Having only played demo's of previous NHL titles and enjoying them, I was excited at the prospect of playing NHL 09 – despite my lack of knowledge on ice hockey. Since 1993, EA Sports have released an NHL title every year without fail, so it comes as no surprise to see yet another title released in 2008.
Almost immediately after you insert the disc, players are asked to create an in-game character which can be used for NHL 09’s major new feature: ‘Be a Pro’ mode. The customizable options are superb and there is a wide range to choose from. EA have signed big brand names such as Nike and Reebok which is a major plus for those who want to be seen in top notch gear. There are also the usual character creator features such as the ability to change the head shape, eyebrows and eye colour. Whilst it may not be as advanced as similar creators, it covers the main areas and is very easy to use.
Once you’ve created a better-looking version of yourself (Ed - No character creation is that good!), the game progresses onto some basic tutorials. Experienced NHL players may find these a waste of time though they will be beneficial to new players of the game. The first thing players will notice is the improved menu presentation. Whilst the same style has been kept, more options are now available to choose from the menu.
Probably the most exciting new feature is the inclusion of ‘Be a Pro’ mode which was brilliantly executed in another of EA Sport’s titles, FIFA 2008. Using your custom-created character, you choose an NHL team (or choose the one that has the best logo in my case) and start off on the back of the offense line as a rookie. It’s the player’s aim to work their way up to the NHL and to become a pro. Alternatively, you can play a career as an already professional player which works just as well but there’s not as much emphasis on the improvement. You really get the feeling that you are the player because of the camera angles, especially as you sit on the bench watching the game from the sidelines. There’s also ‘coach feedback’ which comments on how you are playing and grades you on positioning, statistics and team play. This is a great addition which proves to be just as enjoyable as previously found in other titles, such as FIFA 2009.
Dynasty Mode is the other main single player game mode, in which you take control of a team and progress through the team’s career. It is also the game’s biggest game mode and will take even the most hardcore NHL players a while to fully complete. Other single player game modes include: Tournament Mode which contains the ‘EA Sports World Tournament’, ‘Elitserien Cup’, ‘Sm-Liiga Cup’ and the ‘Montreal Canadiens’, as well as practice and shoot-out modes.
Players can also take their hockey skills online. The main new game mode for online play is the EA Sports Hockey League which claims to be an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online). I see it as more of a ‘clan support’ as you can build up your own teams and take on other teams; though it can work brilliantly well. Other Xbox Live game modes include ranked versus, online team play, online shootouts and even a mode for playing against a friend; which also works brilliantly. Unfortunately, there are a few connection errors with the EA servers which are disappointing.
To those new to the series, getting a grasp of the controls can be fairly difficult. The learning curve is about right as players will probably learn what all the buttons do after a few games. EA Sports have very nicely added the option to play using the two-button controls used in NHL ’94. I didn’t particularly get to grips with the classic controls but it will suit the more retro gamer.
The achievements for NHL 09 are a certain improvement on last year’s list. Whilst it may keep the same colour scheme in the achievement images, the achievements are definitely more plausible this time around, though hard enough to prove a challenge. Players are rewarded for using some of the game’s features, achieving certain ranks in ‘Be a Pro’ mode and there’s even two for fighting. Pressing the Y button near an opponent activates a fight. There are three buttons players need to know in order to fight; Punch, dodge, grab. The fighting would have been a lot better if it took more than two punches to down your opponent and it is far too easy to activate and will get frustrating after a while.
The soundtrack for NHL 09 is certainly aimed at the more ‘heavy metal’ audience with bands such as Avenged Sevenfold and Bullet for my Valentine appearing. There's also a slight lack of songs compared to EA Sport's other titles. If the heavy metal (or lack of it) is not to your taste, you can import your own custom soundtracks into the game from your hard drive which can be done quickly and works well. The custom soundtrack feature has been left out of the PlayStation 3 version which makes it exclusive to the Xbox 360 version. You can’t beat playing NHL 09 whilst listening to M.O.P’s Cold as Ice…
Bill Clement and Gary Thorne once again provide the commentary for NHL 09 and do a fantastic job. The sound of horns and the crowd cheering are also very well done and a great asset to the game. One of the highlights of the game for me was when I first watched the cutscene of the players entering the rink and the deafening roar of the crowd blasting through my speakers gives you the feeling you are actually there, especially on ‘Be a Pro’ mode. Watching the players come out of the tunnel not only sounds good, but looks great. The player’s face animations have been brilliantly done; the ice rinks look fantastic and even the crowd models have been greatly improved from past games. It really is the icing on the cake.
Overall, NHL 09 is a worthy purchase for ice hockey fans and an improvement on previous NHL titles. Non-hockey fans may enjoy the game for a short period before switching back to familiar territory – possibly a rental for them.
- 'Be a Pro' mode
- Wide range of game modes
- Fantastic audio
- Online connection problems
- Slight lack of songs on soundtrack
- Fighting is short and frustrating