There's a distinct advantage that comes with being one of a kind on a given system. Usually, having only one game to fill a given niche is rare, but that's a luxury that NHL 2K9 on the Wii enjoys. At present, there are no other true simulation-style hockey games on the system. Thankfully, the game is a good effort.
The true draw here is, of course, Wii control. 2K Sports has put forth a decent first effort with the Wii control, and much of what is implemented is good. As was true of the preview version, the shooting waggle is a little trite, but the rest of the motions—goalie control and fighting, most notably—work well for the most part. Only the checking motion, which requires a forward thrust with both the nunchuck and the Wii remote, feels awkward.
The I.R. passing mechanic is the best element of the Wii control implemented, and will likely be the one feature which all future Wii hockey games adopt. Being able to select players or a specific on-ice area at the point of the remote is an incredible advantage that other consoles just can't match, and it genuinely makes the game of hockey a little more interesting and strategic, as you have more control over where the puck winds up.
As you might expect, the game's local multiplayer options makes for a good time with all the motions. When the checks do work, it can be very satisfying to land a crushing blow on your friend, and the fighting is a ton of fun. Shootouts also become more fun given the infusion of skill and timing by the motion control goaltending. And though the staple mini-games didn't make the cut, the addition of a mini-rink mode and a pond hockey mode do mix things up when playing with friends. Online would have been nice, but hopefully it'll be added for next year's version.
For all the good, though, those who sink some coin into the title will have to take a hearty helping of bad. At virtually every stage, NHL 2K9 is lacking that extra polish. While the staple modes are included, there are few extras to play with outside of the meager multiplayer games and the standard season and franchise fare. Not helping matters is the fact that the franchise mode itself is also relatively shallow when compared to the scope and scale of the game's bigger brothers on other consoles. This is supposed to be offset by new "fun" features like playoff beards and manually-controlled Stanley Cup celebrations, but these parlor tricks do little to hide the fact that some aspects of the game are lacking.
Nowhere is this more prominent than the visual presentation. If you've grown used to playing the recent iterations of the series, prepare to return to the days of the PS2. Rough around the edges would be an apt descriptor, thanks to the aliasing issues, but low-poly crowds, canned animations, some wonky hit detection, and bouts of slow-down all crop up at one point or another, too. And while the menus work, they do so sluggishly and with a distinctly dated feel. It's one thing to unrealistically expect HD-caliber graphics from the Wii, it's another entirely to expect a functional game that plays smoothly; NHL 2K9 disappoints on this front.
While I'm certainly enjoying my time with NHL 2K9, it's very much a Red Steel type of experience, in that it's the best effort so far but will surely be surpassed almost immediately. This is all we've got for hockey on the Wii at present, and the essentials are handled well enough, but there's no question that a ton of room for improvement exists. The best thing about NHL 2K9 is that it has opened the door for more hockey games on the Wii. Hopefully EA answers the call now, and 2K Games answers right back next year. In the mean time, though, NHL 2K9 will suffice.
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Platform: Wii (also on 360, PS3, PS2)
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