Time travel just became possible, at least for hockey fans. Toss NHL 2K9 into an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3 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. While the game still gives you a good challenge, it seems like what remains of the realistic NHL 2K games of the past is being slowly erased.
Close-quarters action makes games feel a little too uncomfortably like the old clutch-and-grab era.
Modes of play are almost identical to those offered in 2007, with the addition of Zamboni races between periods (you'll try this option once, then forget 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. None of these options will be more than moderately diverting, however. The minirink is so small that games are nonstop breakaways from one end to the other, while 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. Ah, nothing says "outdoor hockey" like the synthetic bang of Plexiglas.
Franchise and Season modes haven't really changed. 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 popping up only on demand, and while this looks clean, there are no permanent onscreen icons indicating 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 you need is buried. The biggest problem is the lack of a central hub screen where you can get a quick look at all the big news from across the league. You shouldn't have to go looking for vital information like who's been dumped to waivers, who's been traded, and who's gone to the injured reserve list.
At least multiplayer has been significantly overhauled. You can now play full six-on-six games with up to 11 other human players online on both the 360 and the PS3 in Team-Up mode, and take part in online leagues and tournaments. All of the online options seem to run smoothly. Lag is completely nonexistent on both the 360 and PS3, and getting into matches is trouble-free provided you can find an opponent.
The Zamboni races are new, but they're hardly a compelling reason to upgrade from last year's game.
Controls have been revised somewhat successfully. Visual Concepts has reversed last year's changes in this department, revamping the fiddly control system introduced in NHL 2K8 that shifted passing and shooting to the 360 gamepad's bumpers and the PS3's R1 and L1 buttons. You can now choose among three control options--basic, pro-stick evolution, and hybrid. The focus is on hybrid, as the new game emphasizes "bringing the fun back" to hockey gaming through simplified control schemes. What this really amounts to is a merging of button controls with the pro-stick so that you can switch between the two on the fly. This actually works extremely well, as there are moments when you'll want to snap shots off quickly with the buttons, and other times when you'll want to stickhandle and deke with the right stick.
All the control customization in the world can't help NHL 2K9 on the ice, though. Awkward speeds are the biggest issue, with an odd disconnect between the timing of player reactions and sheer skating ability. Players seem sluggish when winding up for a slapshot, throwing a wrister on net, or simply navigating around a defenseman, but their feet are always moving at a fast clip. This results in disjointed play where even the most nimble NHL stars like Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg seem fleet-footed yet downright klutzy. As a result, there are a lot of broken plays, particularly involving train-wreck collisions that cause unnecessary offsides, and a general clutch-and-grab feel that breaks up the flow so crucial to any hockey game. The new fighting system is the only place where players are as dexterous as real pro athletes, yet it's a waste here because there isn't any weight to your punches (making it hard to tell when you actually connect), and the balance mechanic is too gimmicky and erratic to properly simulate a hockey fight.