Oh My God. You Really Did It…
Even as I enjoyed my latest 11-0 shutout victory in a round of NHL 2K9, an eerie unease set in, as if something terrible had happened. Then I realized… You Maniacs! You Blew It Up! Where NHL 2K8 is a robust, fully functional game, NHL 2K9 hobbles about like The Ugly, Disappointing Cousin. Ahhh, damn you! God damn you all to hell!
[image1]But hey there, chap, it’s okay. Stop that now. It’s not all that bad. 2K9 takes sim hockey down to basics, making it slightly easier to play. We just had to lose a few game features, good graphics, help documentation, and the basic necessities of online sports games. That’s all…
Simply put, 2K9 is going through the growing pains of becoming a full-fledged online service. 2K Sports wants to connect you to a world of sports no matter which of its discs you cram into your Xbox’s pie-hole. A brand-new ticker bar shows daily scores from real-world professional and college sports leagues, and only time will tell whether the robust new “Reelmaker” video editor will create a healthy community of fans sharing their best goals and goofs. But while I give the 2K boys credit for this ambitious attempt at building a whole “2K Sports Network” experience, I still feel manhandled for trying to enjoy the game.
From the very first screen, I felt like a spaceman landing on a strange planet. Though I appreciated the mighty Zamboni mini-game and the natural new take on the camera system, the locals seemed irritated that I did not understand their aggressive language of busy colors and sharp, crowded shapes. 2K9’s nontraditional menu system gets right in your face, setting up matches on the title screen while burying modes and menus in a series of hidden lists.
On the ice, NHL 2K9 feels a little dumbed-down (2009 must be the year of the breakaway goal). The left analog stick and sprint button are all you need to steer around defenders and put the puck into the goal. It’s easy, but hell, it’s satisfying!
[image2]Unfortunately, everything else about the game has become annoying at best. While the single “special move” deke button is meant to let every player feel like a superstar, it gives up a million turnovers without real caution. Imprecise passing controls frequently send the puck to the wrong player. Computer-controlled referees get in everybody’s way, and A.I. teammates skate into the refs as if they are looking for someone to hide behind. Even the series’ signature “Pro Evolution” control scheme is disabled at first, as if it too is trying to hide. These oddities must seem orderly to the inhabitants of this strange land, but their alien logic baffles me.
Online play is entertaining but equally riddled with oversights. The highlight is the 12-player “Ranked Team Mode”, where a new player-ranking system rewards you for basic plays like passing and checking. I’m eager to find a full team and spam passes all day, though I have yet to find a time of the week when more than four players are online.
In half of my online games, the puck was like a black hole – as I drew near, lag spikes brought the game to a screeching halt. Missing functionality also kills the experience. Where is the lobby so I can see how many people are online, or what matches are available? If I join a Ranked Team match, why can’t I choose my team or character? When was the last time a sports game denied us the choice of team or player?
Returning 2K series fans may notice other omissions as well, ranging from advanced game systems like ProControl one-touch passing to the bonus games and Party Mode games from previous editions. It’s a sad sight to see after such comprehensive packages like 2K7 and 2K8.
[image3]There are many sad sights in NHL 2K9, one of which is a small graphical nosedive. The in-game action is well-animated and nicely polished, but everything else suffers from rough textures, jaggy edges, or tiny, boring fonts. Some of the menu-heavy areas like the character creator are total eyesores, no matter the size of your television.
At least good sound design tidies up the presentation, with San Jose Sharks announcers Randy Hahn and Drew Remenda providing clean, albeit repetitive, commentary. Fans might recognize unique hometown cheers from their favorite cities, though I’m still waiting for the old Shark Tank classic “You suck! You really suck!” yelled at visiting teams.
So there you have it: 2K9 comes off as a misguided effort to streamline the experience and create gameplay where realism comes before responsiveness. There are a few nice developments, but I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better in the galactic realm of video hockey. But whatever, it’s a sports game. To each their own – no reason to get all madhouse about it.