NHL 09 First Look

Last year's game was a hit; what is EA Sports doing this year to maintain their hockey momentum?

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Where do you go when you have one of the highest-rated sports games in recent memory, a game that just happened to receive honors as sports game of 2008 (including from this very Internet establishment)? If you're the developers at EA Canada, the guys responsible for last year's critically lauded NHL 08, you keep your eyes forward, like Sidney Crosby heading toward the net, in the hopes of keeping that momentum up for the next game in the series, NHL 09. During EA Sports' spring press event, we got our first look at NHL 09, and had a chance to hear about some of the exciting features that will be in the game when it's released later this year.

First off, the biggest feature in NHL 09 seems to be the brand-new Be a Pro mode. Inspired by the feature of the same name from last year's FIFA 08, this mode will let you strap on the stakes as an up-and-coming hockey player. After creating your player from scratch, you'll sign up with an AHL team (EA naturally has the full AHL license) and begin to find your way through your career as a hot minor-league prospect.

Last year's NHL game from EA Sports was our sports game of the year. The recipe for NHL 09: Bigger and better.
Last year's NHL game from EA Sports was our sports game of the year. The recipe for NHL 09: Bigger and better.

As with the Be a Pro mode in FIFA, when you're on the ice in NHL 09's Be a Pro mode, you'll be focused on your player alone, thanks to a third-person camera that will be focused tight (but not too tight) on your created player. According to producers, this close-up camera angle will give you more opportunities for shooting in a variety of different angles on the goalie, from up high to five hole, because the targets will be that much bigger on the screen.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Be a Pro mode in NHL 09 is the different types of roles you'll be able to serve when creating your player. Not only will you be able to play as a goalie, but you'll also be able to choose different types of roles as a regular skater, from a grinding, checking defenseman to a speedy, shot-taking sniper. As a result, when you're on the ice with your team, your coach will have different expectations of you depending on your role. It's these individual expectations that will form the basis for how your performance is judged in the game and how your player progresses as a result.

You'll be judged in three main categories: position, team play, and statistics. Given that your position on the ice is so crucial to the success of you as a player and your team as a whole, you'll always be judged by how closely you fit into your proper position based on your role. If you're not sure where you need to be during a certain point, a handy arrow will appear overheard to point in the direction you need to go if you're out of place. How often that arrow appears will be a measure of how often you're in the right (or wrong) spot on the ice, and you'll be judged accordingly.

Think you can fill Tomas Holmstrom's skates? Find out in the brand new Be a Pro mode.
Think you can fill Tomas Holmstrom's skates? Find out in the brand new Be a Pro mode.

The second aspect of your performance is team play. This takes into consideration a huge number of factors: everything from the number of shots you take to the number of times you call for the puck through a pass. Sometimes calling for the pass is a good thing; sometimes taking a shot is a good thing, even if it doesn't go in the net. That said, if you start calling for a shot every time you touch the puck, or call to go back on the ice during a line change (yes, you will sit on the bench when your line is between shifts), your team and coaches are going to notice and might even dock your performance in the process. After all, there are shots and then there are good shots, just like there are passes and good passes. The CPU will know the difference and, after a while, so will you.

These team-play expectations will change depending on your player's role. For example, if you're playing a checking defender, then you won't be expected to take a lot of shots; you'll be expected to lay guys out on the ice each and every game. Naturally, the final aspect of your performance will be statistics, and you'll be expected to put up numbers both in the minors and once you make it to the NHL. If you fail to perform, you can expect a long road to the Big Show; if you're already an NHL regular, you might be traded if your output isn't up to your potential.

One-handed dekes will give you another weapon in your offensive arsenal.
One-handed dekes will give you another weapon in your offensive arsenal.

As you progress in the game, you'll be able to purchase attribute points, which you can assign to your player to improve his performance. In addition, at a point further down the line in this mode, you'll earn the chance to get your own hockey card, which will detail your accomplishments through the minors, into the NHL, and on to the ultimate goal of becoming an NHL legend. One cool feature included here is the ability to take screenshots of your own in the game and then use those images for your hockey card.

As for the game's controls, the development team is still further enhancing the skill-stick system that began in NHL 07. Last year saw touches such as the off-puck dekes--for NHL 09, you'll be able to perform one-handed dekes that will find your player pushing the puck out far to one side with either hand, then pulling it back on the fly to get around a defender or even a goalie. Of course, only the best players will be able to pull off a move like this, so you'll want to make sure you use it at the right time, and with the right player.

One-handed dekes mean one more move in the offensive skill-stick arsenal, but NHL 09 will also finally give you the ability to take advantage of the skill stick on defense. You'll be able to swing the analog stick back and forth to make your player mimic that movement with his hockey stick, taking away passing lanes in the process. Of equal, if not greater, use will be the ability to lift an opposing player's stick off of the ice with a press of a button. It's a simple defense against the prevalent one-timers that can become a cornerstone of the game, especially online; by lifting your opponent's stick off the ice, you take away his ability to smack that one-time pass toward the goalie. Nevertheless, you have to be careful because there's an associated risk with this defensive reward: If you miss the timing on the lift, then you might end up inadvertently smacking your opponent's player in the head, resulting in a penalty in the process.

Last year's game offered the ability to create plays from scratch on the ice by positioning two or more players exactly where you wanted them. That feature returns in NHL 09, though you'll now be able to create plays using the entire length of the ice, not just the offensive zone as in NHL 08. A typical example of this might be starting a play with your center positioned behind his own net, giving the other forwards and the defensemen a chance to set up before beginning a charge up the ice and into your opponent's zone.

The Wings got it done against the Penguins. Time for some redemption, Pittsburgh fans.
The Wings got it done against the Penguins. Time for some redemption, Pittsburgh fans.

Another big feature in last year's game was the three-on-three online play. In NHL 09, that's been moved up to full six-on-six play online. It certainly sounds like a hockey fan's online dream come true, though we suspect it's going to take a certain type of person who wants to sit in net for an entire game. Then again, goalies are a different breed in real life, too...

In addition to that, NHL 09 will boast online leagues, tournaments, and at least one other mystery feature that the producers behind the game are promising will be absolutely massive. Unfortunately, they weren't ready to spill the beans yet, but we'll certainly be on the lookout for exactly what this game-changing revelation will be later in the year. With heavy expectations on the game, our hopes are high for NHL 09, which appears, at least in terms of ambition, to be keeping pace with last year's stellar entry. Stay tuned for much more on the game in the coming months.

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