Sound the Horn!
EA heads back to the rink with NHL 10. After last year’s absolutely stellar offering, it’s hard to imagine they could come up with something better. However, lots of subtlety and care have gone into NHL 10 to make this the superior of the two. That being said, board play, crisper passing, more forgiving shooting, first-person fighting, and slightly tweaked game modes may not be enough incentive for everyone to upgrade. Though this is essentially the exact same game as last year’s offering with a few tweaks that further hone it beyond its already razor-like edge, hardcore fans of the sport and the franchise would be remiss not to slap down the $60.
If you haven’t purchased an entry in this franchise in the last few years, you owe it to yourself, your friends, and your gaming cred to run out and pick this title up. Seriously, this series represents perhaps the finest translation of a sport to video gaming. From the game’s outstanding, über-realistic presentation to the depth and natural feel of gameplay, this franchise is fun to its core. Going to the Stanley Cup with a friend on the coach, or putting a jackass from cyberspace head-first into the boards are some of the best virtual sports experiences around. Building on the quality already established in EA Canada’s previous handful of games, NHL 10 represents the pinnacle of the franchise.
The most noticeable gameplay improvement this year is the ability to score from anywhere. While there are still bread and butter positions and motion patterns found around the ice, you can score from pretty much anywhere unscripted. This is really refreshing, as it feels like you’re in control on offense rather than being subjected to the fickle pre-programmed whims of goaltender AI. Of course, this does mean extremely high-scoring affairs. Upon firing up the game and setting up my preferred gameplay settings in the “My NHL 10” menu, my first contest (on All-Star difficulty with four minute periods) resulted in me shellacking the computer-controlled Penguins 5-2 with my beloved Blackhawks at the United Center. In that game there were an additional four pucks turned away by the pipes (split evenly between the AI and me). Supposedly EA Canada has tightened up goaltending with better positioning, but I found I could abuse AI and human netminders on a much more consistent basis.
This trend continued throughout the time I spent with the title until I cranked it up to Superstar – that’s when I learned just how powerful (overpowered?) the new board play mechanics can be if not meticulously accounted for. Players can now dump the puck into the zone and fight for possession in the corners. Whether on offense or defense, holding the puck up in this way adds a tremendous amount of realism to the game. It also provides yet another layer of strategy to the title – one that was sorely missing from previous versions. As much as I love this new feature, it does feel a bit roughly implemented, as it is easy for defenders to unbalance the game through overuse. For example, it is very easy to hold up wingers along the boards at the blue line without any risk that you’ll get burned, because enacting the mechanic, even from a distance, essentially locks the defenseman on his target and paralyzes the winger, stopping his momentum. This really slows things down. Finesse players that were able to dominate play in NHL 09 by breaking out quickly are in for a rude awakening, as they’ll often be stymied in the neutral zone. Unless you get really good with the Skill Stick (I mean really good), prepare to dump the puck almost every trip down the ice against quality competition.
I also really enjoyed the ability to take out my frustrations on opposing players via the new first-person perspective fighting. Now, rather than the play ending with the whistle, you can instigate a little extracurricular fisticuffs at the touch of a button, even as the refs are collecting the puck to set up for a face-off. This means enforcers play a stronger role in the game, and it further adds to the simulation character of the title.
While I liked the realism of this first-person view, it would have been more satisfying and better controlled if a third-person, side-angle view was used – Fight Night Round 4 controls and perspective should be standard fighting mechanics across the EA-family of sports games. Nevertheless, putting your ungloved fist in an opposing Centerman’s face that’s working on a hat-trick is decidedly gratifying. Besides, you’ll soon get used to the simple dodge, punch, grab, and turtle-up commands, as they’re proficient if not ideal.
Modes of play are nearly identical to last year’s offerings. All of the tried and true options are back with only minor changes. New modes include Be a GM, Battle for the Cup, and Playoff Mode. Be a GM is really just a re-skinning of the Franchise mode – you take on the role of your favorite team’s GM, coach, and a top player over a 25 season period. This mode features a detailed, more in-depth way to play the game for the simulation strategists among you, but it doesn’t seem to be as streamlined as it needs to be for the console experience – if you like wading through interminable text screens with your D-pad, you probably aren’t planning on picking up NHL 10 anyway.
Battle for the Cup features classic gameplay, letting you pit two teams against each other in a 3, 5, or 7 game series and control all the outside parameters including cup type. Playoff Mode is essentially the same kind of mode, but you get take part in the entire post-season from any professional hockey league featured in NHL 10.
Outside of those options, other modes are more or less untouched. Online play is identical, except technical performance is notably enhanced – one of the few complaints experienced in last year’s version. Be a Pro now lets you customize your player character significantly more, going as far as including the Hockey Shop. This store lets you purchase unique equipment, customizing items, and even attribute enhancing packs for your Be a Pro and online player. While all these can be unlocked through in-game accomplishments, impatient players who want an edge can purchase the goods (such as RPG-like, attribute pack-slotted sticks) with real money – a smart economic decision by EA that may or may not play well with series vets.
Graphical presentation during play, on the surface, is the same as last year – in other words, it is excellent. However, stadium ambiance and player animations are far superior. EA claims they have injected “Playoff atmosphere” into every game, and I can attest to that. Crowds are unique, excited, and really add to the overall presentation. Loads of new player animations have been added to the mix, so the game really looks and feels like a true game of hockey. The only graphical hiccup is found in some of the player likenesses, not all of them have been given game-face treatment. On the aural side of things, EA always puts together a competent mix of contemporary jams. Furthermore, the commentary is once again spot-on (Gary Thorne’s got a golden voice), and stadium and on-ice sound effects are brilliant.
NHL 10 is one hell of a good hockey game. It nails playability, presentation, gameplay variety, online options, and realism. It also is one of the best local multiplayer sporting experiences available. As is the case with any annual update, the differences implemented, while significant, may not be compelling enough for many NHL 09 owners to upgrade. However, any self-respecting, hockey-loving gamer would do well to stay up to date.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Stadium atmospheres are great, and the addition of a ton more player animations are noticeable. 4.5 Control
If you liked the Skill Stick of NHL 09, you’ll be thrilled by the even tighter scheme this year and the pinpoint shooting controls – I just wish the Board Play modifier wasn’t so powerful. 4.6 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The soundtrack is as solid as ever, the stadium ambience and on-ice sound effects are perfect. The excellent commentary once again shows other sports games how it should be done. 4.6 Play Value
Tons of single-player, local multiplayer, and online modes keep things fresh. The incredibly entertaining gameplay will keep you coming back, however. 4.6 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.