an annually released title is to immediately compare it to last year’s version. It’s fair to say that NHL 07 and NHL 08 could be basically lumped together in terms of general game play with mostly the Reebok EDGE jerseys, dynasty mode, create a play, and goalie control as the only major additions to NHL 08. With NHL 09, there are two major changes to the game that really make actually playing the game itself a new experience.
First, there is the Defensive Skill Stick. For those unfamiliar, the Skill Stick was the addition to the control set in NHL 07 that completed changed the way gamers play hockey once their team possesses the puck. Not only did it essentially makeover the EA franchise, but 2K Sports added a version of the same functionality to the 2009 rewrite of their NHL title.
This year, EA gave players the ability to truly play defense for the first time. Now, it’s not just checking, hooking, or tripping to get the puck from an opponent, but you can truly control your players inside their own blue line. On the PK? Use the defensive skill stick to have an “active stick” in the passing lanes (swinging it from one side of the body to the other to break up or intercept passes). Trying to stop a breakaway without a penalty? Drop to one knee, or all the way to the ice to break up that 2-on-1. Probably the most delicate maneuver in hockey on defense is to lift your opponents stick and with the new controls you can do that without serious risk of drawing a hooking penalty. Now that the controls have leveled the playing field on both ends of the ice, games should be that much tighter, that much more difficult, and feel that much more real.
However, if you still aren’t quite getting that “is it live or is it Memorex?” feeling, you can. Just switch to the “Be a Pro” mode. Other sports franchises have done this, but the ability to play a career mode for a single player is new to NHL 09 and hockey titles in general. There are actually two versions: Be a Pro and NHL Pro. Be a Pro allows you to create a player, start with an AHL team, and try to play your way up the lineup and into the NHL. NHL Pro allows you to pick a current AHL or NHL player and take over their life, on the ice.
Both Be a Pro and NHL Pro offer a lot of new depth to the game. To start with, there are game by game and season long grades that tell you what to work on, what you’re currently improving through in game experiences, and what skills you can advance each time you’ve reached a certain amount of play experience. You can advance quickly or slowly, purely dependant on what kind of effect you have on each game. Score a bunch of goals and you’re going to advance your offensive experience. If your character is a defenseman, you’re going to see your stats go up slowly (or not at all) if the opponent scores often while you’re on the ice. I’m playing as a stay at home defenseman, and have managed to work him up to the top pairing (the #1 and #2 defenseman for the team in terms of minutes played).What Be a Pro and NHL Pro have in common is the ability to provide in game guidance as to positioning. Never been a defenseman? Don’t worry; the game gives you a general idea on where you should be by drawing blue arrows on the ice to tell you when it’s time to adjust your position. You only get the arrows when you are out of position, so if you’re doing it right, you’ll never see them. I haven’t had a chance to ‘Be a Pro’ goalie, but I’ll provide a later update on this feature.
Also character creation in the game has been greatly improved. Not only can you choose the look of your character, his build, position, and style of play, but you can also choose his equipment brand for each piece of equipment he wears or uses during the game. You can now even choose the curve of the stick he uses which can have dramatic effect on the accuracy of shots.
As with most games, NHL 09 is not without its flaws. Not surprisingly, those flaws center mostly on the two primary new features. Using the Defensive Skill Stick, you still don’t have the ability to really control the defenders stick when in close on an opponent, to tie up their stick. This is a small, but important piece of playing defense. In real hockey games, tying up the stick stops a great many goals, especially in the low slot (the area directly in front of the goalie).
The Be a Pro mode is surprisingly quite well done for a first iteration, but does need a few tweaks. To begin with, from certain camera angles, if you’re trying to play the whole game as just your character, and observe the game when your character is on the bench, there’s a pretty substantial bug. You’re supposed to be able to hit X to be able to return your character to the ice when he’s ready to play again. However, if you do this as a defenseman when he isn’t ready, the player on the ice will skate over to the bench, and simply stop on the ice against the boards. This happens most often when the puck is in your offensive zone. It has a serious effect on play, as it always leads to the puck eventually leaving the offensive zone. Additionally, it shouldn’t require any button presses for the player to watch the play going on when your character is on the bench. In fact, it should require a button press in order to choose to play while he rests.
Also, while it’s time to update the in-game commentating. There were additions for this years version, but the majority of the recorded segments were clearly carryovers from last years edition. And perhaps even more in need of update is the crowd noise. The game has so many strong points when it comes to realism, could it hurt to go record some real crowd noise for the rally chants at the 30 NHL arenas? A primary example is from right here in Columbus. The fans chant “Let’s Go Jack-ets”, not “Let’s go blue jackets” or other variations. It might be a small point, but NHL fans notice these types of small details.
In conclusion, there’s not a lot wrong with this game, and what is wrong is mostly small stuff. I thought it would be really hard for the developers to outdo last year’s effort, but they did it. Now, I’m going to be playing this version all winter and wondering what to expect from NHL 10.