The NHL was on the ropes a couple years ago. After a strike completely eliminated a season, it took a bevy of young, exciting players to lift it back up among America's most popular sports. During this same time, the team at EA completely revamped its NHL product, and last year, NHL 09 won just about every sports game of the year award. It will be difficult for this year's game to improve, but the developer is taking the ice for a run at a repeat anyway.
When we reviewed NHL 09 we wondered just how it would be possible for the series to keep that kind of momentum the next year. Now that NHL 10 is here, it appears that EA was faced with the same question. There's very little new added to the design this time around.
The additions come in the form of truncations of other modes. Battle for the cup lets you pick two teams and throw down for Lord Stanley's Cup in one, defining series. The new playoff mode is basically the same thing. It cuts to the chase and eliminates all the trials and tribulations required to reach the postseason. The last addition is season mode, where you have one year to make it all happen. All of these amendments are clearly targeted at the casual player who doesn't have the time to spend weeks trying to hoist the cup.
The rest remains basically the same. The big addition from last year, be a pro, returns. Here you create a player, begin in the minor leagues, and hope to build your rep to a point where you're called up to play with the big boys. You only play your games from that player's perspective, but just like in Madden, the excellent sim options keep things from getting dull. It's a long grind to make the NHL and win the cup in this mode, but it's great to see your player rise up the ranks to become elite. One twist is that you can acquire equipment that has slots. You can then place attributes into those slots to shape your player's abilities even further.
If you're in for the long haul there's the be a GM mode, which lets you handle all the minute details of running an NHL franchise both on and off the ice for 25 consecutive seasons. When you take the game online you can play six-on-six with every player on the ice being controlled by a human, tackle online leagues with the option of having month-long seasons to lessen the commitment, or duel a friend in an online shootout or full game.
The NHL series has definitely reached the point of diminishing returns. We wondered what more they could do after last year's robust outing, and as it turns out, it's not much. The new additions are primarily shortened versions of already-existing modes, yet it's still difficult to find a sports game with more meat.
While the design has been primarily left alone, the gameplay has definitely received a lot of attention. Some of it is for the better, and some of it's not. Board play has never really appeared in a hockey video game even though it's an integral part of the real sport. That's been rectified, and then some, with NHL 10. When multiple players get near the puck around the boards a scrum will ensue and you have the ability to jockey for the puck and try to kick it to a teammate. While true to the sport, who wins and loses these battles feels a little random and trying to pass the puck out to teammates is precarious at best.
Funny business after the whistle is nothing new to hockey video games, but NHL 10 actually ties it into the gameplay with repercussions. Give an opponent a face wash, take a shot on goal after the whistle, or deliver a late check and prepare to be visited by the other team's tough guy. Once you're locked up with someone a fight is just a button press away, but after the novelty wears off you'll realize that fighting only hurts your chances at victory. Ultimately, it just slows the game down as it waits a few seconds after each whistle to see if players will square off, but again, it adds an element of the real sport that has been missing.
Once you decide to drop the gloves you're treated to another new addition, first-person fighting. Dare we say that it's the first time that video game hockey has got it right. Pulling jerseys for leverage while trying to deliver an overhand right feels great, though the computer could certainly improve on its technique. This is true throughout as you'll need to play on the harder difficulty settings to get a decent game, and then the computer just passes the puck around the zone like a hot potato, making for some amusing moments.
The final big change to the gameplay is the altered puck physics. Yeah, we've heard this before with hockey video games, but you'll definitely see the difference here. Pucks that are dumped into the zone behave unpredictably as they bounce off the boards making them difficult to corral. You'll also see a much wider variety of goals as the puck careens off the goalie and pipes more realistically. This does come at a price, however. There are lots of goofy moments where the puck doesn't do exactly what it should, and the computer is much better at predicting rebounds due to restrictive camera angles.
The final tweak to the gameplay is the ability to remain in control of the puck while sliding along the ice. Real players have been doing this for years, and you'll be surprised at how much authenticity it brings to the table during breakaways.
The meat and potatoes of play remain. Skating is smooth, passing is accurate, and it's still one of the most complex video games you'll ever play. There are lots of instances of having to hold one button while pressing another, and with the speed of NHL hockey it's undoubtedly a challenge. If it's too much you can always go to the classic setting, but then you're missing a lot of what makes NHL 10 so great.
Checking was toned down in last year's game and it appears to be even less effective this time. It's rare that you knock another player down, and if you don't then they'll recover from the check at the same rate you do-making it difficult to take possession. The poke check would seem to be the answer to this, but it's even more difficult to control the puck afterwards. The solution is lifting the stick--something that became so prevalent in NHL 09 online games that they were comical to watch. It's the same deal here. If you want to take the puck without losing speed you have to use it.
While the design went basically untouched, a lot has gone into the gameplay so that it more closely replicates the real game. Purists will absolutely eat it up, but more casual players who just want to play a fun game of hockey will look at some of the additions as lulls in the action.
These yearly sports franchises rarely get huge overhauls in presentation and the same is true here. The crowd has seen a massive improvement, though, and arena-specific chants are far more accurate, but that's where most of the improvements end. Some player faces look pretty good, but in the cases where they were unable to get the real face in the game it's like they didn't even try to build someone that looks close to the real thing. Animation has seen a decent bump with players wringing their hands after slashes, checking their stick blades, or otherwise acting like real hockey players between the whistles. The game also runs at a nice clip, eliminating some of the slowdown from last year's game.
The announcing still could use some work as some situations are still called wrong and there are plenty of repetitive phrases, but you'll hear a lot more long-winded passages this year where Bill Clement will go over the history of a given franchise or player. Custom soundtracks allow you to pick your own music, but you can also expect the usual guitar rock that accompanies EA's NHL action.
There's no doubt that NHL 10 has been shaped to appeal to more casual fans by giving them the ability to cut straight to the chase. Yet, for the hardcore hockey fan, there's even more realism and depth. Not all of the additions make the game more fun or fair, but they're steps in the right direction towards making an already excellent sports game peerless.