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A friend of mine from Vancouver arrived last week for a month-long working holiday. Despite seeming pretty happy to have the opportunity to spend some time exploring the UK at his employer's expense and catching up with British friends, from the moment he arrived I detected an underlying sadness. You see dear sports game fan, Harry loves hockey - and when he says 'hockey' he doesn't mean what posh boys play at private school, he means the furious, brutal, on ice kind - and right now his team, the Vancouver Canucks, are in the Stanley Cup semi-finals. What is more, apparently it hadn't occurred to him that the games would not air over here.
What could I do, I began wondering, to cheer up my Canadian chum? As I looked at his glum, hang-dog expression and then round the room for inspiration, my eyes came to rest on an unopened review copy of NHL 2K9 that has been sat on my 'to do' pile for some time. That copy had come through late, and by the time it arrived I had already been wowed by and raved profusely about NHL 09 and had heard from several trustworthy sources that it presented no real challenge to EA's new found dominance on the ice.
However, I recalled that it had mostly been the artificial intelligence that had taken the brunt of my fellow reviewers' scorn and that several people I'd spoken to about it had mentioned that offline Vs play worked pretty well. It was decided - I would pitch to Harry, there and then, an NHL 2K9 simulation of the seven-game semi-final playoff series between his beloved Canucks and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The well packaged but unfussy style also carried through into the game itself.
I know Harry to be a keen and skilled gamer, but I was not quite prepared for the relish with which he embraced the idea. In a flash he had pulled up a chair in front of the 360 and was fingering his controller expectantly. Although this is a way away from the usual approach I take to testing a game for review, it occurred to me that this might well prove a useful exercise: neither of us had played the game before and already the expectation was mounting. Would the game live up to this kind of billing? Would we be able to master it quickly enough to make the series fun enough to cheer Harry up?
The consensus on NHL 2K9 when it was released in September last year was that, in the face of EA's superior simulation, 2K Sports had shifted more in the direction of arcade style accessibility. If true, it seemed that this might suit our purposes quite well. Both of us were certainly impressed by the slick presentation, with the straight forward menus and smooth, bright, well produced pre-game sequences setting the perfect tone for our play-off series.
The well packaged but unfussy style also carried through into the game itself. In a sense the easy-to-learn yet relatively comprehensive control scheme (we both adopted the hybrid format which involves a combination of the now standard dual analogue format - one for the skates and one for the stick - with a series of more classic button add-ons) was perfect for enabling us to cut pretty quickly to the chase. It's possible that a more complex or simulation heavy game might have got in the way of the dynamic that was in operation, but, as it was, with NHL 2K9 the jive talk, gratuitous celebrations and loud protestations against the officials were all soon flowing.
The game is fast, much faster than real hockey and there certainly seemed less of a pay off in terms of trying to master sophisticated plays or the like than in NHL 09 - fast breaks and crashing the net rather than the backboards seemed the way to go. Given the nature of what we were doing, however, this was a forgivable trait; the games moved faster and the scores were higher than you might expect in real-life, with far more speculative 'one-timers' finding net - all of which quickly became enjoyable fuel for our self-hype machines.
We saw enough of it to convince us that it has a lot to offer and can perhaps give NHL 09 a run for its money in the casual playability stakes.
In a relatively short time frame I was able to work out how, should I need to, I would be able to score one or two fewer goals than I needed without seeming uncompetitive - after all, I didn't actually want to crush my friend's spirit further. As it was, I ended up loosing four of the seven games and Harry seemed to find steering the Canucks to a series victory something of a cathartic experience. We both thought the scoring was probably a bit easy (the lowest number of goals in a game being four, in the first) and that the computer players didn't seem to always make the proper positional choices, but we were also firmly agreed that it looked good, played very smoothly and offered a really pleasing all-round experience for this sort of play.
After we'd finished I showed Harry NHL 09 and, while he said it seemed like it would offer a more rewarding and realistic experience in the long run, he wasn't convinced it would have made our playoff more fun. We clearly didn't experience everything that NHL 2K9 has to offer in our one night only semi-final pre-run, but we saw enough of it to convince us that it has a lot to offer and can perhaps give NHL 09 a run for its money in the casual playability stakes.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: