NHL 2K9 Review (Xbox 360)
Sequels to long-time franchises are inevitably compared to previous efforts, and with NHL 2K9, this is no exception. When I look back at the previous 2K hockey titles, I notice that up until NHL 2K7, 2K Sports had a tremendous lead on EA Sports’ NHL titles. However, many argued that NHL 2K8 made some missteps that allowed NHL 08 to gain enough ground to exit the battle with a slight lead.
But how does NHL 2K9 stack up to NHL 2K8? The simple answer is that NHL 2K9 takes a step in the right direction. NHL 2K9 is still not a perfect game, and not groundbreaking by any means, but it has made enough of an improvement to make up for last year’s less than stellar title.
From the moment the loading screen pops up the difference is palpable. The introduction is quick and you can get into the menus almost instantly. The navigation is simple and easy and the the look of the interface is a vast improvement over NHL 2K8.
There is something to be said about a game improving quite a bit over a year.
Once you enter a game, this is where some of 2K9's greatest triumphs and sadly some of its most notable shortcomings come into play. The gameplay, while still a bit sluggish, is a vast improvement over its predecessor. While attacking in the zone or moving up in transition the game speed feels right. Also, during the transition game I usually notice players moving into position for a quality breakout.
Defensively the AI has been greatly improved. AI players won't sit back and allow the user to set up a perfect zone offense: passing the puck back to your defensemen will draw pressure from the forwards, and no longer can you just sit back and pass the puck back and forth at will. This should force users to think quickly and react by moving the puck with a purpose.
The passing certainly isn’t flawless, though. While almost all of my passes tend to go to the players I want; occasionally, the puck will go to a player I wasn't aiming at. Sure, this can be chalked up to a player being positioned closer than my desired target, but during the heat of a game, firing long breakout passes that too often get picked off by swerving wingers gliding into the passing lanes can lead to frustration.
The Wings are ready to defend their home ice.
Also, if you don't take care of the puck then there is punishment for poor passes. A pass across the front of your own goal where opposing players are lingering will more than likely lead to a good scoring chance for the opposing team.
Player control on the ice is also obviously a big deal in 2K9. The game still has a speed burst button -- which actually is a huge necessity during breakouts. Some might say the speed burst creates a slightly more arcade-like feel, but it's done it in a way that’s not detrimental to the flow of the game.
A simple press of the burst button no longer makes your player jerk unnaturally forward. Instead, you must hold the button down for a longer amount of time to accelerate to full speed. However, the bar isn’t long enough to allow Sidney Crosby to go flying all over the rink. Basically, the burst is long enough to allow you to skate about half the length of the ice at a fast pace, so it's best to use the burst on the breakout or while backchecking.
Hitting is still as abundant as ever, and can become excessive, but the strength of the hits has been tuned down to a more tolerable level. No longer can you just get away with a one-stride hit and knock the player off the puck. If the hit isn’t lined up right, the game will make you pay. Numerous times I missed my mark and ended up taking out a teammate who was covering the player I tried to check. Other times, I would attempt to make a hit with no real force, and the forward would just spin off the hit and continue up the ice.
The game does have some glaring clipping issues, which become especially noticeable when crashing the net. At one point, I broke in from the goalie’s left to jump on a rebound, firing the shot into his glove. The whistle blew, and as my player came up to the net I watched as his arm magically went through the crossbar, only to return to normal right after.
Celebrate hockey fans, because you have two good games to play this year!
The skating animations are also an issue from time to time. There are many more animations this year, and you will notice a more realistic skating motion when a player makes a tight cut. But, the problem is a "function" issue rather than an "aesthetic" issue.
When carrying a puck up the ice along the wing I often make quick cuts and fire the puck back to a defenseman so I can set up zone passing and cycling of the puck. The problem is, the player doesn’t make those quick cuts. More often than not, I go to make a cut and my player makes a mistake we used to get grilled for in squirt hockey: If you want to change direction, don’t make a looping turn. This lesson, however, didn’t carry over to the puck carrier in 2K9.
Perhaps my biggest issue though is with the face-offs, and more specifically, the players’ reactions off the face-offs. One of the plays I almost always strive to make when taking a face-off in the offensive zone is to win it back to the inside defenseman so he can attempt a one-timer on the goalie in hopes of scoring a quick goal. The problem is, whenever you do successfully win the face-off to said player, the defenseman launches forward as he gets the puck, ending up around the hash marks before even being able to take a shot.
Some of this, of course, may be chalked up to the fact that I chose to use the Pro Stick Evolution control scheme, but even still, some of the above issues really do hamper the realism of the game.
Despite my gripes, however, the gameplay is extremely fun. None of the issues are "deal breakers" in the sense that they make the game unplayable, and the positives really go a long way to proving 2K Sports put a lot of effort into fixing the mistakes made last year.
The online play in NHL 2K9 really could be the games' strongest point.
The game’s online play is where 2K really shines this year. There is, of course, the old set of options (player matches and ranked matches), but there is also a new feature that has been added to the online portion of the game.
Not only was it fun to get a chance to play away from the puck, the satisfaction gained from being in the right place at the right time is really something that needs to be experienced by all. This made great use of the “skate backwards” button as well. Not only did it allow me to hover on the blue line waiting for a teammate to enter the zone, but it also made waiting in front of the net for each pass much easier.
This mode is easily some of the most fun I’ve ever had online in a video game. Being able to work with other players rather than just AI takes the experience to a whole new level. It also removes the most harmful element of the occasional AI deviation from what a normal player might do.
The online functionality is essentially lag-free. After playing a number of games online, the only issue I ran into was a player dropping out of the game. Ironically, the game was tied at 1-1 and my opponent was dominating the game at the time.
The Franchise mode has also been reworked a bit this year -- though nothing too crazy has been done here. The new front end includes news updates for your team’s progress as well as a listing of each week’s games. Stat tracking has been relatively accurate to this point, and in general the Franchise mode can be easily picked up by most users. Those looking for an in-depth experience where you manage the minor leagues, wheel-and-deal, and control every team's roster can be just as satisfied with the Franchise mode as those who are just looking to click "play next game."
The issue I ran into with the Franchise mode was an inability to re-sign players during the season -- and the lack of free agents signing in the offseason. There is a menu option for contracts, which allows for the viewing of each player, but the actual ability to re-sign a player didn’t pop-up for me during the season. This was the one thing that really either needed instructions or at least something stating the inability to offer new contracts to players already signed to your team.
Also, comparing it to EA’s NHL titles, the lack of actual minor league teams will be a disappointment for most. This isn’t to say it is a huge negative -- and we all know how long it took for the the minor league teams to get updated in NHL 08 -- but it’s definitely something that's noticeable as the mode progresses.
The franchise mode still needs lots of work in NHL 2K9.
In NHL 2K9 there’s an almost plastic-like quality to the players. The jerseys look great, and the numbers even look right on the old-fashioned jerseys from the '50s and earlier. The problem though is, once again, with the faces and the helmets. Some players look like their real-life counterparts, but the edges and curves of the face just don’t have that same crispness we’ve come to expect from our current-gen sports games.
But, one of NHL 2K8’s shining properties is back. The rink, and more specifically the reflections, are just as spot on as last year. The lights are reflected just right and players actually reflect off the ice properly, without just a generic stationary position.
Another nice touch is the actual rinks. Joe Louis Arena is laid out just like the real-life arena. During the in-game introductions, the roof pans by, showing not only all the banners lining the ceiling, but also Al the huge purple octopus. It’s not just the ceiling though, as the layouts mimic the real-life arenas as well.
The music is actually rather fitting in 2K9. When I got my first penalty and heard "Bad Boys" by Inner Circle begin to play I just had to chuckle. Combine this with “Blitzkrieg Bop,” which is arguably one of the most played songs in hockey arenas, and you have a nice soundtrack.
The announcing is one of those things that is either very noticeable or not at all. During the game, the only time I ever found myself hearing the announcers was during the replays and intermissions. Those points when it was noticeable, it didn’t come across as just canned responses. Despite this, though, it felt ultimately forgettable.
While a bit sluggish at times, the gameplay is much improved this year.
One of the things that is almost frighteningly easy to miss is the new intermission mini-game. Driving the Zamboni may not sound like much fun, but at least during the first couple playthroughs, the Zamboni-driving mini-game is quite addicting.
Of course, the Zamboni mini-game is not the only extra feature beyond the NHL rink. There's also Pond Hockey and Mini-Rink. Both allow you to select teams of four and three players (plus a goalie) to each team and play a more scrimmage-like game. Neither really stands up as something more than a passing interest, and both find themselves suffering from the lack of an option to speed up the clock.
Final Thoughts: All told, this game -- while far from perfect -- is a huge improvement over last year’s title. NHL 2K9 is definitely a solid game and has returned 2K Sports’ hockey franchise to a point where the title is worth a purchase for hockey fans everywhere. There is certainly a lot of room for improvement, especially with certain aspects of realism, but by and large, this game is a huge step forward after a very disappointing NHL 2K8.
If you’ve got even a passing interest in hockey, this game is at least worth renting. If perfection is what you’re after, this isn’t your game; but, if you’re looking for a fun hockey experience, then 2K Sports’ newest NHL title will certainly not disappoint.
On The Ice: While not the most realistic game ever produced by 2K Sports, this game certainly has made vast improvements over last year’s game. There are aspects that definitely fall short of the competition, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.
Graphics: Again, this area is one that is really a mixed bag. The arena and on-ice graphics are as stellar as ever. The player graphics, not so much.
Sound: The crowds react well to what is going on during the game. The announcing is something that isn’t making its presence known in-game for better or worse.
Entertainment Value: Despite its flaws, this game is very fun. Scoring a goal is just difficult enough that it keeps things fresh. The satisfaction of making that beautiful shot for a goal is really hard to match.
Learning Curve: There are a few different control schemes to toy around with this year -- most should feel normal to those who have played previous NHL titles. The Pro Evolution Control isn’t as immersive with puck control as its EA equivalent, which is a downside, but the controls themselves are relatively easy to pick up and use.
Online: This is where this game really shines. Its online modes are relatively lag-free and the ranking ladder is a nice touch. The online modes nearly make this game worth a purchase by themselves.