NHL 09 (PS3)
It wasn't about the ice spraying his face like knives and it sure wasn't the blood dripping down punch-stunned lips. But Mark Messier said it all. In "Messier," New York Times writer Jeff Z. Klein's potent biography about the hockey great, Messier and Wayne Gretzky momentarily muse about what makes the two want to go out on the ice, day after day, year after year. For Gretsky, it was simply to have fun with the guys. For Messier, it was deeper: It was about giving himself a true challenge. In fact, in the 79-word conversation, Messier used the word "challenge" eight times, ending with "You're challenging yourself, or you're challenging something."
Challenge themselves is precisely what EA has done in creating NHL 09. And, man, that can't be easy with a series that has been around since 1991. But, like Messier at his peak and until his retirement, they continue to challenge themselves. EA's hockey games last year and the year before were all about the stick: the Skill Stick on the controller that made playing somewhat easier than with the sometimes maddening control schemes of the competition.
This year, the Skill Stick has been upgraded to include the satisfying ability to stick it to the offense. This is key to bringing the game closer to reality. The first defensive hockey play I ever remember was while watching the Buffalo Sabres in the playoffs. Red-headed Jim Schoenfeld (who later coached the Devils and supposedly pushed a ref and called him a "fat pig" during intermission in the Stanley Cup Playoffs of 1988), threw his stocky body in front of a zinging puck to stop it, and it hit him hard. You could see the pain hit him like a boxer had punched his kidney. The defensive skill stick isn't that dramatic, but it does let you get under the darling of the offense's skin by placing your stick under his and royally screwing up his shot, his angle and his very wits. Even for someone as clumsy as I can be, the stick is really intuitive on both offense and defense. But if you don't like it, you can go old-school and opt for the classic button play of NHL 94.
Another strong addition is the Be a Pro simulation mode: You start as a third-string mope in the American Hockey League, taking positions from playmaker to dangler to offensive defenseman. You're a slow-moving ogre as you begin, seemingly huffing and puffing down the ice. Your progress is shown in trading cards, an oddly cyborg-like way to show you moving up the NHL ladder -- you almost expect to insert the card into your player to get him to go.
As fine as Be a Pro is, I'd even be happier if NHL 09 started out briefly with high school play. The guys in Buffalo and Southern Ontario who played hockey learned a lot of their best stuff in high school -- and lost a lot of teeth in the process, too.
One thing I don't like: As you play, you get letter grades. I'd rather see a number rating than a grade; it reminds me too much of a teacher grading me at school, and that's not fun. And the text messages from the coach are a little too terse and tough. They're dry, and I'd like to see more personality. "There's little room for failure" and "Get it, or you won't last long" are a little too my-way-or-the-highway. I'm not saying I need to be nurtured, but the occasional nicety would go a long way.
When it comes down to gameplay as a whole, EA has it right 90 percent of the time. The short and brilliant tutorial is actually fun to play: The announcer has that over-the-top, big-voiced Canadian brogue, and like the best of teachers, the tutorial is so focused and to-the-point that you get it immediately. When it comes to play, boom -- you can button-mash through the cheesy spinning hockey logos (this circus-like stuff looks dumb in real life, too) and get down to the opening face-off.
A Gargoyle's Eye View: the default gameplay view for NHL 09.
As you play, the default view is from above the rink, almost as if you were in the cheap seats for a game. Hey, the cheap seats were all I ever could afford, so I'm down. While there are more than 300 player animations during checks and fights -- and while some of them are wondrous, dramatic and lifelike -- these aren't created in real time. Maybe next year's game can use an engine like Euphoria, software that animates on the fly (and was demonstrated perfectly well in Grand Theft Auto IV). Then again, it might be harder when there are so many characters on the ice.
I do admire the graphics of the PS3 game more than those of the 360 version. There's more detail everywhere in gameplay, from the ice to the players' faces to the rafters in the auditoriums. But for full disclosure, I generally find the PS3's graphics a few cuts above the competition when it comes to sports games. (On the other hand, NHL 09 load times on the PS3 can be longer than on the Xbox 360. That's annoying.)
There is admirable attention to detail in gameplay. You can flip the puck down to the end of the ice, lay your stick on the ice to block the puck, or fake out a goalie with a one-handed deke. The Protect the Puck option seems like it would be hard to pull off on the real ice, though. With one arm extended, your player holds the stick as far away from his body (and the defense) as he can. It looks like the stuff of magic that only the superheroic few could do, yet it's ubiquitous here.
I'm not that enthused about the Create a Play feature. There's a lot here already for changing plays on the fly, rushing the net and that sort of thing, with just the push of a button or two. I'm sure it's fine for those who have secret aspirations to coach, but for someone who's between casual and hardcore about his hockey, I don't want to sit and strategize -- even if this year, I can create a breakout play that moves from one end of the ice to the other. I mean, not only are you playing a full season; you're taking that player from the minor leagues through the Stanley Cup. Even playing for five minutes at a time, you'll be immersed in NHL 09 for months as it is.
Want to be really picky? Players' faces -- while closer this year to human bones, skin, eyes and noses -- need to move more naturally. I don't just mean blinking eyes, but facial and labial movements as well. During gameplay, players still appear a little robotic at times. When I had Marty Brodeur as goalie, he made the same movement over and over, diving for the puck and protecting it like a mother protecting a baby during a shootout. Sometimes, when the puck is bouncing close to the goalie and the net, it almost looks like the goalie has a string on the puck to retrieve it. I need a little more variety from the goalie, even if I'm shooting straight-on a lot. The assortment of animations is there, but I'd like to see them more often.
I discovered occasional freezing during gameplay on the PS3 version. The player models will also sometimes flicker like ghosts, albeit infrequently. The forum for the PS3 game on EA is abuzz with these issues as well, and some are calling for EA to release a patch. Others say it's a Sony firmware issue and not an EA issue. The following is not a firmware issue to be sure: During one game, the score of the opposing team mysteriously increased by one goal even though the team had not scored during play (but this happened once in the Xbox 360 version as well). Yet I've never seen a sports game that was perfect. Even the best offerings have announcers who mistakenly call one player by a different player's name, or refer to a team as, say, the Senators when the Sabres are on the ice. I look at these things as annoying "senior moments" for the AI, and I keep playing.
Online play is generally fast as a ferret and smooth as a shot of Knob Creek -- although I did encounter some wait for players, some drop in frame rate and once, the unexpected end of the game. If you're an online addict, you can form leagues of up to 50 players. In each game, it's as many as six on six players, and each player has his or her own personal view from the ice. That's cool, although I don't know anyone who has so many friends who want to play together. Supposedly, the winner of the online playoffs and of Lord Stanley's Mug will get some nifty prizes from Electronic Arts. So skate on.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.