One thing's for sure about this year's NHL game from EA Sports: It won't be lacking for features. Sure you've got your standard single-player games, but NHL 09 will also feature a new Be a Pro career mode where you'll play the role of a hockey hopeful looking to make a name for yourself in the AHL and, eventually, the NHL. Online, the game will feature full six-on-six play across 12 different consoles, online leagues, and--perhaps the biggest online feature in this year's game--the recently announced EA Sports Hockey League. During a recent trip up to EA Sports' Vancouver studios, we got a chance to strap on the skates and take a few shifts in the EASHL to see how this feature is coming along.
Essentially Be a Pro mode played online, the EASHL feature will let you take your created character and play online on teams made up of other players' created hockey pros. You'll use the same character you create in the Career mode, and all of the attributes you've built offline toward your character will apply to his performance on the ice in the EASHL. This is particularly important when picking the role you'll play on the ice, as we'll explain below.
In addition to playing with full six-on-six teams online, the EASHL will let you organize hockey "guilds" with your fellow puck fans (and if this is beginning to sound like a on-ice version of World of Warcraft, that's no accident; the developers at EA Canada commonly refer to the EASHL feature as a burgeoning sports MMOG, one on which the team intends to build for years to come in future versions of the NHL series).
While we didn't get an extended look at how the guild system will work, we did get into an online EASHL game, which looks to be a snap. Players congregate in a lobby until the game is launched, wherein players are then given the chance to claim their positions on the ice. During our time with the game, a team composed of gaming press took on the development team, and when it came time to claim a position, it seemed like a mad scramble to choose an offensive position.
Based on the character we had hastily created (a tall, hefty "play maker"), we quickly snapped up the left wing position, hoping to use our player as a passing expert who would make things happen in front of the net. It brought to mind the potential problems the "catch as catch can" nature of choosing your position might pose for regular EASHL fans. After all, there will be a certain segment of the NHL 09 fan base that looks to create and play defensemen (and a smaller segment that will be brave enough to live between the pipes as goalie). However, it seems that the more casual fan might want to only play in center or on the wings. Will we see lots of last-minute dropouts if players don't get the positions they want?
Regardless of this potential problem, you'll need to play whatever position you play carefully. As with the offline Be a Pro mode, NHL 09 will give you lots of feedback during the game on how you can improve your play on the ice, including a big blue arrow that will point out where you need to be if you get out of position, as well as handy (and often insightful) tips during intermission detailing what you did right or wrong in the previous period. If you're a shooter, you might be praised for taking lots of shots; if you're defenseman, you'll want to make sure you're laying plenty of hits on your opponent--or else you'll hear about it from the coach.
In our session against the EA developers, it was interesting to watch our team dynamic evolve during the course of the game. When the puck was dropped at the beginning of the game, it was like Pee Wee Hockey, with every player heading directly for the puck and virtually no positional play on the ice. Because we were all playing in the same room, our communication was a bit easier than it will be in the final game, where people will be talking (or more likely yelling) into headsets calling for the puck in their individual living rooms. However, as the game continued, each player got a better feel for what was required of him on the ice (thanks in no small part to the aforementioned feedback). In our case, we were able to make some nice passes, including one gorgeous two-on-one dump to our center that nearly resulted in a goal. We even managed to light the lamp on a handy one-timer in front of the net.
Sure, the EA devs were probably going easy on us--we won the game handily--but that didn't take away any of the pride we felt as we skated out onto the ice to accept the applause of crowd as the third star of the game. While the EASHL is just one in a full suite of features in NHL 09, it seems to be the one with the brightest future as the series progresses, and we look forward to following its progress. NHL 09 is scheduled for release on September 9; look for more on the game in the coming weeks.