2K Sports wasn't pleased with where its hockey franchise was headed following last year's disappointing reaction to NHL 2K8. According to the series' new executive producer, Jeff Thomas, the controls had become so complex that they began to compromise the enjoyment of the game. As a result, the development of 2K's latest hockey offering, NHL 2K9, was moved in-house to 2K's Visual Concepts studio. By adding more intuitive controls and six-on-six online play for the first time, 2K hopes to recapture a hockey audience enamored with the old-school hockey experience of the mid-'90s.
NHL 2K9 features three control schemes: classic, pro stick evolution (last year's controls), and a hybrid scheme mixing elements of the other two. The classic control scheme, which is the default setting this year, removes much of the gameplay dependency on the right analog stick. While more experienced players will still have access to the advanced stick control and deke options mapped to the right analog stick, these are no longer necessary to play. Core controls for shooting, passing, changing players, and checking are all mapped to the face buttons and should make the game more accessible to players new to the series.
Along with the emphasis on improved controls, NHL 2K9 features the updated 2K Reelmaker, which lets you create your own in-game highlight reels. Once a reel is produced, the game will convert it to a Web-conducive video format and automatically post it to your online profile for the world to view. Each reel can be up to one minute in length and should add a new element to online leagues (more on this below).
While the game's presentation has been tweaked to improve on the long load times in NHL 2K8, the gameplay graphics and animations remain unchanged. On-the-fly coaching options are still available via the D pad, so you can change lines for your forwards and defensemen, call plays, and augment team strategy. Like last year, though, using these controls can be difficult considering the game's speed.
Available offline game modes remain unchanged from last year. These include standard quick games, franchise and season modes, four-on-four pond hockey, two-on-two minirink, shootouts, and practice. Franchise and season modes feature the same depth you've come to expect from a 2K title. And like it did in last year's game, 2K will provide roster updates throughout the year to keep players and teams consistent with their real-life NHL counterparts. All of the online game modes from NHL 2K8 return for this year's game, including standard matches, two-versus-two minirink games, and online leagues and tournaments. Records and stats from every game are tracked via 2K's online leaderboards, allowing you to gauge your skill against players around the world.
In addition to tracking stats over multiple seasons, online league functionality has been extended this year through greater synergy with the 2K Sports Web site. Online league participants can manage their rosters, conduct fantasy drafts, and propose trades directly from the Web site. In conjunction with the revamped 2K Reelmaker, the Web site will let you post in-game reels, images, and a textual recap for any game played for the rest of your league to view.
Also new this year is the introduction of six-on-six online play, named Team-Up. This game locks user control to a specific position that you select at the start of the game. When 12 human players aren't available, the remainder of the players will be computer controlled. In addition to tracking your stats in this mode, NHL 2K9 will assign you a teammate grade that dynamically updates during the game. You'll be able to view both player stats and grades on a Team-Up leaderboard to help you decide who you want on your team.
While NHL 2K9 on the Xbox 360 doesn't feature groundbreaking changes over last year's game, nothing has been removed and many issues have been fixed. The simplified controls do a good job of making the game fun for casual players, while advanced players have access to the extended stick options from last year's game. The new Reelmaker features, along with 2K's Web site options, make NHL 2K9's online league one of the most polished in sports gaming. That, and the addition of six-on-six gameplay, should add a new twist to the online hockey experience.