Virtual ice hockey is alive and well. Last year, Electronic Arts’ NHL 08 managed to capture the essence of hockey like no other game before, raising the bar with its impressive combination of graphical prowess and the excellent new Skill Stick control system.
Gracing the cover of this years’ NHL title is the hard-hitting Canadian Dion Phaneuf, best known for his bone-crunching hits and furious fists. Phaneuf is perhaps the ideal representative for this 2009 update because the two areas that EA has paid the most attention to are the fighting and checking systems. These improvements have been long overdue and, combined with some subtle tweaks to the game speed, have resulted in a more balanced and realistic experience.
In previous instalments, the emphasis was on the deep Dynasty mode. Whilst that’s still an option this year, the real focus is on the new Be a Pro mode. Previously seen in EA’s FIFA and Madden sports games, Be a Pro lets players work their way up from a mediocre minor-league player to an NHL superstar. EA has also introduced Sports Hockey League (SHL) - a massively multiplayer online game, where thousands of people can interact and play together online. Players have the option to form their own hockey club (or join another) and invite friends to form a team of up to 50 players. Managers then schedule games with other clubs and compete for the inaugural SHL championship.
As we’ve come to expect from EA games, the presentation is almost flawless. Graphically the game is superb, with far more detailed player models than last year and a whole host of new animations that are especially evident in the checking and shooting departments. If you have even the slightest interest in sporting games, let alone ice hockey, you owe it to yourself to play NHL 09.