Opinion: Six Reasons Why NHL 09 Might be the Best Sports Game Ever

Say what you want about sports video games. That they barely change from year to year. That they're designed by developers with exclusive licenses and no motivation to innovate. That they're a waste of money on what amounts to a yearly graphics upgrade of increasingly stale gameplay. In some cases, this may be true.

But Electronic Arts' NHL development team has quietly been changing all of that. A few years back, as the NHL itself was dancing on thin ice, EA's hockey series was a mess of arcadey checking, unrealistic simulation, and boring features.

Now, after three significant revisions, the Vancouver-based team is setting the standard for sports video games, establishing important features that have trickled down to other franchises.

NHL 09 represents the latest example of the team's push toward hockey bliss--and this time, it may have been reached. Playing the Xbox 360 version last night, I was so impressed with the effort that I found myself racing to write about it. This isn't just a great sports game--it's a great game, period.

Here are six reasons why NHL 09 is something special:

1. Everyone is a player.

NHL 09 supports full six on six multiplayer games. Everyone on the ice can be a human--and this changes everything.

It's hard to overstate how exciting it is to play a multiplayer sports game where every player is a real, thinking opponent. With teammates choosing permanent positions before the start of the game, it adds a touch of class-based, Team Fortress-esque responsibility to what would otherwise be a test of pure twitch skill.

This roleplaying and cooperation leads to a more accurate, and thus more satisfying, hockey experience. As an offensive player, knowing that your teammates are human means that you can finally coordinate on plays that would never be possible with the AI. As a defender, knowing that your team will be cursing you out over Xbox Live if you don't stop that breakaway makes the position much more exciting.

Even playing as the goalie is fun. As the netminder, the view shifts to an over-the-shoulder perspective, giving you a realistic but challenging view of action. Goalies must stare down the ice and make sense of the action, constantly keeping their awareness high, helplessly watching as wingers move in for a flank. One loss of concentration can mean defeat. Stopping a game-winning goal in the last 30 seconds can make for a glorious victory. BOOM video 705 In my experience, multiplayer lag is typically indiscernible, with only minor delays for player syncing between puck drops. To make sure the game doesn't devolve into madness, an unobtrusive blue arrow points out where you should be positioning your player at any given time, mostly ensuring a game of hockey that resembles the real thing.

Add in matchmaking, a filter-based game browser, tracked statistics and support for 50-player teams in the game's persistent league, and you have an online sporting experience second to none.

2. Physics effects that make sense.

The NHL series has been on the forefront of physically-correct sporting for the past few years, but NHL 09's online excellence amplifies what was already great about it.

Late in the third period, the game all tied up, I took a shot from the point as Nicklas Lidstrom. The puck ricocheted off of a waiting Tomas Holmstrom, beating the human-controlled goalie by inches. It was a scene that wouldn't be out of place in any real Red Wings game, and therefore pulling it off in NHL 09--as lucky as it was--felt incredible.

The fact that all of that was being calculated and fed to eleven other players with minimal lag felt like a proof of concept for next-generation technology.

3. Controls that feel natural.

If you haven't played an NHL game in a while, be prepared for a revelation. Added in NHL 07, EA's "shot stick" mechanic remains one of the most unique schemes ever developed for a controller-based game.

In a nutshell, the left analog stick is used for aiming, while the right stick controls the actual in-game hockey stick. Slapshots are accomplished by pulling back on the stick and pushing it forward. Wrist shots can be rolled around the outside for a whipping snap-shot. Left-to-right motions shift the puck around for goalie-beating dekes.

The system is entirely natural, and three games later, it's still fun to experiment with.

The new controls added in 09 are also impressive in their usefulness. Being able to raise the stick of an offender just before they receive a pass is the kind of minor detail that an NHL fan really appreciates. Being able to play effective defense with the 360 degree poke-check is the kind of major detail that the series has desperately needed for a long time.

Turn the page for the final three reasons. _PAGE_BREAK_ 4. Alternate controls your dad can understand.

While sports fans enjoy having total control over the shape of their shots and the precision of their poke-checks, not everyone is interested in such a complicated approach to sport simulation.

EA has taken the casual player fully in mind with an option for reverting to simplified controls. A is pass. B is shoot. With the tick of an option box, it becomes a far-improved version of NHL 94--but without the guaranteed half-rink slapshots.

5. A "Pro" mode that doesn't suck.

Okay, making a player with your name and giving him a purple afro was funny in 2002, but the novelty of create-a-player wore off shortly after. As you might have guessed, NHL 09 changes all of that. Sure, you can still make your own goofy player--but this time, you have to crawl your way to NHL stardom.

To my surprise, EA has included every AHL team and player in NHL 09. Before your afro-donning dude hits the pros, you'll have to increase his statistics and his popularity by crawling your way through the minor leagues, exhibiting your outstanding play on teams like the Grand Rapids Griffins.

More interestingly, the game also offers you the option of taking on the persona of your favorite NHL star, with varying challenges depending on the skill level of the player. As Pavel Datsyuk, you'll need to meet a number of steep expectations, like scoring 50 goals in the season and winning the Rocket Richard trophy. This combination of leveling and achievement systems makes for a far more compelling season mode.

In the middle of an actual game, a fatigue meter keeps track of the player's energy. When it reaches critical level, you'll be forced to head to the bench. At this point the pro is given a scorecard from the coach, rating him on positioning, statistics, and teamplay.

These grading cards are cute, and meaningful in the context of your character's career, but the simulation aspect of resting on the bench is more interesting. Rather than being annoying, I find it actually increases the tension. Because the maximum amount of time you'll sit on the bench amounts to 15 or 20 seconds, your time spent on the bench never becomes annoying. Watching your team falter or succeed without you can be nerve-racking, and deciding the optimal time to change up the lines is more challenging than it sounds.

6. Hockey is the best video game sport.

You can't write a sports article without stating something that will start a shouting match.

That said, the back-and-forth, fast-paced action of hockey has always lent itself well to digital sport. Tennis lacks the depth of hockey, and basketball lacks the brutality. Soccer is too slow, and football too lopsided of an experience.

In hockey, there are few breaks in the action for play-calls or boring kicks. Each team gets a turn on offense every few seconds, rather than having to wait for the other team to throw a touchdown first. Every position is equally important; even defenders can score game-winning goals, and the puck is passed around constantly.

Hockey has elements of action, strategy, and fighting games. Overtime periods and shoot-outs seem designed specifically for video games.

As a combined test of team cooperation and twitch-based decision making, NHL 09 holds its own amongst the best of online shooters. Even if you're not a fan of real hockey, it may well be worth a look purely based on its strength as a competitive, team-based multiplayer game.