NHL 09 Xbox 360
Published by: EA Sports
Developed by: EA Sports
Release Date: Out Now
EA Sports' NHL series has really been on the up in recent years. Virtually every aspect of the game has undergone some form of improvement over the last few years and with the recent introduction of the Skill Stick and improved AI the series has become the number one choice for ice hockey fans. It's rather surprising then to see EA Sports move the series forward again this year and NHL 09 is arguable the best game in the series to date. New features, new leagues and new online options all help to make NHL 09 one of the best sports games we've seen on this generation of consoles.
The main new feature in NHL 09 is the Be a Pro mode. You can either play as a pro or create your own custom player. Should you create your own player you'll pick an NHL team and you'll be assigned to their AHL affiliate to begin your career (which is a blessing as the AHL teams are noticeably easier to play against which is how it should be). The mode works really well and is engaging to the point where you might not want to play in the other single-player modes that are on offer. You won't play a whole game however and you'll be benched several times during the game. On the ice a blue arrow will show you approximately where you should be positioning yourself and you can call for passes and choose to play in any position for your career. Your coach will give you constant feedback about how you are performing along with suggestions to improve your play.
The usual single player modes, Dynasty, Tournament, Practice and Shootout return and are just as enjoyable as before. Multiplayer options are impressive and you can even form your own teams and compete in online leagues in six versus six games with the player you've been developing in the Be a Pro mode. There is also a Create Play mode that allows you to create your own plays. Doing so can be time consuming but it's certainly satisfying when you create plays that are effective.
Other additions this year include the Czech, German and Russian leagues, a Defensive Skill Stick and a simplified control scheme that gives you the opportunity to play the game with NHL 94 controls. The extra leagues are a nice addition and make the game more appealing to those fans of the sport for which the NHL is not the be all and end all. The Defensive Skill Stick controls build on the popularity of the offensive Skill Stick controls that have been used in the previous two versions in the NHL series. You can now use your right analogue stick to act as a virtual hockey stick when you're not in possession of the puck allowing you to make a variety of defensive manoeuvres. The NHL 94 controls give you a two-buttoned control scheme to use if you wish. Whilst the controls feel dated, they are a great way for newcomers to get into the game as it's a control scheme that has the gentlest of learning curves. Of course there is also an alternate control scheme you can use if you don't fancy the NHL 94 controls or the Skill Stick controls (which can take a while to get comfortable with).
It has to be said that NHL 09 looks very impressive. The player models and the arenas in the game all look impressive and it's difficult to imagine how they could look any better on this generation of consoles. If there are any complaints to be made, it's regarding those small cutscenes you get before and after a game and replays. They look fine but there's a noticeable drop in the frame rate which seems odd given that the frame rate is mostly fine during play. The overall presentation is fine and up to the standard we've become accustomed to with EA Sports titles.
NHL 09, like most sports titles, is a mixed bag in its support for deaf gamers. The game commentary isn't subtitled. The tutorial videos for the Be a Pro mode and the Skill Stick aren't subtitled. The interactive tutorials aren't subtitled but you do have a brief text message that gives you basic, but not as helpful, instructions. In the Be a Pro mode all of the communications and coach reports you receive are in text. All of the information in the Performance Tracker is shown in text too. Overall NHL 09, despite not being perfect in its provision for deaf gamers, won't give deaf gamers any real problems.
Every fan of the EA Sports NHL series has probably already purchased their copy of NHL 09 but as far as everyone else is concerned, all you need to known is that NHL 09 is the best ice hockey game you can currently purchase. All of the new features help to make the game superior to NHL 08. If you long for the simplicity of the ice hockey games of yesteryear, you'll also be appreciative of the ability to select an NHL 94 control scheme which uses only two buttons. This simplistic control scheme allows almost anyone to jump into a game and immediately feel at ease with the controls. In short, there's little to fault NHL 09 for and it's going to be interesting to see if EA Sports can improve on this next year.