By extension, good sports videogames must offer compelling abstractions of our expectations, whether our passion is for hardcore simulation, casual arcade action or a comfortable middle ground. The game that allows the player to make the choice between all three while maintaining a convincing level of sensory fidelity is usually the yearly winner in the buy-ours-not-theirs sweepstakes, which, for hockey fans over the last eight years, has automatically meant grabbing the latest offering from 2K Sports and heading for the door. Not so anymore.
As much as it surprises me, EA Sports has managed to leap several hurdles of suck in a fairly short span to become the favorite in the formerly crowded videogame hockey race. (I don't know where you went, 989 Sports, but wherever you are, I'm glad you're there.) With an aggregate review score of 91 percent to 2K9's 70 percent, EA's NHL 09 has opened a seemingly insurmountable lead over 2K's title, and it's done so not through its former ham-handed tactic of obtaining license exclusivity, but simply by making a better game.
Let me repeat that for those of you who've been paying attention over the last few years: EA Sports has won critical and financial acclaim by being better than the competition. Go figure.
Chief among the reasons for EA's on-ice achievement this year is the new "Be A Pro" mode, which puts you in control of a single player over the course of his career from the minors to the pros. It is, for me, the most compelling addition to any hockey game in recent memory, simply because - as a goaltender - it skillfully recreates the experience of standing between the pipes as the play rushes towards you, excitement and tension building in equal measure to a finale of success or failure with each shot.
There were times when every thump of the puck on my pads was a victory, when the snap of the glove bending back on my wrist was as much of a reward as I'd ever need. The same can be said for every great hockey videogame I've played. Winning and losing become secondary to the simple acts of scoring goals, rattling the boards with a jarring check or watching a spray of ice arc into the air after a quick stop.
This is the reason for the game, not simply winning (although I must say losing still blows), but picking up a skill and using it well, like nailing a well placed headshot or solving a challenging puzzle; not simply for the outcome, but for the enjoyment of being good at something you love.
Matt Turano wishes strife and calamity upon anyone who uses football metaphors in a business setting.