Well it has been yet another year in the world of games, and that can only mean one thing! No, that one thing is not yet another video game blamed school shootout, but instead another merry instalment in the ever continuing NHL series (brought to us by those nice people at Visual Concepts). As you may have guessed from my cryptic hints, the title is indeed NHL 2k9.
If you have played NHL 2k8, 2k7 or 2k6 you will no doubt find yourself in familiar ground all over again. Jumping right into the game from the offset you are welcomed by the confounded 2k interface that they somehow mistake for being useful. I still cannot imagine how they believed that the first screen in the game should show a “pick a team and play” exhibition stage. To progress you have to press select to view the proper menu and get an understanding of what the hell is going on (thankfully it has been cleaned up over previous instalments).
The variety of modes available to you include; Quick Game, Franchise, Season, Pond Hockey, Mini-Rink, Shootout and Practice. Quick Game, Shootout and Practice are all self explanatory so I will put them aside and concentrate on the others. The Franchise and Season mode is extremely similar to previous instalments, still providing a very deep and robust simulation. Whilst you will likely spend a large bulk of your time in NHL 2k9 on these modes, you have a few ‘fun’ options set aside. First off is Pond Hockey, which is basically as you would expect, unfortunately (and nothing more), you play hockey just as you would normally but this time on a pond. Frankly this mode is pointless as even the pond has invisible walls around it which react exactly the same as the glass screen does around a stadium. Secondly you have Mini-Rink which, simply enough, is a smaller version of the normal stadium, allowing for 3 aside matches against AI opponents or a friend. This is a nice little addition which holds some novelty but falls short of fitting in well with the gameplay mechanics; it is simply too small and dull to come back to a second time around.
Other than the main modes, Visual Concepts do a good job at bulking the product with additional extras and features. Everything that is expected from a Trophy Room to the 2k Beats is present, as is a 2k Reelmaker for the creating, uploading and downloading of user created footage via replays, a deep roster management system and game codes for those who like to make things a little easier. One of the newest (and strangest) additions to the series is Zamboni races! Between periods you will be given the chance to take the driving seat and participate in Zamboni races, in a challenge of clearing the ice in the time-limit. Something which you will no doubt try once, be bored with, and have forgotten about before the end of the next period.
Online play takes the modes a step further and brings a welcome addition to the series, team-up play! Simply starting up a game will place you in a practice shoot-out lobby system as you wait for players to fill the team positions, which is a great way to pass the time. Each team position will be taken up by another player allowing for a deep and skilful rendition of the sport, as opposed to the typical one-man army style of play typically enjoyed. There are two problems with this fantastic concept however. The first is that I personally struggled to get enough players to fill an entire team, which often resulted in the AI playing most of the game as I ran around silly the whole time. The second, and far more frustrating, is when you are paired with an idiot (to be blunt). Easily one of my most frustrating game moments placed me in a team which literally set up camp around the opposition’s goal. The call of “Offside!” was repeated continually throughout the match every few minutes, nearly bringing me to the point of rage with my teammates (one of which later went away mid-game, resulting in a slow slide of an own goal). Please do not let this dismiss the online modes however, as if you do manage to get a full team and they are of half awake you will no doubt have a fantastic time. The well preserved leaderboards and player ranking aids the game even further, going to the extent of rewarding the top player each week with fantastic prizes.
As for the actual gameplay NHL takes a strange turn into old territory, pursing the arcade feel of times past. Controls have been revered back to a simplistic fashion, removing the passing and shooting from the triggers and placing them back where they belong – on the primary buttons. The new control scheme works extremely well as it combines the basic method of playing the game, with the complex advanced control methods adopted throughout the series by using the thumbstick to pull off quick shots. The choice is yours.
Unfortunately, the actual gameplay is not up to scratch with the controls, often falling behind in terms of reaction and basic control of the players. This is easy to overcome and manipulate against AI opponents, but when placed online or against a friend offline you will be struggling with yourself as the gameplay lets you down again and again. This is not helped by the technical play held in the game, as the complex and realistic hockey play has been thrown out of the window in favour for a simplistic arcade general attack and defend style.
Other than the awkward presentation of the menu interface nothing is really of a bad standard, and equally nothing is of a great standard. Graphics throughout have not advanced at all – which is unfortunate, and the audio takes the bar slightly lower by offering nothing more than a small selection of forgettable tracks, repetitive background crowd noise and commentating. At first the game feels fresh and well placed in the sound department, however, before long the repetition kicks in, and soon becomes rather annoying.
NHL 2k9 is nothing to be shunned as there is certainly enjoyment to be had, however, EA managed to step their game above the competition this year around with NHL 09; which as detailed in David Wriglesworth’s recent review, and is slightly more excellent. Fans of NHL in general will probably be better off looking at the competition this year around.