NHL 09Graphics: 9/10 Sound: 9/10 Gameplay: 8/10 Value and Longevity: 9/10 Personal Enjoyment: 9/10 Grade: B+
When discussing how good a sports game is, it is necessary to look back at the entries that came before it for the same franchise. NHL 09 is a really good hockey game that has made key minor improvements to the previous EA hockey games, while retaining a similar feel and style to the previous several EA NHL efforts. And although NHL 09 plays great and is an overall very entertaining game, there are a few nagging problems and differences to the console versions of this same game.
A major edition to this game is the Be a Pro mode, which lets you take control of your own hockey player or a player already in the NHL, and play out ten seasons as this player. Along with controlling your own player, when he is not on his shift you control a player of the same position on the other lines. Your player gains and loses points depending on what he is doing on the ice, such as gaining points for winning face-offs as a center, checking the opposition, and being on the ice for a goal being scored for your team or even scoring yourself. You can lose points for losing face-offs as a center or having a goal scored against you. You can also gain bonus points for various activities, such as being named a star of the game, scoring an empty net goal, winning by a shutout, or completing a season-long task by scoring a certain amount of goals or assists. These points go towards leveling your player up, which automatically raises most of your stats by 1 or 2 points. You have no control over how your points are distributed other than how you originally pick your player to be a sniper, grinder, play maker, power forward, an offensive or defensive defenseman, amongst a few others. Once you pick the kind of player your pro is going to be, expect those stats to remain the same way throughout your entire career.
There are a few problems with this mode, as well as major differences to the console versions. In the PC version of the game, you are not drafted into the NHL and you do not start your career in the AHL. I thought the ability to work your way up from the minors would have been great, but I was rather let down at the fact that all I have to do is pick the NHL team I want to play for, and then I play for them immediately. The AHL is in the game, but you can only play as those teams in exhibition and season modes. Having your poor player start out immediately in the NHL means you are going to be a lot weaker than your teammates, so even though you want to play as yourself, for you to win early on it is best to play the lines that you are not on. This leads to another problem for this mode, as whatever line your created pro is on will automatically regenerate fatigue to the maximum amount once they are off the ice. Your other lines will regenerate properly, but the instant your player is taken off the ice, he and his line mates will go back to 100% health immediately. This can easily be manipulated so that if you place your own pro on the first line with your other best players, they can play well over half the game without much problems with fatigue, since you can take them off the ice and then bring them right back in at full health for the next face-off. Another problem with this mode are your AI teammates. They aren't too bad, but you have no control over their style of play. In some RPG games, you can program your AI controlled allies to behave in certain ways, whether it is to be aggressive or using certain skills at certain times. In NHL 09, though you can command them to pass to you or to take certain kinds of shots, there is no way to get them to check more often or not to dump the puck in the opposing zone so often. I get tired of seeing my players allow the opposing team to skate into our own zone without my team trying to lay a check on them, which I can do for myself in the other modes of the game. The last problem, one that is also a problem with the dynasty mode, is that you can only play out ten seasons. Hockey players have careers longer than ten seasons, many of which can get up to twenty seasons. It's so disappointing that if I create an 18 year old, not only do I not get drafted in the league or build my way up through the AHL, I'd only be able to play until I'm 28 years old. There are certain career marks in the NHL that I'd want to try and catch, and it's impossible to do so in only ten seasons.
Thankfully with these few nagging problems, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives in the Be a Pro mode. This mode is quite entertaining as you actually feel as though you're an important part of a team instead of just being able to switch to whoever you want at all times. You can manage the team outside of games as you normally can in dynasty mode, and you can either call the line changes yourself or let the AI decide what line goes in and if your own created player will be on the ice. It's also great to have a sense of getting somewhere by playing out all of the games for multiple seasons, seeing your very own created player build up in level and slowly become stronger and stronger. The AI can trade my players at anytime, but I've seen no trades so far in my first NHL season, halfway through it. AI trades are on, so it should be possible to have my teammates or even myself traded away. Unlike the dynasty mode, you do not control your team's trading and free agency.
The other major mode to go along with the Be a Pro mode is the dynasty mode. You can play out dynasties in multiple leagues across the world, including the Russian Super League. This is pretty much the same mode as previous seasons, with minimal improvement. It honestly seems very similar to the dynasty mode for NHL 07 on the PS2, which means there hasn't been much improvement. Thankfully, not much improvement needs to be made, but it does have some drawbacks. The dynasty mode lasts ten seasons, again not enough to really feel as though you're playing out entire careers of NHL players. It displays where you are making revenues and expenses, however you have no control over ticket and concession prices so this summary is rather pointless. You have control over your salary cap though, as you are free to wheel and deal your players as you see fit, but you can not play a game if you are above the salary cap. There is a pretty major problem with doing fantasy drafts for dynasty mode, however. You still have to remain under the salary cap after you're done drafting, but you have absolutely no way of knowing how much salary a player has when you are picking a player to draft. Even checking their player profile will not bring up their player salary. The only way to know what your salary is during the draft is after you make a pick and see your team salary go up, but you don't have much control over keeping your team under the salary cap during the draft. You may have a bit of an idea of what the player salaries are, but once you get down to the lower rated players in the later rounds that you may not know much about, or players with new deals prior to this season that you do not know about if you don't live in their market, you're really just hoping for the best when making a pick and trying to avoid going beyond the salary cap. I was personally unable to play out a single fantasy drafted dynasty mode game since I was $20 million above the cap, even after trying to be careful, and it was far too much of a hassle to spend so much time trying to trade and release players I spent so long researching for to draft. This headache could have been easily avoided with a simple salary price stat while drafting, or even turning the salary cap off for the dynasty itself, which was an option I could not find.
All problems with the dynasty mode aside, it's still a very deep mode. It's not really different from dynasty modes of the previous few games though, but there's not much wrong with it to begin with. You can pick what kind of GM you are in order to change the bonuses and penalties your team will receive in terms of upgrades and owner expectations. You may want to reach your upgrades faster via building your owner's trust level and leveling up, but in response your owner will require you to make it farther into the playoffs. You may want to build your owner's trust up faster but in response your team salary could be a lot lower, forcing you to have a weaker team. This feature, though it was in previous games, does give you a reason to keep playing through your dynasty mode year after year. I'm not sure if you will be able to max your upgrades out over only ten seasons, though. If other EA sports games have dynasty and franchise modes of 30 or even 120 seasons, surely NHL 09 could have gone to at least 20 seasons.
There are various other modes of play as well. Aside from exhibition, you can play a single season mode, the NHL Playoffs, a world tournament, a couple mini-games, and a few online modes. The season, playoffs, and world tournament modes are great for getting the hang of gameplay or if you want to complete a whole mode in a shorter amount of time than ten whole seasons. The two mini-games are a shootout and a free-for-all, where up to four players are competing against each other to score goals against a goalie and defensemen that you may add in. Unfortunately, other than maybe online, your only opponents will be those who can also play on your PC. Generally, PC games aren't meant for a lot of people sitting around the same PC, and good luck having four USB slots on your PC for four different controllers. Not sure why EA couldn't just program AI players for you to play against when other franchises have managed to do that for past games like the 2K and Hitz series. Also, for you to play online, you have to go to the EA forums and type in the names of chats and passwords in order to connect with those players. That's highly inconvenient when in most other online games nowadays, you can just join an online lobby in the game itself and easily enter games from there, not having to alt+tab out of the game, check the EA forums, and manually have to type in the particular game's name and password.
The gameplay itself is quite solid. It feels like hockey, not some arcade version of it. The control stick (right analog) for controlling the puck while you skate with the left analog is a great feature, and has enabled me to deke out goalies on occasion for awesome looking goals. The controls aren't too cumbersome either, as each button does something different, and you don't need to press a combination of buttons to do one activity like you may have to in other in-depth sports games. Your AI opponents do a fairly good job of keeping games competitive, though you'll still encounter some blowouts both for and against your team. I have noticed that when even setting the difficulty on "difficult" that it's not much harder than medium difficulty. The gameplay sliders in the game are universal stats and not sliders to change the balance between yourself and the AI, so it's very hard to set a proper balance like you can in most other sports games. I check the AI opponent much more than they check me, and my defense is typically too strong to lose games, though the AI has been known to score a few easy goals now and then to keep the games close. You may be able to score a few fluke goals now and again, but mostly you have to set up plays and crash the net for rebounds, just like in actual hockey. The AI defense can be stingy, but they mostly go for poke checks to knock the puck away instead of checking to knock you off of the puck.
There are a few create modes in this game, but once again it lacks a key addition from the consoles. You can create your own players and edit players already in the game. You can't vastly change the way a player looks, and there are not many style options, but it's decent enough. You can create your own team by picking players from other teams, and thankfully you can actually see the player salaries ahead of time in order to avoid going past the salary cap when setting up your roster. You can also set your team's logo, their home and away uniforms, how the announcers will call your team (as in their city), the goal horn, the period-ending siren, and even what the fans will chant for you. You can even play out these teams in various other modes, making use of your created team. Unlike the console versions, there is no create-a-breakaway feature. Apparently on the console you can set up exactly how players progress down the ice for an odd man rush. On the PC, much like the EA NHL games of the past, you can only select a few options for how your team moves up and down the ice.
The graphics are rather good, though nothing extraordinary. The player faces are mostly on target, the player animations are superb (complete with checking animations where players may have their helmets and sticks knocked away from them), the crowds are fairly strong even though many people are repeated throughout the crowd, and the gameplay itself is quite smooth. I play on high graphical settings but there's nothing that pops out as being special or high-definition. Everything looks good, but not great. There are no major graphical faults or issues with frame rate or slowdown, though.
The sound is very good for a sports game. The atmosphere is great, complete with raucous crowds, lots of chanting, and loud goal horns. For some reason, Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are not the commentators for the PC version, when they apparently are for the console versions. The announcers here are the same ones that have been calling EA NHL games for years and years, and many of their calls are identical to previous years. They don't say the wrong things, but many lines are repeated, such as stories about certain players. The musical soundtrack is also rather strong with catchy tunes and songs that fit hockey. You can turn the songs on and off as you please, and switch them on the fly while in the main menu.
The game costs $20 less (American) than the console versions, and for good reason. It lacks some key features the console versions have that would have been great to have in the PC version. Still, for what it's worth, you can have a lot of fun with the Be a Pro and dynasty modes for a long while. You can try out new positions in the Be a Pro mode to keep it fresh, like switching from center to goalie for a new career. You can switch teams in dynasties for different original goals and different starting team upgrades and salary caps that may change the way you approach the mode from your first play through. If you have online friends, you can make good use of the online mode through EA's forums, but for casual players like myself, I find the lack of an in-game matchmaking mode to be disappointing.
Personally, I find the game to be a blast to play. The Be a Pro mode, despite lacking the AHL in that mode, is addicting and gives me a real sense of being a team player. The dynasty mode, while similar to previous games in the series, is still a time consumer and can keep you occupied for a couple years until the next major advancement is made in PC EA NHL games. The flaws are minor and many gamers can get around the little details I nitpick at, such as the lack of salary information for fantasy drafts. It all comes down to the gameplay for sports games, and the on-ice action is a blast. Some games can be very intense with late goals and overtime action, and the crowd just builds up on the intensity the game has to offer. If you have NHL 08 or 07 for the PC, you could purchase 09 for the Be a Pro mode on its own, but if you're looking for a new gameplay experience you will not find it here. It is simply another solid addition to the EA NHL franchise, one that could really use some of the enhancements that the console versions of the EA NHL franchise have received.