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).
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