Replay Value: 7.5
For quite a while, if you wanted to play a great hockey game, you were left with only one choice: EA’s NHL franchise, which has been around seemingly since the beginning of time. Well, perhaps not quite that long, but I have NHL ‘92 for the SNES sitting in the next room, so at the very least, it has been a while. But with 2K Sports stepping up to the plate and entering into head-to-head competition with the mighty EA, sports fans suddenly have another option each year. While NBA Live faces NBA 2K, NHL squares off against NHL 2K every year, and this time around, 2K has decided to go back to the roots of video game hockey. This will likely disappoint those who are seeking ultimate authenticity and realism, but for those looking for something more accessible, it comes as a welcome change. Bottom line- for realism, go for NHL 09; for relatively simple yet still mostly accurate fun, go for NHL 2K9.
The visuals aren’t the game’s strong point, but they’re hardly a distraction. The presentation is excellent – players will even grow beards over the course of a season – and although the detail found in the arenas and on the character models isn’t spectacular, it’s certainly passable. There are virtually no glitches to speak of as those silky smooth frames lend themselves perfectly to a seamless rink experience, although we did notice a few herky-jerky moments in a few of the cut-scenes. The entire graphical palette isn’t quite as polished as we might expect from a next-gen sports effort, but there’s really very little to complain about. Most fans will appreciate the roaring crowds, the liberal use of color (hey, hockey is a colorful sport!), and the accomplished technicals that never impede your progress. Next year, we’d like to see more in the way of intricate detail and a some added clarity with certain camera angles, but other than that, we’re satisfied with this.
The sound, thanks mostly to spot-on sound effects and a commentary tandem that remains mostly engaging throughout, injects a healthy dose of realism into a game that doesn’t beat us over the head with simulation details. The soundtrack is mostly forgettable, which is unfortunate, but the sound really shines when you’re on the ice, and that’s what really matters. We had hoped for a more intense “thump” when we smack someone with a rough hip check, but the sound of the skates on the ice, the sticks on the puck, and even the grunts of the players are all excellent. You get a chance to hear more of this when the soundtrack and announcing crew disappears for Pond Hockey, which is all about good old-fashioned fun in the great outdoors. Hockey arenas are known for being very noisy and fans are known for going more than a little nuts when a goal is scored; NHL 2K9 captures this atmosphere quite nicely in regards to the sound category. It falls just shy in the visual aspect, but despite a throwaway soundtrack, the sound is great.
As we’ve already told you, while this is technically still a simulator, 2K Sports clearly wanted to bring back more of the casual crowd with NHL 2K9. It’s kind of an odd combination, really; the correct physics, appropriate atmosphere, and substantial depth is all here, but the actual gameplay itself boils down to something simpler than one might expect. Those who are familiar with past installments are well aware of the somewhat convoluted control system, but that whole issue has been completely streamlined from front to back. Remember using a bunch of buttons to alter other buttons; programming your personal layout step by tedious step? Well, we’re moving past that this year, as you only have to select one of three control options: Basic, Pro Stick Evolution, and Hybrid. The Basic is best if you’re new to modern-day hockey games, the Pro Stick is better if you have some experience with EA’s NHL series, and Hybrid does seem to work quite well. But even though it may sound complex, even the Hybrid is relatively easy to understand and use.
Even choosing game modes and fiddling with the options is more streamlined, as you can select a new mode even when within another; for instance, if you’re done having fun in Shootout and want to kick off a Season, you can do just that from the pause menu in Shootout. The sliders that are so common in sports games these days are easily found and easily adjusted, and while the momentum physics on the ice are pretty accurate, you’re not constantly fighting complicated controls to have to get the most out of your team. A simple button press can execute a juke maneuver, passing and shooting is as easy as aiming with the left analog and pressing the corresponding face button, and special maneuvers like skating backwards and checks are right at the tips of your fingers at all times. The only real challenge may center on the pressure sensitive pass and shoot buttons; lightly tapping them will result in something very different then holding the button down. But even this isn’t anything new, and with practice, it’s a breeze.
The only real problem revolves around the erratic AI, which seems to range from over-aggressive and even lame-brain to tight and extra challenging. It may have something to do with the team you’re playing against (of course), but we saw some very drastic changes in the defensive AI we faced during our time with NHL 2K9. It seems to change more in the third quarter, although that’s to be expected. For instance, in the first quarter in a game between Detroit and Pittsburgh – we chose the 2008 Stanley Cup champs – Pittsburgh was content to sit back, wait for my players to cross the blue line, and attempt to slap the puck away when the opportunity presented itself. This made it relatively easy to set up an offensive plan of attack, and ripping off a couple powerful one-timers wasn’t all that tough. But in the third quarter, when we were up 3-1, Pittsburgh suddenly pressed like mad in an attempt to seal off any open paths to the goal. Now, we know what you’re thinking: “well, that’s normal, and even smart!”
Well…not really. Both defensive styles were somewhat easy to get around, even when using the Basic controls. Utilizing the Hybrid control scheme made it even easier, and it’s primarily due to the fact that the computer typically overplayed their hand the way an arcade defense style tends to do. When sitting back, they were almost lax; when they attacked, they would overshoot and with a simple sidestep juke move, we often found those attackers behind us with nothing but open ice between our players and the opposing team’s goalie. Unfortunately, this is really the downfall of this game, as it will drive away the simulator fans who want the most authentic, realistic hockey experience possible. I mean, I think the goalie over there in NHL ‘92 isn’t any less capable than some of the goalies in NHL 2K9, as they’ll typically fall for the simplest fake shots. One-timers are a little too successful as well, and while we’re on the gameplay subject, there’s a bit of an issue with puck control. It’s probably incorrect to label it a “collision detection” problem, but we repeatedly had trouble picking up a loose puck with a player. Why, we have no idea.
But with all the big modes included, like Franchise and Season, not to mention the great atmosphere and seamless menu interaction 2K provides, it’s tough not to like this game. Are they going to alienate the hardcore hockey sim fans? Probably. But we have this sneaking suspicion that there are more fans out there who don’t feel like spending a few hours learning before playing, and kinda miss the days of Blades of Steel. While NHL 2K9 certainly isn’t an arcade-based hockey game, it retains a core gameplay mechanic that most anyone can pick up and play. It sacrifices realism, yes, but it adds accessibility. Depending on how you view this situation, this is either a positive or a negative, and we’re not about to tell you which one is better. That’s up to you. But we can tell you the depth is there and the fun is there, so in no way can that be interpreted as a bad thing, right? It’s just too bad that 2K seemed to swing the pendulum a tad too far in the other direction, because the shortcomings all revolve around a hockey experience that simply isn’t as involved as some may have anticipated.
The AI is extremely questionable, the graphics are good but not worth writing home about, the player control – while certainly easier – seems too stripped down, and there just aren’t enough sim elements to keep the hardcore hockey fan interested. On the other hand, the sound and accessibility drags us into the experience, there are plenty of simulated aspects that override any thoughts of classifying NHL 2K9 as an arcade-style sports game, and in the end, it all depends on what you’re looking for. Next year, though, we do have a suggestion for 2K: this cross-over 60-40 or 70-30 sim/arcade ratio is tough to pull off; maybe just go 100% in one direction. And for the record, we really don’t have any arcade-based hockey games out there… How’s about Blades of Steel 2?