One of the main problems facing an annual videogame franchise is the need to constantly better itself and/or the opposition. After last year’s standout NHL title, many thought that it couldn’t be improved and were resigned to holding on to that copy of NHL 08. Quite simply they were wrong.
This year's hockey offering from EA Sports not only doesn't disappoint, it raises the bar set by NHL 08 in nearly every way, from awesome new modes to slight refinements and improvements to some areas showing their age.
The first feature that’s worth mentioning is Be A Pro. As soon as NHL 09 begins, you're prompted to create your virtual likeness, complete with all the customisation options that you'd expect from today's games. You'll find licensed products, hairstyles, accessories, as well as the chance to morph the virtual face in to whatever you desire.
But just like the real thing you’ll be constantly substituting on and off, so you’ll have to manage that effectively, without compromising your team’s position. This adds further realism to a game saturated with it, right from stadium announcers to effects and difficulty inclines, such as the one you’ll face when climbing higher up the ranks in Be a Pro.
In terms of other modes, EA Sports Hockey League brings the Be A Pro gameplay style online for the first time in the form of a persistent online league. Every player on the ice is human-controlled, making for some of the best hockey seen in video games, and will provide you with hours of extra gameplay in addition to Be A Pro.
The visual side of things is very similar to last year, and once again that’s not a bad thing. Crowd detail has been picked up, and the game runs at a nice smooth pace, with plenty of detail in the environment. However the replays and cut-scenes still tend to clip, and collisions between players aren’t always detected correctly.
The audio is as solid as ever, with two great play-by-play callers commenting on the action, as well as authentic sound effects really bringing the feel of a hockey stadium right to your gaming area.
It was one of the best, if not the gold standard for sports genre video games last year, and it looks set to re-claim that title yet again this year. Despite a few minor quips the game provides a very realistic hockey experience, and is definitely worth an upgrade from last year’s version.