- Buy the Game
Reviewed by Jason Thompson
he back of this year’s “NHL” entry proclaims that EA’s hockey series is “winner of seven sports video game of the year awards.” Apparently, the people (and critics) have spoken, but for my money, 2K Sports have always had the better hockey video game. Back in the heyday of the PS1 and PS2, I was firmly entrenched on the EA side of the fence, but for too many years now it’s felt like the company has been treading water with its hockey title, no matter how many new bells and whistles they may throw in annually. And boy, did they throw them in this year.
As you may recall, last year’s “NHL 08” debuted with the annoying “Skill Stick” that players either loved or hated. You’re probably familiar with this thing by now. The right analog stick on the controller was mapped to control the player’s swing of the hockey stick. It seemed more gimmicky than controllable, but a lot of players learned the finesse of the Skill Stick and lauded it. Well, this year the Skill Stick has been applied to the defensive portion of the game as well, allowing players to block passes or obliterate the opposing team’s one-timers by sliding their own sticks under the opposition’s and lifting them up. Again, it seems more of a hassle than a gift from above, but those well-seasoned players will probably enjoy it.
The best of the new features this year is the “Be a Pro” section of the game. Obviously, this feature revolves around a player-created character. However, instead of just throwing your own guy into the game and utilizing his talents, players will now be judged on a per game basis on the player’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t make enough completions on the checklist and you could find yourself traded. If anything, this feature actually helps players become better on the virtual ice – much more so than any in-game tutorial could. The “Be a Pro” feature also allows players to create their own hockey cards as well as win special trophies throughout the season.
Online gamers will be happy to find that there are now online teams that can be joined by anyone, anywhere. It’s six-versus-six action, although don’t be surprised to find a lot of bitch-fests erupting because one or more of the team members aren’t picking up the slack. Of course, a lot of gamers have never heard about giving the new guy a chance, but it is what it is. Is it any better than the usual online play? Well, the idea is interesting, but don’t be surprised if this feature is one of those things that gets glossed over in next year’s outing.
For those who don’t want to worry about overly complex controls, this time around players are allowed to map their controllers via the classic “NHL 94” days, with one button for passing and one for shooting. That’s fine and all -- if it were still 1994 -- but more control is definitely better in this game. Even if you don’t want to use the Skill Stick, players can remap the controllers to their liking without being completely gimped by the over-simplified classic controls.
Graphically, the Xbox 360 version suffers from slow-down during cut away scenes of team reactions. Why this happens is unknown, but it’s definitely ugly. On the ice, the game is smooth and that’s where it really counts, but it would have been nice if it had all been seamless. Unfortunately, the color commentary isn’t very engaging or entertaining, and EA is still sticking with the same faceless rink announcer they’ve been using for years. Of course, all this may be made up for by the usual Dynasty and Tournament modes that have attracted gamers to this franchise over the years. Those are still intact and well, but one can’t help think that EA could just dismantle its entire NHL operations and create something from scratch that was truly special, rather than the safe, expected stuff gamers have come to know.