The past few years have been kind to ice hockey gaming fans. EA Sports has been doing fine work, but NHL 09 is undoubtedly the best ice hockey game yet. 

EA Sports NHL series has been heading towards greatness for at least the past few years. Each iteration has added one or two new facets that dramatically improve gameplay, but this year's improvements have gone above and beyond what we might normally see out of a sports development studio in several years with the introduction to NHL 09 of Be A Pro mode and online leagues.

Combine this with an already fantastic game of hockey that has been given a few minor tweaks and NHL 09 is the best video game representation of ice hockey so far.

Slower is better

Players returning from last year will be at home with NHL 09 right away as nothing too drastic has been changed when it comes to the actual controls. Perhaps the most important improvement is the addition of a few new defensive abilities that allow far more ability to get accurate poke checks, sticks in the passing lanes, along with a dedicated button to raise the stick of an opposing player.

Bodychecking has also been improved in NHL 09, taking away the almost magnetic and near instant movements that were a staple in last year's edition and making it far more dependent on good positioning. The speed of the game has also been tweaked to be a little slower, and while it isn't immediately noticeable it does much to improve the flow of games - allowing for players to realistically set up in the zone more often than used to be seen.

The addition of these facets has made NHL 09 far more defensive orientated, subtly getting rid of some of the offensive excesses the game has fallen into in previous years. In previous years you could go streaking into the opponents zone and be confident of picking apart his defence with a few well timed one-timers, but no longer. Setting up in the zone, having a good passing game, and mastering the shooting controls are now the key.

NEXT PAGE: building an ice hockey career

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The past few years have been kind to ice hockey gaming fans. EA Sports has been doing fine work, but NHL 09 is undoubtedly the best ice hockey game yet.

Third line winger

Much of the emphasis in last year's edition was on the dynasty mode, and this returns for NHL 09, but in almost the exact same way as has been presented since at least 07. This year the focus is on Be A Pro mode.

Upon starting NHL 09 for the first time you are prompted to create your own skater, choosing his position, giving him an emphasis as one of the various player types (sniper, defensive defenseman, grinder), and then customising appearance both physically and through equipment.

This done you start a new career for an NHL team, starting on its farm team in the AHL where you are given a set of expectations the coach expects you to meet throughout the year, such as get such-and-such amount of goals and assists. During each game the coach will also give you immediate feedback after you finish your shift, telling you what your doing good and what needs improvement.

At the end of each game you'll get a scorecard and some experience points in three fields depending on how well you do. Gather enough experience and you can improve your basic stats, but this will take quite awhile - often taking half a dozen or more games to accumulate enough experience to improve even one point in any of the three main areas. Meet these expectations and you'll get more ice team and be moved up from the third line and eventually maybe even get to the big leagues.

Taking it online

The other major addition to NHL 09 is the inclusion of the EA Sports Hockey League. The league is comprised of hundreds of clubs, either private or public, where you take your Be A Pro character online in matches that can be as large as six-on-six. You'll still gain new skill points for your Be A Pro in this mode, but it is divorced from the offline modes, and as such your characters will evolve separately.

It is a valiant effort for a first year, and does usually work, but there have been frequent server issues, which are bound to give the occasional headache. The interface moreover, is less than intuitive, requiring frequent backtracking to get to information that really should have been presented in one single area.

Despite the overall drastic improvement to NHL 09, there are still some small nagging issues. While player AI is overall far improved from what it was only a few years ago, it still makes some frequently boneheaded moves - such as ignoring the puck when it is passing only a foot or two away, or standing immobile when online players skate easily past. Some players, at least those who have been invested in the series for a long time, may also still be pining for the return of veteran commentator Jim Hughson - though Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are by now settling in nicely.

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Gamepro.com

NHL 09: Specs

  • PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
  • PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

OUR VERDICT

EA Sports has been doing fine work on this series for the last few years, but everything until now only seems like groundwork for this year's version. Small problems aside NHL 09 is the best game of hockey ever made.

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