Since the early 90s, Electronic Arts (EA) Sports has published the NHL series on a multitude of video game platforms. For the 2009 edition, EA Sports brings NHL 09 to Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3, Sony PlayStation 2, and Microsoft Windows. This review covers the Xbox 360 edition, although the comments are applicable to the PlayStation 3 release. Gamers who enjoy a solid hockey experience will definitely want to check this release out. I found it to be very addicting.
The majority of the game modes are common from NHL 09 to NHL 08. "Dynasty Mode" lets you take control of a team as a general manager, coach, and player. You can run a team for up to twenty five seasons. "Tournament Mode" is an eight or sixteen team international tournament. There are also European tournament leagues, such as Elitserien Cup, SM-Liiga Cup, and Montreal Canadiens Cup. "Create Play Mode" returns, which permits the player to record individual player paths and combine them into a coordinate play (rush, offensive zone, powerplay, and break out -- break out is new this year). Other common game play modes include "Play Now", "Practice Mode", and "Shootout Mode".
As for new content, "Be A Pro" is new and NHL 09's biggest draw. This mode allows players to put a persona to life. In other words, create your own character and put them through the process of becoming an all-star NHL player. The player's character starts on a team in the American Hockey League (AHL). The character has a set of goals to reach for the season. If they do well in the eyes of the general manager and the coach, the character may be given a better starting position on the team or moved up to the NHL. If the character does poorly, they can be traded or dropped down. Along with "Be A Pro" is "NHL Pro". It is similar. However, instead of using a custom character you play as an actual NHL player and play out their career.
Some other features new to the game includes an interactive tutorial for very basic offensive and defense for skater and goalie, non-interactive tutorial for "Be A Pro" mode, performance tracker that shows the status of completion of milestones, statistics, and hockey cards, and EA Sports Media Hub, which lets you customize audio and share screenshots/highlights.
In regards to the game play, I was very happy with it. It has been several installments (NHL 2002) since I have spent a lot of time playing the series. Obviously, between the version I am familiar with and NHL 09, there are some significant differences in control. Prior to NHL 07, buttons were used to shoot, pass, deke, check, etc. Since, EA Sports changed a lot of the controls over to the analog control stick. There is still an option to use a classic hybrid of buttons/analog sticks. NHL 09 also includes a very basic control preset entitled "NHL 94 Controls", which uses an analog stick to move the player and buttons to pass, shoot, check, and change player. In regards to the stick control, I was skeptical about it at first. I found it somewhat difficult to work the way I wanted. But after some time, I started to find it worked nicely. Still, there are moments when the stick control can feel clumsy such as when trying to body check an opposing player.
I was also pleased with the game modes. The dynasty mode lets you put on hats as a general manager, coach, and player has really matured. I liked the expansive options and control over a team's development. Also, just as Jeff Paramchuk mentioned, being able to control the NHL team and its AHL affiliate at the same time gives a nice perspective to the development of the majors and the minors. However, the real fun comes from the "Be A Pro" mode. EA Sports really did a nice job setting up this mode, which lets you focus on the development of your character (or favorite NHL player's career). As previously mentioned, when you start your career in the AHL, you are given a variety of goals to prove yourself as a key player to the team. As the goals are achieved, you move up in starting position until finally you are given a chance in the NHL. While playing, you are rated on different factors like positioning, passing, shooting, team work, etc. For instance, if you call for a pass and are out of position or are on the ice when the opposition scores, you get docked points.
As for the technical aspects, NHL 09 is a great looking game. The graphics look sharp with defined character models, crisp player animations, nice detail on uniforms, a crowd that is responsive to the game play, and a multitude of different angles to enjoy the game. The audio has songs from artists like Airbourne, Coheed & Cambria, Millencolin, and Phantom Planet. The EA Sports Media Hub allows you to customize tunes during team intros, goal celebrations, etc., which is nice way to further immerse yourself into the "Be A Pro" mode -- give your team a unique soundtrack. The play-by-play commentary features Gary Thorne and Bill Clements.
Overall, NHL 09 is an entertaining game. The addition of "Be A Pro" mode gives it an edge and allows you to take your character to the big leagues. It is a fun experience and supplements the other game modes well. Gamers who enjoy solid hockey games will definitely want to pick up NHL 09.