NHL 09 Next-Gen Review - 15/10/2008

Frosty the snowman has nothing on Peter Moore. Possibly EA’s most critically lauded of all their sport franchises, (with the exception on the all-conquering razzamatazz that is Madden), EA’s NHL series has won countless awards since it stepped up to the next-gen plate for its fast, frantic, frenzied and, frankly frenetic recreation of the Mapleleaf-stamped sport.

But such similarly-spelt synonyms wouldn’t mean squat if the modes built around the gameplay weren’t bursting with the usual EA quality. Well then, you must have missed the obnoxious opening screen, buddy, because this is an EA sports title. Whatever ‘it’ means, it’s in the game, and thanks to Peter Moore that is more obvious now than ever.

Since the Liverpool-born Moore moved from Corporate Vice President of Microsoft to his California-based position as head of EA’s sport division, we’ve noticed a significant change in the quality of the developer’s products. Burnout now practically bleeds glass particles, Skate has seen Tony Hawk off with a swift kickflip to the arse (sorry, that’s ‘ass’ to Moore) and EA are positioned to take over every credible game company under the sun – a rumoured bid for Epic Games was announced just last month in fact. In particular, Moore’s sports division has displayed the sort of quality that, had the same been shown by an athlete, they’d need to give a serious urine sample.

Possibly the easiest sports games to get into and enjoy are NHL-based ones.

Clearly, the Englishman Moore really knows his American pastimes. And, apparently, his Canadian ones too. In NHL 09 the presentation is nothing if utterly faithful; ice reflects, gleams and even gets cut up as players butt shiny plastic helmets in the oppressive glare of the brightly lit arena. From the impressively-well-rendered crowd down to the transitions between screens (incidentally, the only time a blatant sponsor plug doesn’t look out of place is in an American sports game) NHL 09’s developers eat, sleep and breathe hockey.

The gameplay too captures that distinctly American fascination with competitively pushing other men over. There are two main control schemes here: the simple button-mapped layout of NHL 94 is used to usher in hockey-rink virgins while EA’s trademark twin analogue controls reveal a decent amount of depth and variation. Using this, shots are performed by pushing the right thumbstick away from the goal to draw your stick back, then thrusting it forward to let loose while the left thumbstick dictates direction. Snap shots are performed by pressing the stick towards goal as soon as the puck is in your possession, and while lightening fast, they aren’t as powerful. Shots are easy to pull-off and feel satisfying, with bottom corner creepers and top corner screamers both standing an equal chance of turning that buzzer green. However, therein lays the problem. Shooting often feels a matter of luck than skill; manoeuvre into your opponents half and you wouldn’t be out of place by trying your luck from anywhere.

You don't even have to know much about ice hockey to enjoy them.

Passing is responsive and far from the always-one-animation-behind exchanges seen in FIFA 09. A press of the right trigger and the pass is instant, allowing you to tie your opponents in knots with the most rapid of plays. They’ll be something resembling a hot cross bun, then, when you utilise EA’s overhauled ‘deke’ system (that’s ‘dribble’ to you and me). Again, the right thumbstick controls your stick and ‘dekeing’ the puck from left to right before shooting remains a staple NHL tactic that is easy to grasp here.

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