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NHL 09 360 Review

06/10/2008 Specialist Sports Gamer Review
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NHL 09 360

NHL 09



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With last year's instalment of EA's long-standing ice hockey franchise having won almost every award going, NHL 09 is one of the most anticipated sports titles of the year. Can the latest arrival match its older sibling's achievements? It's a big ask, but those huge shoulder pads should help support the weight.

I have a confession to make. I've never played ice hockey. In fact, due to the lasting effects of one particular sporting injury, I avoid ice skating altogether. Although I cannot therefore offer insights into NHL 09 arising out of personal prowess, I should note that as a child I developed a deep fascination with American football, basketball, ice hockey and baseball.

While it's true that all these sports are all played in the UK, their subtleties (or, in many cases, basic rules) are not common knowledge; they just aren't in our blood in the way football, rugby or cricket are. I remember the kids on my school bus being unmoved by talk of an upcoming Super Bowl or World Series and completely unfamiliar with terms like 'long snapper', 'flip dump' and 'pick and roll'. I, on the other hand, spent hours watching as much of these sports as I could find (mostly in the middle of the night); I immersed myself. In short, while I might never have donned the skates and taken up a stick in anger, I like to think that I know something about ice hockey.

Last weekend I fired up NHL 09 and entered the world of 'next generation' ice hockey action.

However... I've generally tended to avoid ice hockey games. I remember pining after NHL Hockey and NHLPA '93 before finally getting NHL '94 for the Mega Drive. I also remember being entertained for about 15 minutes and then being bored. I briefly dipped back in at NHL '99 on the PS1, but, after that, I basically tuned out with regard to the series. That is until I (belatedly) heard about last year's release.

The thing is, I never actually got hold of a copy of NHL 08 - by the time I cottoned on to all the hype, NHL 09 was on the horizon and so I decided to wait, fully prepared for the possibility that I would have to go back to 08 if 09 didn't deliver. So, after a ten year semi-boycott, last weekend I fired up NHL 09 and entered the world of 'next generation' ice hockey action.

The most striking aspect of NHL 09 is its control scheme. Just as in 08 (so I've heard) the left analogue stick controls your player's skates and the right, their stick. This means that moving the right stick from side to side dekes the puck, flicking it forwards hits a snap shot and pulling back and pushing forward makes a full shot. In addition, holding down the right bumper now gives you 360 degree stick control in defence. This 'skill-stick' system is extremely instinctive, although other controls take a little while to get the knack of - right trigger to pass seemed a bit incongruous at first.

After completing a series of brief control tutorials (and they need only be brief) I launched straight into 'Be a Pro' mode. 'Be a Pro' starts you off as an AHL rookie hoping to one day achieve NHL 'legend' status. The risky and yet also brilliant thing about this approach is that, because you only control your own player throughout, it forces you to pay attention to all the facets of the game - positioning, blocking and marking are as crucial as rushing and shooting.

'Be a Pro' also (bravely) requires that you spend your fair share of time in the box between line changes. You can call a change to return yourself to the ice whenever you want, but obviously there are times when that's just not appropriate. Also if you spend too long on the ice, you lose favour with the coach, who is continually rating your performance in terms of 'Position Score', 'Team Play' and your all important 'Stats' (goals, assists etc.).

In my opinion the game is simply superb.

Although it's only one aspect of the game, 'Be a Pro' is enthralling enough to justify the cost on its own. I tried to play through all the modes in order to give a balanced summary, but I just kept being drawn back to my 'Pro' and his burgeoning career.

OK, there are annoyances in NHL 09 which some reviews have majored on (replay frame drops etc.), but in my opinion the game is simply superb. It's well paced, it looks great and the controls work in harmony with everything else to draw you right into the action. I'm just totally hooked (sorry).

PS: You'll be pleased to know that my 'Pro' is currently the first line centre for the Nashville Predators and is well on track to reach the coach's expectations for his rookie season.

Written by David Kenson

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David Kenson writes the Sports Gamer column.

"I bring twenty or so years of enthusiasm for, and experience of, sports to bear on my reviews of all sorts of sporting games. I've usually got what John Virgo would call the 'commentators eye' because I've played in the real world."

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