It’s been a number of years since I’ve picked up and played a hockey game from 2K; my last jaunt was with the ESPN-branded NHL 2K3 on the first Xbox. The thing I remember most about the game was how impossible it was for me to score. Every shot I hit would go straight into the goalie’s glove, and I just wasn’t any good. Fast forward six years to NHL 2K9: my very first quick game was a shutout win 6-0.
That surprising score really sums up what 2K Sports has aimed to do with this iteration of the franchise; accessibility is the game’s guiding principle. The home screen is a quick game menu, allowing players to rapidly choose a team and jump right into the action. Of course, most users will want a little more depth out of the title, which is why the game throws in all of the expected play modes: season, franchise, tutorials, mini-rink, pond hockey, and shootout. Getting familiar with the “classic” control scheme is pretty easy, making 2K9 a great choice for the novice sports gamer. Play speed, difficulty, and certain balance mechanics are all available in the in-game options menu, allowing users to fine tune their experience on the fly.
Online, the experience becomes very hit or miss. Twelve player “Team Up” matches are fun, but one participant can easily tarnish the experience by failing to remember that there are 5 other guys on their squad who are willing to help win. Accordingly, users are given “grades” based on their performance. Playing goalie is by far the hardest position I tried; in single player the goalkeeper can be controlled at any time by pressing the “back” button. However, I don’t recommend this since the computer will do a pretty good job of blocking goals for you.
More advanced players will likely choose to use the Hybrid or Pro Stick Evolution control layouts – these schemes map hockey stick movement to your right thumbstick, allowing for more detailed puck control, advanced dekes, and fast shooting. The graphics are pretty slick and the player movements are fairly smooth, especially when the action is moving at a quick pace. The franchise mode is a lot of fun; options like ignoring salary caps and simulating entire weeks (or even seasons) of play make the mode very easy to use, especially for newcomers. Winning the Stanley Cup is, of course, the ultimate goal each season. Players who put in the time and dedication to capture the championship title are able to control their victory celebration on the ice by raising, passing, and yes, kissing the beloved trophy. Other details like playoff beards definitely add a nice touch of realism during the final rounds of a season of play. The announcers are good, and their reactions to on-ice action are remarkably varied, albeit occasionally incorrect. Perhaps the most enjoyable diversion of this game is the option to drive the Zamboni Machine between periods. I can’t really explain why it’s fun, it just is. You may find yourself pondering ice cleaning techniques as you lay awake at night, trying desperately to find a way to get 100% in the mini-game (the best I could muster was 98.4 %.)
Now, the game does have a number of missteps; none of them are major, but many are noticeable. The A.I. is by far the most questionable part of this game. Once you get familiar with the more advanced deke system, defenders and goalies become almost no factor. Faking right then shooting left will often result in a goal. The referees, meanwhile, look almost arthritic in the way they move around the ice. Their perpetually hunched stance and unusually wonky skating animations seem strange in light of the relatively good player models. Even worse is the Zamboni driver, who looks remarkably similar to those Russian guards from N64’s GoldenEye. When the action slows down, more flaws begin to pop up. Fighting in this game is difficult to control and just not very fun. During celebrations, players seem to suddenly defy the laws of physics by floating across the ice or skating through one another; it makes for an unwelcome distraction at a time when you should feel good about your accomplishment.
All in all, NHL 2K9 is a fun game that’s great for more casual hockey fans. However, compared to EA’s behemoth NHL 09, this game definitely comes in second best in terms of overall quality. Accessibility and simple controls define this title as an entry level experience for players who just want some good old fashioned fun.