STAFF REVIEW of NHL 09 (Xbox 360)

Monday, September 22, 2008.
by Rick Wallace

NHL 09 Box art The leaves are turning to autumn colors to the north, the mornings are crisp and cool and all the kids are back in school. This can only mean 1 thing! It's time to lace up the skates, tape up the stick and head onto the frozen pond for some good old hockey action. The NHL kicks off in October and EA now brings us its latest edition of the NHL series with NHL 09. Sure its safe to say that in the United States that hockey just doesn't have a ton of popularity among sports fans, but I will tell you right now that you may not want to pass up on this game. It might be time to learn the game of hockey.

Yes, thats right. NHL 09 is the cream of the crop when it comes to video game hockey and there is so much to do, see and play that you'll find yourself playing this title for quite a long time. 2K used to hold the title as the best video game hockey out there, but the past 2 years for EA have put them back on the map and this year NHL 09 puts EA leaps and bounds above 2K in the hockey genre.

The game ships with a ton of gameplay modes and one will have a hard time figuring out which game mode they want to focus on the most. You'll be able to create a player in the Be A Pro mode and play their whole career starting on the 3rd string of an AHL team all the way up to becoming a legend in the NHL itself. You will also be able to take that same created player online and play in the online leagues which features a 6 on 6 hockey with a predetermined team or just jumping into some pick up hockey games.

So lets give a quick run down of the single player game modes. You'll have the standard Play now option which allows you to just pick up the controller and play as the NHL team and face off against your favorite rival. We then have the ?Be A Pro? mode, which as stated earlier, allows you to create a player in either a skater or goalie position and take them through their career starting with the AHL and ending up with the NHL. Well thats if you are good enough because of course if you are not so good, you can be shipped right back down to the AHL. You can also jump right into the current career of your favorite professional player if you so choose in the ?NHL Pro? mode. Both modes give you options to either be on ice throughout the game or actually sit out on the bench and rest up while another line is on the ice. As you progress through either mode, you'll earn attribute points which can be applied to several different categories.

Moving on, Franchise Mode is in the game and allows you to control all aspects of your favorite NHL/AHL team combination. You'll be able to make all the decisions you need to make to get your team to the NHL Stanley Cup Finals such as calling up or sending down player to and from the AHL. You can also play as the NHL affiliate to better get a feel for up and coming players that may become stars on your NHL team.

Tournament mode gives you 4 different options to work with. First up is the EA Sports World Tournament in which you play as your favorite team from any country from across the world. The players play for their native homeland teams such as Team Canada, USA, Germany, etc. You are placed into a Pool and continue to win to earn points to advance deeper into the tournament. Then we have the Elitserien Cup, where you will select any playoff team and battle your way to the Elitserien Cup. Your third option is the SM-Liiga Cup, which again allows you to select a playoff team and play through the tournament in order to win the SM_Liiga Cup. Finally you have the Montreal Canadians Cup. You select any NHL team and win against 7 other NHL teams to face off against the Montreal Canadians Centennial team.

You also get a ?Create A Play? mode, Practice Mode, and Shootout mode. In practice you'll be able to work in shooting drills, skating drills, team practice and goalie practice. So it's safe to say that the single player in this game offers many options that will keep you busy for the foreseeable future at the very least. But we've only scratched the surface when it comes to what this game really has to offer because the online play adds just as many options to the gameplay experience.

But before we dive into the online lets discuss a few more options that will be at your disposal outside of general gameplay modes. In the menu you will find an EA Sports Media Hub option. This option allows you to manage videos and photots with EA You'll also be able to customize music with your own tracks to acoompany team intros, goal celebrations, and more. There is even a tutorial in the game to show you how to add your custom audio tracks and apply them to in game si new option is the Performance Tracker which allows you to keep track and view all your milestones, stats, and hockey cards that you have obtained for your Be A Pro created players. This is also where you can edit your created player as well as add atttribute points that you have earned along the way while playing in career or online. You'll have many different categories to add points to as I mentioned earlier and dependent on what type of player you created some categories are obviously more important than others.

Now lets discuss the online aspect of the game which seems to be drawing the most attention. EA is touting the EA Online Leagues as the first sports game massive multiplayer online game. And I really can't disagree with the description. Basically you'll have a few options when going online. You can play the typical online ranked game where you and another person face off with full control of every player on each team in some one on one action. But the real action and the most fun comes with the Online Team Play whether its just a pick up game, or an actual league game.

So first off, you'll have the option to join or create a club. When creating a club, you'll select the name of your club and your jerseys. The you can send out invite to folks to join which can include friends or just random folks you play with. Your primary goal is to build a team that is a force to be reckoned with in the online leagues. Players will start out as with very little in the attribute section of their player but with online playing time they will slowly accumulate points which can be applied just like the single player Be a Pro mode. You will earn these points in both League games and Online Pickup games. The more you play the better your player will become and this will become evident by your report card. Yup, thats right. You'll be getting report cards and have an overall score representing your abilities. After each game you'll be issued a report card telling you where you were strong and what you need to work on giving you a final overall grade. Your overall player grade is viewable to anyone and allows teams to go out and find a player that may be strong in an area they are lacking as a team.

When it comes to gameplay in the Be A Pro mode, you;ll be in control of your player and your player only. An arrow will show on the ice to show your that you are out of position and direct you back to a general position location. Positioning is key in the game of hockey and helps team cycle pucks, and create scoring opportunities. Your position is also very important in defense as you never want a guy to have a clear shot at the next, nor do you want to screen out the shooter from the goalies view. So be sure to play attention to the arrow, and no worries, you will receive a positioning grade at the end of the game letting you know how you did all game. As stated earlier, your player can player anyone of the skater positions or you can even play the goalie position if you so desire. Point attributes earned in a game can only be applied to the player in the respective category they played. Thats either skater attributes or goalie attributes. You can't earn both in one game.

Gameplay is spot on when it comes to fluid motions and great controls. Why anyone would want to resort back to button hockey of any sort is beyond me. The skill stick using the right analog adds so much realism and control to the game that button hockey just seems ancient now. You'll be able to perform dekes, shoot quick wristers, or take strong slapshots using the skill stick and you'll quickly learn what your strong and weak points are as well. But there is nothing more rewarding to go one on one with a goalie and deke him out of his skates and hit the back of the net with the puck and you know you did it all yourself with the skill stick. The camera seems to always be in the right place and you have the ability to adjust that as well if its not to your liking.

There really is not any glaring issues when it comes to gameplay. Sure, folks will find their money goals and plays when it all boils down to it and they learn the ins and outs of the game but that is prevalent with any sports game anymore. Money plays are just a part of the game and its up to you to learn how to stop them because frankly thats your only option. If I had to pick something that was annoying it would have to be the new stick lifting that you can do with the push of the A button while on defense. You'll come to notice quickly online that folks like to use that tactic a little too much and it really does take away from the game somewhat when you run up against a constant stick lifter. Just tell one of your buddies to blast him with a nice forecheck, then repeat, and repeat and repeat.

When it comes to sounds, EA has put it in the game. The sounds on the ice and in the arenas are genuine and sounds crisp and clean, and most importantly it has a great soundtrack. Finally, no hip hop or rap!!!! I've heard enough of that from the other EA Sports title to last me a lifetime. Good old rock and roll is a good representation of hockey and is the primary theme behind the soundtrack. That immediately gets 2 thumbs up from me. Voice communications online seem to work well and should for good reason as you are now reliant on your team mates and setting up scoring chances or knowing what a team mate is going to do. Avoiding offsides takes a bit of practice, but more importantly communication from your team mates is key. A few times I ran into an issue of not being able to hear our goalie, but it has seemed more like an intermittent problem than a concern.

Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are your in game commentators and do a pretty good job. But as with any sports game commentary you'll run into repetitive lines of dialogue after logging in some playing time. At times the commentary also seems to be a bit on the delayed side, especially on breakaways or quick scoring opportuni, the game is absolutely stunning. There is very little to no frame rate issue which leads to smooth animations and even more importantly, very smooth gameplay. Almost too smooth! Player models are well done and represent their real life counterparts with extreme accuracy. The shating animations are beautiful and the hits are just amazingly brutal at times.

Overall, as I stated earlier, if you are a sports fan at all then you should own this title. It has everything you could possibly want. Sure its hockey and its not the most popular sport out there, but if EA continues to build upon this game then the NHL may just get back on the map as one of the 4 major sports in America. I can't suggest it enough that one needs to buy this title or in the very least give it a rental for the online play. Be a Pro mode is outstanding and the Online League action is just awesome.

Allow fo more customization of the Be A Pro characters such as using the Xbox Live Vision cam to bring your own face into the game. It was a bit disappointing that feature was left out since it seemed to work well in Tiger and Facebreaker. Also customizable jerseys for your online teams would be off the hook.

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.3 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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