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.
All of this control customization doesn't help NHL 2K9 on the ice. Although the Wii version is smoother to play when it comes to skating because its controls nicely eliminate the weird speed disconnect and clutch-and-grab vibe plaguing its 360 and PS3 cousins, poor hockey sense from the artificial intelligence remains a big problem. Everything is too forthright and simple-minded for games to feel much like real hockey. Both offense and defense are tight enough to offer you a challenge, but neither are the slightest bit realistic. AI offense is all about going to the net. Although there's nothing wrong with hard-nosed hockey, computer players almost always forgo making passes for taking a beeline to the slot. So you can generally shut down the opposition by simply gooning the puck carrier and forcing a turnover. Defense is just as mindless. Computer defenders constantly hit you with heavy pressure, smothering you so effectively that you always have somebody hanging off of your shoulder pads. Such tough defense also makes all of the teams in the game play in the same style. You go into Montreal for a game with the high-flying, no-D Habs and they're playing the exact same trap-like system as the "defense first, last, and always" Minnesota Wild.
Goalie wonkiness is another problem. Meltdowns between the pipes aren't uncommon in the real NHL, but the number of flaky performances by top-flight goalies here is simply too high to believe. In the franchise games we played, even first-rate goalies such as Carey Price and Vesa Toskala crashed and burned every few starts. They would go through stretches in which they couldn't stop beach balls and would surrender goals on wristers from the hash marks and wide-open slappers from the point. Whenever one of these softies went in, you had to get out the hook, too; you could just about bet the house that the back of the net would soon fill up with rubber. Odd-man rushes appear to contribute to the cheap-goal issues. Whenever the computer goes down the ice on a two-on-one or three-on-one, it seems as if the chance to score artificially increases. So even if the computer doesn't get off a half-decent shot, or you get back and break up the rush, you can bet the farm on your netminder letting one trickle through the wickets or whiffing at a floater heading for the top corner.
With all that said, there is still something about NHL 2K9 that rings true. On-ice action can feel close to that of the actual NHL at times. Likewise, there are moments when the Nunchuk makes you feel like you're really skating. Do some serious tweaking of the game-setting sliders and you can hack the game into something approximating real hockey. And players can perform like their real-life counterparts in astonishing ways. Curtis Joseph may be just a backup at his advanced age, but he still pulls off his trademark windmill glove saves every now and then. Brendan Shanahan fires his killer snap shot coming down the wing. And Sidney Crosby flops and draws cheap penalties.
Nevertheless, you sure won't mistake the appearance of NHL 2K9 players for those in an actual NHL broadcast. This game is blurry, loaded with jagged edges, and plagued with animation slowdowns. Player faces are roughly hewn Cro-Magnon takes on real people, bodies are so angular and blocky that they seem like Frankensteins stuffed into too-tight equipment, and names and numbers on jerseys are far too small and stretched out. Animations look natural, at least, although there are many occasions when the frame rate hitches, or when everything slows down to nearly slo-mo speeds.
Audio is just as ugly. Crowd noise is a mumbling mash so jumbled up at times that you can't make out chants like "Go Leafs, go!" Play-by-play commentary is beyond annoying. Hockey Night in Canada legends Bob Cole and Harry Neale have been dropped for the San Jose Sharks' local team of Randy Hahn and Drew Remenda, who do nothing but repeat generic phrases that tell you very little about what's going on. The duo recycle lines, rarely mention players by name, and use a lot of weird affectations such as a faux-French pronunciation of "Canadiens" and forever calling some teams only by nicknames (it's "Blues," not "Bluenotes"!). Soundtrack tunes are even more aggravating; the developer seems to think that all hockey fans are extreme-sports dudes who listen to nothing but the likes of The Offspring, Bad Religion, and Mastodon. Also, "Bad Boys" (the Cops theme) plays during fights and almost every time somebody heads to the sin bin.
It's hard to categorize NHL 2K9 as anything but a disappointment. Even though it will give you a tough game on the ice, the gameplay just isn't very realistic. All the Wii version seems to add to the mix is slightly different (not better) controls that can lead to a monotonously simple-minded offense and defense. You can sit this one out and see what next year brings.