NHL ’0923 Sep 2008
While, in the past, EA Sports may have been content with delivering cosmetic annual updates to its sports franchises, things have changed a lot in the last couple of years. Almost all of its major sports games were overhauled in 2006 and NHL was no exception. NHL ’07 introduced the innovative Skill Stick control system (that mapped stick movements to the right stick), and NHL ’08 provided the presentation and in-depth game modes to match. The pressure was on to produce something new for NHL 09 and so the Be a Pro mode was born.Like Madden’s Superstar mode, Be a Pro puts you in control of a single player for a whole game. You can’t switch player if the action gets away from you, you won’t have the puck as often as you’d like and you’ll spend a good deal of the game warming the bench. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a winning formula for a video game. However, in practice, Be a Pro is probably the most in-depth, compelling and addictive game mode ever to be included in a hockey game. Screw it, in any sports game.Be a Pro is essentially a career mode with one player. You can choose to guide the fortunes of an established NHL star, but the real joy lies in creating your own player and taking him from the minors to the Stanley Cup. Once you have decided just how long that mullet should be, how many teeth your player should have and what position he’ll play you’ll be assigned to the minor league affiliate of your chosen team. Basically, you’ve got to pay your dues. Starting off in the minor’s third line you’ll need to prove your skills in three areas to advance through the ranks: Positioning, Team Play and Stats.Judging these skills is the team coach who will give you advice on your play as well as grading you at the end of each match. Perform well and you’ll advance through the lines until you’re eventually picked up by a NHL side. Under-perform and you’ll find yourself incurring the coach’s wrath and possibly being demoted to a lesser line. What is a simple reward system soon becomes the most important thing in the world as you strive for that A+ grade and a spot on the Redwings’ first line. Thankfully, playing NHL 09 is so intuitive (and addictive – the “just one more game before bed” mindset kicks in pretty early) that you’ll feel like a pro in no time at all.The gameplay in Be a Pro, like in the other game modes, is just as slick and fast-paced as you’d expect from a NHL title. Where it differs from the standard gameplay is that positioning is much more important. Because you’re only controlling one player on the ice, you need to make sure that you’re in space when your team has the puck, and sticking close to the opposition when they have it. You’ll also need to jettison your ego if you expect to be a good Be a Pro player. Selfish play does not reap rewards in NHL ’09 and, if you’re playing offense, sharp passing is the key to success. However, you also have a few new tools at your disposal. On offense, the right stick dekes and shots are now joined by one-handed dekeing and a flip-dump that, when timed right, will send your wingers tearing into space. However, it is the defensive additions that have made the most difference to NHL 09. The checking system has been completely overhauled with more realistic physics and animations resulting in a much more satisfying defensive experience than in previous NHL games. Players can also block passes and use the new ‘raise stick’ feature to prevent opponents from receiving passes. Defence no longer feels like a chore and it’s immensely satisfying to reach top speed and wind up a huge hit on the open ice.Without the Be a Pro mode, NHL ’09 would just be a slightly tighter version of last year’s game. However, now it almost feels as if there’s a whole new game within the game and EA should be applauded for its innovative approach. Indeed, not only has it revolutionised the single player hockey game, it aims to do the same for multiplayer. The EA Sports Hockey League supports 6v6 online play (yes, goalies too) and allows players to form teams of up to 50 people to play in a persistent online league. Whilst we were unable to adequately test this due to connection issues, once EA irons out the problems (and you find 5 other people who know how to play hockey), the potential for engaging online play is limitless.Of course, NHL ’09 is not perfect. Be a Pro’s dynamic camera (designed to keep you looking at the action at all times) can be occasionally disorientating and you will encounter some framerate drops, usually when you skate behind the nets. Also, some of Be A Pro’s features (such as the simplistic grading system) feel a little underdeveloped. Just the smallest amount of on and off-ice drama, such as player rivalries, would make the new game mode even more compelling if it were introduced next time around. NHL ’09 is as close to the complete package as you’ll get in any contemporary sports game. It looks and sounds next-gen, has the gameplay to match as well as innovative on and offline game modes. Be a Pro changes the way you approach a hockey game and, whilst you’ll definitely spend less time on the ice as in NHL ’08, when you do perform well it is infinitely more satisfying.