Hardcore Hockey

Okay folks, time to blog about something near and dear to me. Console hockey. Ever since the days of NHL94 on the genesis I’ve been a hockey nut. Then came the era of Xbox Live and online hockey and I was forever hooked. Pretty much since Xbox Live was around on the first Xbox, 2k Sports/SEGA ran the show with their ESPN hockey series. Most everyone in #hostile was in agreement that the 2k series was always better than the EA series, because, well, it was. It outsold EA, was more “simmy” and it’s online matchmaking was superior. Thankfully, EA decided to fight back….

Hit the jump to read my extremely long slapped together rant filled review of NHL09

Update: This review has been updated at the bottom of this article.

First, EA bought the exclusive ESPN license forcing 2k Sports to rename their game to NHL. But still, NHL 2k6 reigned the better hockey game without the sweet ESPN SportsCenter like interface. But then EA went and did something productive and hired a new dev team to make NHL 07 who introduced the skill stick. 2007 was a hell of a year for hockey. While 2k was still more of a sim, EA laid the groundwork for an amazing hockey experience with this new skill stick, enabling the gamer to control their hockey stick with the right analog. Slappers, wristers, and dekes were all so much more satisfying than button mashing. 2007 was the first year since I started playing hockey on consoles that I preferred EA over its SEGA/2k Sports counterpart.

Then came EA’s NHL 08, with off the stick dekes, amazing learning A.I., tougher goalies, smoother skating, and a nearly perfect penalty system. The online was very poorly done, so there were still many who clung to the 2k8 game for the better online experience. But 2k sports apparently left everyone hanging on roster updates while NHL 08 slowly improved their online glitching/freezing issues and getting out 3 roster updates.

So now that my nostalgia is over, lets dive into what 2009 brings us as far as hockey goes. I was busy so I did not get to try the 2k9 demo or much of the NHL 09 demo. But I did keep my eye on reviews of both and to me it was obvious 2K9 for the first year was not even worth trying. They did nothing to close the ever expanding sales gap vs the EA series. To give you and idea on the current playerbase difference (and I’m sure sales difference) wander over to the official Xbox Live forums and eye the post counts between the 2 games. As of the time of me writing this article….

EA’s NHL 09:
Threads 1,369
Posts 9,888

2K’s NHL 2k9:
Threads 31
Posts 190

It seems even the most die hard of 2k hockey junkies cannot deny that EA is now the one and only hockey series worth playing. Well what made this drastic change… lets go into what makes NHL 09 the best sports game I’ve ever played.

NHL 09 expanded on its already impressive skill stick system. This year, game play wise they added one handed dekes, protect the puck, flip dumps, defensive stick lifting, redid the fighting, slashing, checking, one timer, goalie, poke checking, and penalty systems. Game mode wise, they added Be A Pro (BAP), EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL), and with that redid the Online Team Play (OTP). They also added a NHL 94 classic control so your drunk buddies or dad could pick up this game and enjoy it at a basic level. Lets start with the game play changes compared to previous EA NHLs…

One handed dekes are pretty sweet, but mostly useless like the spin move. Situational at best but in a competitive game better left on the sidelines. Protect the puck is good for protecting the puck from stick lifts but is a more useful single player feature. Flip dumps are so well done you wonder how you ever played a hockey game without them. They create stuff like this.

Defensive stick lifting is great albeit a little overpowered. It is now possible to turn another teams rush up ice into a turn over sending your team on a breakaway or even prevent one timers when out of position for the check. Its not without risk, however, as stick lifting without the correct position on the opponent can cause your stick to come in contact with his face or wrists and send you to the sin bin for 2 minutes.

The fighting system is a welcomed change and way better than previous years but far from Blades of Steel glory. Part of the better change is now to fight you press the hook/slash button that was redid to not be so fucking cheesy. Slash is pretty useless during play to do anything but indicate that you want to fight. No more idiots on live slashing all game.

Checking, well, they finally fixed the hip checks. See NHL07 and NHL08 always had this little trick where you could use the vision control tigger to land hipchecks from ridiculous angles and positions. Thankfully the new system is way better, and takes player size and checking ability into account. Although the animations on hits into the boards are a little over the top, with the checked player going totally ragdoll on even small checks, its all around better than the previous years checking systems.

One timers, are nerfed and require more skill to perfect. No more slap pass abuse. For those not familiar Slap Passing was a new feature to NHL 08 advertised as a new deflection system but really just made rocket one timers two button pressed away. This was a major complaint against NHL 08 and because of that slapshots from loose pucks and slap passes are mostly avoided due to the high turnover rate of attempting these moves. Often trying to slapshot a loose puck or incoming puck will cause your player to wind up and freeze in place for a second or two, and if you are playing the point you can expect to give up breakways over this.

Goalies are no longer cake mode to beat on a breakaway and have recieved major animation overhauls. Altho they aren’t perfect, they are much tougher this year. They also are easily exploitable. Back again is the curve shot from NHL 08, a cheese goal that will score when executed correctly. Wraparounds are well done and like real hockey if you leave a guy open enough to pull off a true wraparound hes going to score so you can’t really call that cheese. The curve shot sucks because it can be easily shot through the defencemen’s legs if you don’t have a human on D. Oh, yeah, you can save replays and upload them to the web, or take screenshots and put them on your pro’s hockey card.

Poke checks, totally redone. 360 degree poke checking and the ability to sweep the stick side to side. Instead of using the RB and the right stick to pull of your poke check, you can now simply just press RB. Your player will poke tword the puck and the right stick can be used if you want to pull of another kind of poke check/sweep.

Penalties, this is my biggest complaint against the series this year. Last year, in NHL 08, penalties were amazing. Checking players away from the play would be interference like 85% of the time, as it should be. Diving and causing tripping was called decently. This year, the only thing added that’s a bit better is delay of game for clearing the puck in the defensive zone. Checking people away from the play will draw you a random cross checking penalty about 25-30% of the time, making it a big deal and crazily unfair in competition. You could be getting checked all game away from the play and respond in kind once and get some bullshit cross checking penalty. Interference is barely called, I’ve seen it less than elbowing. All in all aside from the cheese goal, this is something EA has to address first and foremost next year.

Okay, on to the HUGE changes. Be A Pro, and the EASHL. They added this mode called Be a Pro, you can create a player, with a play style, and experience whats its like to play positional hockey starting as a 3rd line AHLer to a Legend of the NHL. This also comes with a better “position lock” in game perspective and Be A Pro camera angles. Single player, its decent, but you really can only play as a high scoring forward because its tough to rack up assists or play as a D man due to lack of AI competency to hit your players milestones (like get 50 assists etc). Its tough to win as a D man if your AI forwards can’t score more than the opponent, ever. This only gets worse as the AI difficulty increases. Also, you can ride the bench and watch the game from the bench on line changes, never do line changes, or take control of the guy replacing you on line changes. But really where BAP is amazing is the EASHL.

What is the EASHL, well its the feature no one who read about thought EA could pull off. It lets people create a club (team) and up to 50 friends can be on a club, all using a single character complete with stat tracking. Voice chat is restricted to only members of your team. Pretty much a Hockey MMO. Well my friends, welcome to the current pinnacle of online hockey. This game mode is fucking amazing. This game mode is nearing on the most fun I’ve ever had online. This game mode will forever change the online console experience.

EA underestimated its playerbase for this game mode and after about 20 hours post release, the servers took a shit, and it took forever to find a game. But a few days later they got it working. Not perfect, by far, but you can find games, and the stats are tracking for you pro again. You can unlock cards and slowly improve your characters stats with experience, just like offline BAP. This is of course, just an addition to playing other online game modes, like the shootout, 1v1 VS, or Online Team Play. Online Team Play has been changed to support full 6v6 play on 12 separate consoles.

As with any early launch MMO, there are tons of areas that could use improvement, especially when it comes to finding games as a member of a club, but make no mistake, the EASHL is the best thing to ever happen to online hockey and there’s nothing like a full 6v6 club game. EA at the end of the season will set up playoffs, and the winners of the 360 playoffs and the PS3 playoffs will be flown out to play LAN games vs each other. Home ice winners play 4 of the 7 game series on their “home” console.

All in all, NHL09 is a game any console sports game needs to pickup and try. If EA can continue to improve the online nuisances and bugs with their game matching, you can expect them to snatch up the exclusive NHL player license and deliver the best hockey experience for the foreseeable future.

I’d love to give this game a 10/10 but can’t due to the online bugs and shitty penalty system, so I will give it a 9/10 and most likely won’t put it down until Skate 2 comes out.

Update (3/2009) : EA has gone and done something unprecedented and released not only roster updates for this game, but patches. Patches that have changed gameplay. They added the ability to hold left trigger and not throw checks when you are trying to one time, reduced cheese goals, stopped stat cheaters, and fixed the penalty system! Now it is not all perfect but each patch has been a godsend and drove new life into the game. You usually have to wait until next year’s hockey game to get these kind of updates but EA is again raising the bar on the online hockey experience. New rating 10/10.

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