NHL 09 First Hands-On

It's hockey your way with the upcoming NHL 09, and we've got a hands-on look.

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Whether you're a fleet-skating center, a brick wall goalie, or a search-and-destroy defenseman, EA Sports' upcoming NHL 09 aims to let you play hockey your way. The follow-up to NHL 08--one of the more universally applauded sports games in recent years--is coming with high expectations from puck fans looking for this year's game to one-up the previous effort. It's a good thing, then, that NHL 09 looks to have plenty of new tricks up its sleeves as we found while playing the game for the first time at EA Sports' recent pre-E3 press event.

The new Be a Pro mode, first seen in last year's FIFA 08 and this year's UEFA Champions League 2008, will next be seen in NHL 09. So far, it's bringing an entirely new dimension to 6-on-6 hockey. As with the soccer games, in Be a Pro mode, you create a player from scratch (or step into the skates of bona fide pro) and then take on the career of a future star in the NHL. Unlike in the main game modes, you play your position in Be a Pro mode--and only that position.

Last year's NHL game saw the evolution of the offensive skill stick. With NHL 09, the defensive stick gets its turn.
Last year's NHL game saw the evolution of the offensive skill stick. With NHL 09, the defensive stick gets its turn.

Any spot on the ice is open to your player--you'll start in the AHL before eventually making it to the National Hockey League. And while every position on the ice looks to offer its own experience, our goal was to check out the defensive position. After all, playing a forward, it seems, won't be terribly different from playing a normal game of NHL--always looking to push the puck up ice, spreading the puck around with passes, and looking for scoring opportunities every chance you get. On the other hand, on defense, you have a chance to try all of those things while focusing on playing solid defensive hockey.

It's not exactly easy to do, but that's not necessarily meant to sound like a criticism. Like in the EA Sports soccer games, playing NHL 09's Be a Pro mode in a defensive position forces you to go against your instincts. Instead of always rushing into your opponent's offensive zone at the first opportunity, you're forced to hang back and try to break up breakaways or look for ways to intercept passes (which seems more effective than ever this year). Then, when you aren't crunching guys into the boards and causing chaos for the opposing offense, you can trail across the blue line, call for a pass (by pressing the right trigger on the Xbox 360 controller), and take a big slap shot from the line.

For those new to hockey and the demands of the different on-ice positions, NHL 09 will provide you with some handy clues. First and foremost, there is a positional arrow that will tell you when you're really far out of position and where you need to go to get back in the right spot. In addition, loose pucks will sometimes be illuminated with a colored circle, indicating when it's wise to go after the puck (as opposed to merely smashing the guy with the different colored jersey next to you).

That kind of instantaneous feedback is helpful, but you'll also be getting feedback from your coaches after every shift and at each intermission. When you're on the bench, a couple of things will happen. First, you'll get a brief summary of your last shift, including letter grades that indicate how you did in terms of position, team play, and so on, as well as some specialized feedback. Your coach might say something positive about the hit you put on the opposing center or chastise you for missing an open shot at the point. Simultaneously, you'll be regaining your stamina back while you're on the bench; a small meter in the lower right-hand corner will indicate how much stamina you are regaining, and you can call to go back in the game at any point, even if your stamina is not fully regained.

For every defensive move, there's an offensive counter.
For every defensive move, there's an offensive counter.

When you call to reenter the game, it will be executed as an actual line change, with your teammates coming to the bench before you can hit the ice, which means you'll want to be mindful of position and not call a bad line change at the wrong time or else you'll risk giving up a goal. NHL 09 producers were quick to point out that, in addition to playing the "realistic" way and playing in shifts, the game will let you play continuously with your created player (not taking shifts) or let you take control of another player while your Be a Pro character rests on the bench.

On the ice, some new improvements to gameplay are apparent both in Be a Pro mode and the normal hockey modes too. One of the biggest gameplay additions is the ability to lift the stick of an opposing player when on defense. It's surprising how quickly this becomes part of your regular defensive repertoire once you acclimate to it. Lifting the stick is as simple as pressing the A button, and it's a great way to break up one-timers, break up passes, or otherwise disrupt plays when you can't really lay someone out. Another important defensive feature will let you swipe your stick across the ice using the skill stick, which is a great way to break up passes.

Of course, for every new defensive trick, there are some counter moves on offense. One new feature we hadn't seen before is the ability to protect the puck when it's in your possession by simply pressing the A button. Here, the player will intentionally put the puck out of reach of a defender and, better yet, position his body in between the puck and the defenseman, making it that much harder to break up the play. Another fun addition is the ability to push the puck in front of you while skating up-ice with a hard-charging skate. By freeing the puck momentarily (by pressing the right button), you can give your skater a slight burst of speed he might need to get around a pursuing defender. Producers were loathe to call it a "boost" or "turbo," instead choosing to point out the authenticity of the move--players can skate faster without the puck than with it--but essentially that's what it is and it seems to work pretty well, without being overpowered.

Be a Pro will let you strap on the skates and take control of your NHL career.
Be a Pro will let you strap on the skates and take control of your NHL career.

Beyond new controls, the team is hard at work looking to improve the differentiation between players in the game. Third and fourth line players don't have the same abilities as your top-line starters, and in NHL 09, that disparity should be larger than ever. As a result, you'll need to change your strategy depending on who's on the ice. If you put your third or fourth liners in, for example, it's "dump and chase" time. NHL 09 doesn't seem to be resting on the laurels of last year's game, with bigger and badder hits, as well as a fighting system that can end on-ice scraps in a punch or two. There are also the new controls on the offensive and defensive sides of the ice. Plus, there's the matter of that brand new online feature, which EA Sports is keeping under tight wraps until later this year. Rest assured, we'll be all over whatever announcements the publisher has for NHL 09 in the coming months, and we look forward to bringing you more hockey throughout the summer.

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