The NHL is tough. Teams take upwards of 40 or 50 shots at a goalie on a good night, and maybe ten actually go through? Usually less. Chalk it up to a combination of human error and the mound of man-shaped padding between the puck and the goal.
[image1]You don’t have to be a pro to play NHL 09 but it couldn’t hurt - players are weighing in on the Internet with message board posts named “HARD AS HELL”. But though a few blocked shots may get your blood boiling, don’t hang up the gloves. Despite a few rough spots, this title is a solid mixture of sports simulation and adventure RPG, a major-league challenge that wants you skating for seasons on end.
NHL 09 starts a little more like Rock Band than a sports game. You immediately launch into character creation for the RPG-style Be A Pro mode. Pick your name, your attitude, and your "stick" position and you’re ready to play. Plenty of sports games have career modes, but clever layers of rewards may keep you coming back to this year’s installment.
Be A Pro players build their record from different kinds of achievements. From game to game, you save points to improve your abilities; “milestones” celebrate the slightly longer benchmarks like racking up X assists or hits, though ultimately you chase season-long goals in pursuit of customized trading cards and a boost up the virtual career ladder. A good performance can lift you from the minor leagues up into the pros, and a bad one can send you back to the sticks. It’s a little grind heavy (especially the ability points), but these layered “quests” are pretty catchy: "Maybe I’ll play just one more game, try and get an assist this time."
The default Be A Pro experience doesn’t kid around, either. You actually get breaks on the sidelines and wait to rotate back into play, with your camera fixed to the bench and everything. It's sort of odd; even I thought the game was busted until I realized I was sitting on the bench. If you’re not the RPG-type, or you’re just not ready to commit to one special player just yet, there is also normal season play, special tournament circuits, and a traditional “Dynasty” franchise mode for managing salary caps and the like.
[image2]NHL 09 also has a variety of multiplayer modes to fit your style. The assortment of tournament and league modes available up to 16 players and 32 players and whatnot is shocking in its size and complexity, so let’s just leave it by saying that if you want to play against somebody else, you totally can. Players can even assemble into a “club” roster if they want to play together regularly; it’s more of a grouping system than a clan structure but fairly flexible.
On the ice, however, it’s a tooth-and-nail battle to get goals. NHL 09 is difficult - hardly perfect - but I appreciate how games finish with realistic scores and a few hard-won goals. Even the fights are “realistically” tough enough to end in three or four punches. The learning-enabled A.I. is smart enough to cut off your favorite routes, though the teammate A.I. really needs to wake up and start checking and screening. Plucky players will need to build their devastating assaults in the neat real-time Play Creator mode.
Unreliable controls are far more disappointing than the difficult A.I.. EA’s standard flick-to-shoot “Skill Stick” controls are badly broken this year, failing to even register half the time. What is this, a Wii game? Many shots and checks just don't happen. The throwback NHL 94 scheme is cute, but it feels way too feature-light in comparison, and there’s no customizing the controls... I actually like the button-friendly approach in NHL 2K9 much better.
And can we get a damn Sprint button already?
[image3]Finally, the low-key presentation is confusingly underwhelming. Dark, empty menus dominate the screen with little white text... uh, who died? The graphics are clean, but they also seem a little cheap, like when you see there are only dudes in the audience or when the framerate takes a random dive. The announcer commentary gets fairly repetitive and EA’s bland Trax pop music continues to drown the sport in... what the hell, Panic in the Disco? “Nine in the Afternoon” isn’t music to fight to, some things are better left to Rock Band after all. [No, not even that. ~Ed.]
Here’s a quick warning: Like Spore and Facebreaker and other recent EA releases, NHL 09 is part of the new EA Account system. You’ll have to fork over an email address to play online, but once you do, you can share screenshots and homemade video clips of your best plays. It’s a cute earmark if you have friends online, and on Xbox it’s a quick hundred Gamerscore points just for trying it out.
For the players who aren’t scared away by NHL 09’s realistic difficulty, they're whole seasons ahead for training custom characters and learning the stingy A.I.. There are goals to make, wins to be won. If it’s hockey you’re looking for, get ready to lose a few teeth and go tough it out already.