-- Time again for the annual faceoff: Electronic Arts vs. 2K Sports. Both companies usher in the start of the professional hockey season with the releases of NHL 09 and NHL 2K9 respectively. Which one has the edge? Here's a closer look:
Competition thwarted, and it didn't require an exclusive licensing deal. Instead, Electronic Arts dominates the ice through innovation and a stellar level of control.
Much like they did with the Madden NFL franchise, EA takes career modes a step further with Be a Pro. When you first boot up, you create a player and receive a quick lesson on analog stick-handling.
Be a Pro uses experience points and leveling up to transform your rookie minor leaguer into an NHL MVP. Take my rookie center, for example. As a Playmaker, he rates high in passing stats but lower on shot power. I can take those points and shore up my slapshot weaknesses or further bolster my passing.
During games, your coach grades you on positioning, team play, and stats. The higher your overall grade, the more experience points you net. You'll also receive a short-list of goals you must achieve to reach new experience levels.
Each moment on the ice is viewed from a tighter third-person perspective. When your player steps off ice after a shift, he'll sit and rest up while watching your teammates. Think fights are fun? Not when you have to sit for five minutes peering through the glass of the penalty box.
Most intriguing is the ability to take your player online and develop him in online leagues via the EA Sports Hockey League. You'll play solely with human-controller teammates on clubs of up to 50 players.
On the ice, controlling players feels very natural. The shot stick is precise, allowing you deftly to maneuver the puck left and right as you deke defensemen. Tenacious computer opponents sweeten the reward of scoring goals. On offense, they're equally smart. Miss a body check, and your opposition faces the goalie unopposed. Keeping players in front of you becomes crucial.
The weak spot this season is fighting. Scraps are short. Two punches and the opponent is floored. No need to grab or dodge. Because hook and fight share the same button, you can find yourself in unintentional brawls. But that's the lone rough patch in an otherwise smooth, gratifying hockey experience.
Visual Concepts is used to owning EA in NBA circles, but it's got some work to do before approaching them in the NHL.
Taking over the series starting this season, the developer has created a solid hockey simulation in need of more creative ideas.
The most notable element to NHL 2K9 is its debut on the Nintendo Wii. With flicks of the remote, you fire off slapshots. Faking out defenders requires only a shake of the nunchuk. Defense is just as easy. Slash opposing forwards with the remote and deliver hard-hitting checks by shaking the nunchuk.
Passing is trickier. Using a target on the screen, you point to a spot on the ice with the remote and press a button to pass. Sounds simple enough. The tricky part is keeping track of your player while lining up the remote for the pass.
What's surprising about the Wii version is a lack of casual challenges. Other than a Zamboni driving mini-game and maybe the shootout, there's little else. The game would be more engaging with some simpler challenges to entice novices.
The action on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 is satisfying at times but not very memorable. The innovations touted most have been the Zamboni game and the debut of playoff beards.
On ice, the action is fun but could use some tweaking. Puck handling with the analog stick feels slow. Defenders aren't aggressive enough. Your defense boils down to one strategy: Body-check opponents into oblivion. Fighting now adds a neat balance dynamic, where you have to maintain your balance while throwing punches.
Online, 2K includes a Reelmaker feature to capture and share highlights. For the first time, players can also participate in online team matches with all human teammates and opponents.
All versions of the game also revamp the presentation with a slick broadcast television-style layout. Sideline reporters offer mid-game accounts while periods conclude with a polished highlight package.
Visual Concepts has a strong track record in hoops, so don't be surprised if they translate that success into hockey. Just don't expect it this season.