NHL 2K9 – Nintendo Wii

With its unique ability to offer players more tactile control over their onscreen avatars, thus further selling the illusion that you’re in the game, the Wii has been a prime destination for sports titles. This is the system that was arguably sold based on the strength of its pack-in Sports-themed minigame compilation – and since that thirst was first whet, gamers have looked to continually quench it with new experiences. One sport that has sat on the sidelines to date is hockey, which would seem a shoe-in for the Wiimotes ability to properly mimic a hockey stick. Skating to the rescue is Visual Concepts’ new release, NHL 2K9, the first official hockey title for Nintendo’s juggernaut.

Fans of the NHL 2K series will find that this latest installment keeps the core gameplay in tact while providing some new features and enhancements. The game includes many of the modes that contemporary gamers come to expect in a sports title – including Full Season and Franchise modes. In addition there are separate Shootout and Practice options that players can engage in to exercise their skills before attacking the AI or a live opponent. The game does not feature online multiplayer but there is support for 4-person local co-op play.

The Franchise and Season modes offer the bulk of the gameplay package – with users selecting their favorite team and then following that team through multiple seasons on the way to winning the Cup. In Franchise, you’ll need to also take on the role of General Manager where your time is divided between the on-ice action and handholding roster changes, contract negotiations, and free agent signings.

For those gamers looking for smaller pick-up-and play options besides the normal one-off exhibition games, NHL 2K9 offers up Mini-Rink and Pond Hockey modes. Mini-Rink is as the name implies – a 2-on-2 contest played on a smaller rink. This leads to some quick, frenetic action as the real estate shrinks and the puck flies fast and furious. Pond Hockey doubles the number of players from Mini-Rink (now 4-on-4) and relocates the action to the great outdoors. The normal hockey rules apply but the change in scenery is nice.

Of course, the big news with the Wii build is that it includes some control schemes that take advantage of the unique properties afforded by the Wiimote. The game uses the motion sensing properties of the controller as well as the IR characteristics and employs them in tandem to afford the player more direct control over the players.

Using the nunchuck, you’ll maneuver your players across the ice. Passing is controlled by pointing the IR receptor at the screen which will manipulate an onscreen cursor. If you want to pass to a particular player, just point the cursor in their general direction and press the A button. You can also increase the velocity of your pass by pressing the (-) symbol instead of ‘A’ to add more power.

Shooting is handled through waggle control. To pull off a basic wrist shot, you just need to swing your wrist or arm and the player will fire at the goal. If you want to execute a slap shot, you’ll need to press ‘B’ while swinging your arm and the player will lay into the shot and hopefully rocket it for the goal.

The Nunchuck also comes into play when executing special Superstar Moves. By shaking the nunchuck while in control of a player, you’ll initiate this special move that differs by player and allows you to pull off some fancy skating tricks or fake-outs while attempting to score.

Of course, the big draw to any hockey game is the fighting. While the NHL for years struggled to sanitize the sport and keep the fisticuffs to a bare minimum, developers have grown wise to their target audience’s bloodlust and have begun to inject some combat into the games. When a fight breaks out in NHL 2K9, the player is thrust right into the fray. Using the nunchuck and Wiimote in tandem, you can mime punches which will hopefully land on your opponent’s face. By moving the nunchuck in tandem with your jabs, you can work to keep your player on his feet and continue pounding the other guy into submission. This little feature really keys in on one of those guilty pleasures that longtime hockey fans have looked for in each hockey release.

Does NHL 2K9 shoot and score or is it straight to the penalty box for this one?

Graphics

11000

Two years into the Wii’s life cycle, with the system continuing its market leading dominance, developers really need to start developing console specific builds that play to its strengths and cease these endless PS2 ports. EA has remedied that with its current stable of ’09 sport releases. With NHL 2K9, Visual Concepts serves up another tired rush job. The graphics appear on loan from the PS2 version of this series and don’t even look like they come from this year’s edition. With jaggies galore, stilted animation and compression artifacts bogging down the display, it almost appears as though they raided the vaults and pulled together assets from prior year’s releases. Not even the opening menus fair well – with everything sporting a washed out, compressed look. In addition, the game features a less than fluid frame-rate during the on-ice action that barely tips 30 FPS. That is death to hockey. I’m getting real tired of these rush port jobs being sent to the Wii as if its owners were blind sheep who will purchase anything. With more units sold than either of the other current gen systems, it’s time Wii owners were rewarded with better production values.

Gameplay

1111/20

NHL 2K9 does a number of things right on ice. The gameplay is what you would expect from a hockey title so if you’ve played any of the NHL 2K releases (or even EA’s NHL series) you know what to expect in terms of the gameplay presentation. What elevates NHL 2K9 on the Wii is the unique control scheme afforded by the Wii-mote. It’s not perfect, but the IR-driven passing scheme is implemented fairly well, with players able to call their shots and deliver pinpoint passes. This leads to quicker pick-up of the player you want to control – allowing you to shift control from offense to defense to goalie fairly effortlessly (without having to scroll through available players) – however with a game as fast paced as hockey, there is a learning curve inherent to trying to grab the right player while focusing on the opponents assault. Once the control scheme gels, the gameplay really hits the sweet spot where you feel like you are in total control of your squad. The title also offers the standard assortment of features – with the usual suspects like Practice, Season and Franchise modes available. None of these are convention changing but they do offer up more of what hockey junkies crave. The ancillary Mini-Rink and Pond Hockey modes are more of a curiosity – you’ll check them out but the tight quarters and simple scenery shifts won’t likely draw you off for long.

Controls

1111/20

While I may knock the developers for their lazy approach to presentation, they certainly focused their energies on employing the Wii-specific controls in some smart and satisfying ways. The IR passing sports a learning curve but really does change the way you play the game, for the better, once you get the handle on it. There is a fair amount of waggle employed through the game – mainly in shooting – but much like the Wii’s Zelda sword swipes, I found simple wrist movements work as well as straight out swings – meaning you should be able to keep your arm relatively stress free come tournament time. The frenetic nature of hockey means you’ll rarely get a chance to rest (when you not pointing and selecting a player, you’re likely getting ready to swing for a shot or shaking the Nunchuck to execute a special move). With that said, there is a lot to learn in order to master these controls. This is far from a pick-up-and-play experience and will likely alienate those who have glommed onto EA’s All Play philosophy. That said, the hardcore hockey fans should be pleased with the added control they have over their squads. I was also very impressed with the fight controls and looked forward to playing the role of Enforcer every chance I got.

Music

11110

Sports titles have rapidly become the secondary market for recording artists to showcase their talents. Where EA will often feature up and coming stars sometimes incongruous to the title they are featured in (Avril Levigne in Burnout Paradise is a good example), Visual Concepts has wisely chosen bands that match the rough-and-tumble blue collar vibe cultivated by hockey. This means there’s no Fallout Boy to be found on a soundtrack featuring rockers like The Offspring and Bad Religion. The music may not match my tastes but it certainly suits the sport.

Sound

1111/20

The rink action sounds very authentic with the slice of the skates and the whack of the puck accurately recreated. The issue I had was with the play-by-play which comes off fairly dry and repetitive. The action on the ice does a pretty good job of keeping your attention, meaning the play-by-play really becomes background noise after awhile and doesn’t completely hinder the experience. You can opt to tune it out and crank up the tunes, which might be the best option.

Intelligence

11100

I found that to date, the AI in most sports titles struggles to achieve realistic human behavior. As with most sports games, dialing up the difficulty in this game simply lowers shot on goal percentages and success with pass play. All arbitrary changes that do little to actually present a challenge to work against – like an increase an AI behavior would provide. It’s a cheat to make the game harder when I would much prefer making the computer play smarter, thus forcing me to alter my strategy. This seems to be a blight on most sports titles and I would prefer developers work on fixing that issue over solving the uncanny valley effect in each subsequent release. NHL 2K9, as with most sports titles, is best played against live competition.

Difficulty

1111/20

As mentioned above, changing the difficulty level doesn’t result in a more challenging game – just more frustrations to overcome. That said, I feel the game does carry its fair share of difficulty specifically in relation to the control scheme. While the controls do offer much greater tactile handling of your team once you come to grips with them, the learning curve is fairly steep. As such, this game is firmly directed at the hardcore hockey fan and not as friendly to the Wii’s large stable of casual players – unlike EA’s All Play series of titles.

Multiplayer

111/200

NHL 2K9 stumbles quite a bit on the multiplayer front. While it does offer local co-op and adversarial modes, there is no online component. That may have been acceptable when the Wii first launched two years ago without an online presence, but they have had online multiplayer featured in games for well over a year now. To release a major sports title without even a barebones online exhibition mode is inexcusable and seriously cuts down on the title’s replay values. I think this is game that targets the hardcore hockey fans who may find it difficult locating opponents of the same skill level in their household. Without the ability to go online and track down some real competition, the title loses a lot of appeal.

Overall

11100

In their maiden effort on the Wii, Visual Concepts plays it safe. They provide what one would expect in a hockey title (Season and Franchise modes, minigames) but don’t really innovate in the feature set. Their control scheme shows promise and could be the cornerstone for future installments provided they find a way to also offer up more flexibility on the controls for the casual fans. Still, its commendable that they have worked hard to leverage the Wii’s strength when it comes to controls. The biggest complaints I have are reserved for the presentation and multiplayer. Dumbed down ports to the Wii are getting real old ad in light of the Wii’s mammoth success. It’s high time its adopters got some reward for their dollars. The absence of any online multiplayer is just sad. If Visual Concepts can work to build a title from the ground up that employs some of the graphic muscle the hardware provides while instituting online, this could be a winning franchise. I wouldn’t call this a solid Win or a staggering Loss. In hockey, sometimes we end in a tie.