NHL 2K9 on the Wii boasts some innovative controls but suffers from serious AI problems.
- Wii Nunchuk control does a great job of simulating real skating
- Challenging on the ice, if not particularly smart or realistic.
- Awkward passing and shooting with the Wii Remote
- AI problems and some cheap scoring
- Visuals are in need of a serious overhaul
- Play-by-play commentary is repetitive and the soundtrack spectacularly grating.
Time travel just became possible, at least for hockey fans. Toss NHL 2K9 into any console system and you'll immediately feel transported back to 2006, which seems to have been the last year that any significant improvements were made to this hockey series. This so-so look at the Canadian national pastime actually turns away from realism to embrace a more old-time arcade-hockey feel with streamlined controls and single-minded AI. Although the Nintendo Wii version of the game mixes things up a bit with a natural control system that uses both the Wii Remote and the Nunchuk, this addition doesn't make the action on the ice feeling any more like real hockey. The game presents you with a good challenge, though it seems like what remains of the realistic NHL 2K games of the past is being slowly erased.
Although this is the first NHL 2K game to be released for the Wii, the modes of play are almost identical to those offered in 2007 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 2. The only big addition this year is Zamboni races between periods, a goofy novelty that you'll likely try once and then forget that it exists. Special games now include being able to play three-on-three in a pint-size minirink, four-on-four pond hockey, and a solo shootout. However, none of these options are more than moderately diverting. The minirink is so small that games are nonstop breakaways from one end to the other, and the pond is simply a bland sheet of outdoor ice surrounded by snowbanks and invisible glass that still clangs every time you shoot the puck high and wide. Ahh, nothing says "outdoor hockey" like the synthetic bang of Plexiglas.
Franchise and Season modes on the Wii haven't evolved much since previous games on other systems. Granted, these options were pretty deep last year, particularly when it came to the implementation of the NHL's labyrinthine salary-cap regulations and tough contract negotiations. But there are no refinements or serious additions here, and they are sorely needed, given the continuing mess that is the interface. The game has taken on a minimalist look, with menus that pop up only on demand, and though this looks clean, there are no permanent onscreen icons to indicate which button you have to hit to pull up which menu. Even when you do come to grips with menu navigation, too much of the information that you need is buried. The biggest problem is the lack of a central hub screen on which you can get a quick look at all of the big news from across the league. You shouldn't have to go looking for vital information such as who's been dumped to waivers, who's been traded, and who's gone to the injured reserve list.
The Wii version makes use of the Wii Remote and the Nunchuk to give you more natural control over players than on other consoles--or so the theory goes. The Wii controls actually get it only half right. Being able to use the Nunchuk to skate is a great idea because you can use your thumb to fly around effortlessly and pull off sharp turns like the pros. This is a huge improvement over using a standard gamepad's analog stick. But using the remote to handle all stick-related actions is disastrous. It's incredibly awkward to pass with an onscreen cursor that you use to target teammates. The game is simply too fast for you to control a puck-carrying player and move a cursor around at the same time. It's a lot like you're controlling two players simultaneously. Shooting is also problematic. Although pulling the remote back and pushing it forward to rip off slap shots is fulfilling, the shooting controls are so touchy that you are forever winding up even when you want to just push forward and take a wrist shot. It's nearly impossible to pull off any deke moves down low or in the shootout.
Wii controls never feel natural, even after hours of playing. The passing is such a pain that you wind up using it only when breaking out of your zone. From the red line in, it's easiest to forgo playmaking to instead hog the puck, using the slick Nunchuk thumbstick to perform Savardian spin-o-ramas and then using the Wii Remote to hammer slap shots on the net from all over the ice. Of course, this results in a really mind-numbing brand of hockey. Games feel more like casual shinnies with a few players out there hotdogging than they do real five-on-five hockey games. The only truly successful use of the Wii controllers is with fighting. Using the Nunchuk for balance and the remote to throw haymakers is both realistic and a lot of fun when you want to let off steam in a close game.