NHL 08 was a vast improvement over its predecessor, catapulting it to seven Game of the Year awards, so you’d expect expectations to be high with the release of NHL 09. What new and innovative features could EA deliver on what’s now considered the best NHL franchise. Initial impressions would say that not enough has been done, since many of the new additions might appear cosmetic, but digging deep you can find enough to confidently say that NHL 09 is still a superb hockey title and clearly worthy of any accolades.

First up is the new Be-a-Pro mode. This lets you experience a career using an existing player or creating one on your own. Create your own player and pick your favorite NHL team. You’ll then meet your coach and general manager, and have certain criteria that must be met before you’ll get called up from their AHL affiliate to the parent NHL team. The milestones are player specific; number of hits in a season, goals, assists etc. There’s also the new in-game notification screen that breaks down your performance after each shift, letting you know what you’re doing well and what you need to work on more. As your season progresses, if you do well you’ll get moved from the third line to the first line and eventually called up by the parent club. There’s always the chance you’ll be traded as well, which happened in my case. I went from the Hartford Worlfpack to the Florida Panthers, while it was a step up moving from the AHL to the NHL it was within a different organization. But that’s not all. A neat feature of the Be-a-Pro mode is the ability to take your player online and form a team with other users’ created characters. With NHL 09’s EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL), it’s possible to create teams of up to 50 players and join the league.

NHL 09’s on-line experience is rich and offers a lot of options, from the EASHL to regular leagues all sponsored by EA there’s so many options for players to choose from. For the single-player experience there’s the Dynasty Mode, which hasn’t received much of a facelift from last year. You’ll find more realistic player injuries, enhanced progress reports, and the new in-depth training regiments are all positive touches, but in the end it’s a near replica of last year. Which isn’t a bad thing really.

Some new tweaks have been added to the overall gameplay aspect. New moves include one-handed dekes, puck protection and the incredibly useful flip dump. Defense is also much more intuitive this time around thanks to the Stick Sweep, but occasional gliding and erratic sudden movements by your player make it more difficult to execute than you would expect. If you’re a fan of the older controller options then you’ll be glad to know that EA Sports has added classic controls where players can now choose to play with the controls from NHL ‘94. Now you can control everything with the simple push of two buttons, you can’t get any easier then that.

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t discuss my gripes with the game, which are minor but still relevant. Fighting is noticeably worse this time around, you can easily end a fight in one or two punches. Also, there’ aren’t enough penalties called with the default sliders. Other than this really there’s not much else to gripe about.

Overall, NHL 09 carries on the pedigree that has been set by NHL 08. The game looks, sounds and plays wonderfully. EA really hit the nail on the head with this game. If you’re a hockey fan then this is an absolute must buy. Casual sports fans will also enjoy playing the game, with so much to offer you might find yourself converted into a rabid NHL fan. It’s nice to see EA get it right, again.