When making a sports game, or any game for that matter, developers are trying to build the best experience possible. And while winning prestigious game of the year awards is all anyone can hope for their creation, the bar is then set almost impossibly high for the next iteration in the series.
Such is the case with NHL 10, a title that must live up to the twelve sports game of the year awards that NHL 09 garnered. While I won't say that NHL 10 is a step in the wrong direction for the series, it doesn't bring as much innovation as last year's hockey offering from EA Sports and will likely be met with malice from naysayers because of that fact. That withstanding, NHL 10 is still a worthy successor and one that makes slight changes and additions to the established formula.
The core gameplay and game modes have remained largely unchanged, which is a good thing as anyone who played last year's game knows. When you first step onto the ice in an exhibition game you'll swear you're playing NHL 09, but that will quickly change as you spend more time with it. For starters, you have the new ability of board play (i.e. sandwiching another player into the board and grappling for the puck) that helps bring the look of the on-screen action closer to reality. There were times when I felt as though my player was being sucked into the board play and it wasn't happening all that naturally, while other instances made total sense and flowed well with the rest of the game. As I got better at the game I was able to steer clear of unnecessary board play by angling my skating away from the outer edges of the rink, so that helped lessen the feeling of being sucked in by the mechanic.
Fighting has also been revamped into a first-person melee with another skater. Since I first saw this mechanic back at E3 I haven't been much of a fan. Fighting from a first-person vantage point in a hockey game simply feels unnatural and the experience, though improved from what I originally saw, is still too forced. Punches don't have much of an impact and the fact that there's no bruising and bloodying (knocking helmets off is as close as you'll come) because of NHL restrictions is a real bummer.
Other changes on the ice are more finite but not all are for the betterment of the gameplay. This year players have the ability to hit pucks out of the air for highlight-reel goals. They're tough to score, but when you do it'll be a video you'll want to save and upload to EA Sports World. Post-whistle play allows for players to jaw and check each other for a few seconds after the whistle blows (this is how most of your fights will start). The AI (artificial intelligence) does a good job of sticking up for their teammates, but if you skate around and ruffle feathers for just a few seconds everything on the screen degrades to a free-for-all. What you get isn't so much aggressive hockey as it is a street brawl on ice. Occasionally there will be roughing penalties handed out, but more often than not the refs turn a blind eye to your shenanigans.
Probably the biggest change to the gameplay is the addition of preset game styles. While it's true that the new styles don't inherently change the way you play NHL, they do change the type of hockey that you'll be playing in order to suit your tastes. There's casual, default, normal and hardcore styles. They change the hits you'll see, they change the speed of the game significantly, they change passing accuracy and how often penalties will be called. You can go beyond the preset styles and create your own through the use of sliders, but what's already on the disc provides for a good starting point to craft your own brand of hockey.
Problems from last year's game also infect NHL 10 when on the ice. The first and most notable is the issue of artificial intelligence. I had several instances of opponents making passes back and forth when the two players are three feet apart on the ice. I'd just sit back and watch as the puck was traded back and forth three or four times while the players are an arm's reach from one another. Defensive play could also use more tuning. I once had a defenseman make a pass across the face of my goal, but wound up hitting the goalie in the skate. All I could do was watch as the puck went sliding into my own net. Goalies will also make ill-advised trips out of the goal area even when the other team is looming. My first goal with my created player was an intercepted pass from the goalie and a quick wrister straight into the wide open net.
I don't mean to harp on the negatives with NHL 10 because the fact remains that this is still the best hockey you're going to see on any system, but the lingering issues are tough to take. Most of the time what you'll see closely resembles real life pros, but there are instances of inaccuracies that really should've been corrected.
In the way of new game modes, there really aren't many to talk about. Rather there are less substantive additions that have been tacked on to pre-existing modes. Battle For The Cup is a prime example. Essentially it lets you jump ahead to the Stanley Cup Finals with any two teams you like. This is in addition to the standard Playoff Mode and the "new" Season Mode – the latter of which now allows you to play with up to 30 total players. All of these "new" modes aren't really new at all, instead they present elements that should've been included in past NHL efforts but weren't.
Thankfully there are a few new trinkets to modes that were in last year's game that are worthy of discussion. Be A GM and Be A Pro – probably the meatiest modes in NHL – have both seen some nice revisions and improvements. Be A Pro now has Be A Tough Guy which allows you to take the reins as one of your team's toughest players. It doesn't change the core Be A Pro dynamic in any substantial way – you're still playing as one player on the ice and trying to complete goals to advance your attributes – but now you'll have added incentive to lay the hurt on key opponents and defend your superstars.
Be A Pro also has the all-new hockey shop where you'll be able to either purchase new and enhanced pieces of equipment or earn them through on-ice achievements. I'm glad that these boosters weren't pay-only as we've seen from other EA Sports games. The ability to set goals like scoring three times in a period and then earn attribute boosts through fancy new equipment is definitely a welcome change.
GM Mode – now called Be A GM Mode – has some new managerial elements that pan out well as you progress in your career. There's new trade logic and a reputation system that is designed to stop you from trying to screw over teams with shoddy trade offers. Even if you sneak one by the AI your reputation with that team will falter if the traded player doesn't meet expectations. The reputation system and GM Tracker work well with the mode, but you'll occasionally be forced into a bad trade so you don't lose reputation points.
The Tracker supplies goals for you to complete throughout your career and you'll earn new hockey cards and milestones as you progress. Elsewhere in Be A GM you'll hire staff, put players on the trading block, and scout upcoming stars. Every AHL team is in the game and you'll have total control over that club as well, including the option to play their games. Be A GM is well-rounded and includes small additions that help push things forward nicely.
One aspect of Be A GM Mode that disappointed me was the storylines that were supposed to work their way into gameplay. My team once went through three straight games that all ended in shootouts and yet none were called out by the announcers. Granted you will get quips from the duo in the booth if you injure an opposing player in the playoffs, but the depth of storylines could've been better in order to up the ante in terms of presentation authenticity.
EA Sports Hockey League is making its triumphant return in NHL 10 and it performs just as well as it did last year. You can join up and play with five of your friends just as easily as last year and the on-ice performance is identical. Sadly that means that you'll also get moments of slowdown when the puck works its way into the corner and on pretty much any instant replay. Thankfully lag was never an issue and your coach's insight to your play made sense for the most part and should help keep nomadic players in line. Other online options include the ability to play standard twelve-player games along with regular one-on-one contests.
Visually the game looks fantastic with awesome player model details and animations. There has clearly been several new moves added, namely in the way of goalkeeper leaps and swats. You'll now see keepers spinning around, flopping around on the ground, slapping at pucks in the air and attempts at making other stylish saves. My biggest complaint with the graphics is that the framerate is still subpar. In Be A Pro you'll notice significant drops whenever the puck is dealt to the corner and instant replays have a tendency to resemble slideshows.
On the audio side you'll find the same solid commentary from Gary Thorne and Bill Clement as have been in past years. They occasionally fall behind when trying to keep up with the action, but for the most part the two handle things admirably. On-ice effects are solid as well with checks delivering an adequate amount of crunch and crowds that sound nicely authentic. My one complaint with the sound effects is that hard slapshots don't echo through the arena like they should. The soundtrack is standard EA Sports fare, but the fact that you can add your own custom music to different scenarios in the game is an awesome bonus.
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