I can't help but feel bad for 2K Sports. The classic adage of David versus Goliath works perfectly for comparing 2K to EA Sports. EA throws massive amounts of development resources at their NHL series every year and 2K Sports is understandably having a tough time keeping up, especially when you throw in the Wii version of NHL 2K (a platform that EA ignores for NHL games). It's clear that most of their time was spent trying to deliver a quality experience on Nintendo's system and the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions suffer in terms of innovation because of it.
For some reason social gaming has been brought to the forefront of this year's game in terms of design philosophy. Elements both good and bad arise because of this change. First, the good: You can invite your friends into any game mode that you want. If you're playing in franchise mode, it's nice and easy to invite your buddies in to play with you or against you. The same goes for exhibition games and pond hockey. It's a perfectly crafted, easy to use system that makes the multiplayer experience much more seamless than it has been in the past.
Sadly, along with the moniker of delivering a more "social experience" comes some detractors to simulation hockey. NHL 2K10 is a very offense-based game and one-timers and random luck are still the key to scoring. Even when I turned up the difficulty I was able to slap home shots to the upper-90 without much of a problem and the goalkeeper AI was never able to adjust to stop this from happening. Offense is simplified even further when you toss in the magnetic puck effect that permeates the action. Landing checks will send guys spinning around, even to their knees, but the puck will sometimes stay in their control. It doesn't make a lick of sense when you see it and it continues to get more and more annoying each time it happens.
Despite the annoying magnetic puck effect, my main complaint with the gameplay is the speed and lack of flow that is presented because of the feeling of skating in sand. Yes, there's still a turbo button (defaulted to the right trigger) but having to mash it to get any sense of speed is annoying on the ice. Real hockey players go all out for the few minutes that they're on the ice yet the ones you'll see in NHL 2K10 move at a snail's pace unless you mash on the right trigger. Also detracting from the realism are the animations. While they look good in motion, you can't break out of any of them so there are moments when you'll go for a poke or body check and your defenseman will be locked into the move for a half-second too long. The same goes for dekes when you have the puck. Pressing and holding the left shoulder button and jiggling the right stick still launches different offensive moves, but the fact that you're locked into them detracts from your number of options when trying to plant one squarely in the net.
As I mentioned above, the animations do look good despite the fact that they're not very flexible in their execution. You'll see new moves like stick lifts and stumble shots on the ice along with a plethora of new goalie animations that, while they don't improve their skills at minding your net, do look much better than what was in last year's game. Come to think of it, the same can be said for the entire visual presentation for NHL 2K10. It's been given a noticeable facelift from last year's effort and the change is welcome. It's clear that the developers spent the most time on the visuals and everything from player faces to jerseys to the fans in the stands is much improved. The best of the newly refined graphics is the framerate which, unlike NHL 10, never dips to show signs of slowdown no matter where the puck travels on the ice.
Another similarity between NHL 10 and NHL 2K10 is the fact that neither has a headlining mode to draw longtime fans into this year's game. NHL 2K10 still doesn't have the My Player mode that you'll find in NBA 2K10 and everything else from franchise, Team Up, exhibition and pond hockey has remained largely unchanged.
When you hop online you can still join a 2K league or do a quick Team Up game with a full roster of other players. My online performance was solid, but not great. When playing one-on-one there were no signs of lag, but as soon as we got a full team of twelve players on the ice the action suffered. The lag wasn't debilitating, but it was still an annoyance that should've been avoided (as is the case in NHL 10). Other cool online abilities include sharing your stats and standings in franchise mode, sharing game sliders with others, passing your created team off to another and making a highlight reel with 2K Reelmaker and sending it through the Interwebs. Reelmaker isn't the most intuitive mechanic in NHL 2K10, but it gets the job done well enough.
Franchise has likely seen the most changes from NHL 2K9, but it's still a relatively bare bones experience with no hiring or firing staff members, no trading mid-draft, and no scouting upcoming talent. The biggest change that you'll see to franchise mode is dynamic player progression. It's very cool to see your players get better after each season, but I can't help but think that some mid-season modification would have helped. If a player is on a hot streak I'd like to see his stats make the necessary jump. The rest of the cool touches that were in last year's franchise mode (like playoff beards) are in this year, and yes, you can still ride around Zambonis during intermission between periods.
Other presentational touches beyond the Zambonis include new picture-in-picture displays that pop up (unless you turn them off) to let you know when a penalty ends and when players sub in and out. Drew Remenda and Randy Hahn are back in the commentary booth and do a good job keeping up with the action. Their insights are always timed well with what's going on but they repeat too often and don't offer much depth. I'd like to hear some more general riffing that gives background information to the teams doing battle. The sound effects on the ice are a little over the top with slapshots that sound like a gun made its way into the game. Hits are just as noisy, but they're at least a bit more in line with what you're seeing in front of you.
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