This is a special time of year for hockey fans; the long summer is finally over, the Dany Heatley soap opera is at last settled and EA Sports’ yearly tradition of video-game hockey excellence has just arrived. NHL 10 hits the ice jam-packed with all the modes and features that fans have come to expect from the EA Sports brand, but does it surpass last year’s championship effort, or does this one belong in the sin bin?
One of the most daunting tasks facing NHL 10 is to fill the skates of its predecessor. NHL '09 received many ‘Sports Game of the Year’ awards and is regarded as the gold standard when it comes to virtual hockey. So it is only natural that the developers would want the overall experience to have the same ‘feel’, but this seems to come at the expense of making NHL 10 feel like a brand new game. All of the modes from ’09 make a comeback, while the new ‘Battle for the Cup’ mode allows you to dive right into the final game of the Stanley Cup finals and play for the ultimate trophy in sports. In addition to this you can also take on the 'Be a GM' mode which will allow you to build your franchise from the draft up, sign prospects and free agents and turn your team into a regular cup contender.
The controls have remained mostly the same as in previous instalments; when you are in possession of the puck, you move your player with the left stick and use the right stick to shoot. The harder you snap the stick, the harder your shot will be. To make a pass, simply point the left stick in the direction of the player you wish to receive the puck and press the right trigger (L2 for our Playstation friends). To attempt fancier moves like dekes or fakes, simply move the right stick left or right. When on defense, the right stick is used to check the puck carrier (or any other player if you really want an interference penalty). Also the right bumper (or L1) can be used to attempt a last-minute dive for the puck. It’s a pretty simple system that the uninitiated can grasp very quickly, but at same time the more experienced players will spend years perfecting. If the default control scheme isn’t to your liking, you can tweak and change it in any way you would like. You can even choose to play with the controls from NHL ’94 if you’re feeling nostalgic.
The game also comes pre-loaded with four gameplay pre-sets (known as ‘Game Styles’) that change the way the A.I. will play as well as how much the player controls vs what is handled automatically (not to be confused with the skill levels which remain; Rookie, Pro, All-Star and Superstar). These game styles are ‘Casual’, which feature lots of big hits, a pass assist that will complete most of your passes and an overall more ‘arcade’ like experience. ‘Default’ will use the player’s attributes to determine who is more likely to throw a big hit and who is going to take a booming slap shot. ‘Normal’ is the game style that is used in both the online multiplayer and EA Sports Hockey League (E.A.S.H.L.). With this option enabled, the gameplay is slowed down a notch and the pass assist turned down even further. Finally, ‘Hardcore’ represents a true hockey re-creation, with no pass assist, realistic hitting, and penalties to fit every call.
With over 200 tweaks, such as making the goaltender A.I. more responsive and intelligent and the ability to still control the puck from your knees, NHL 10 is the most realistic hockey videogame of all time. Also new to the ice this season is full 360° passing, which finally lets us pass the puck in any direction, even bouncing it off the boards and chipping it off opposing players. This is a very welcome feature but one that takes some getting used to, especially if you played previous entries in the series, as getting the pass precision just right can be tricky, especially on the ‘Hardcore’ preset. Also new and highly touted by EA is board play. Now, when an opposing player has the puck and is skating near the boards, you have the option of simply pressing the Y (▲) button and your player will pin him to the boards. Then you can either use the bumpers (L1, R1) to try to kick the puck loose or have one your teammates come in and try to poke the puck out. Again, this is a very welcome feature, though it seems to have taken the place of hitting as more often than not the game will assign you a penalty for hitting the player along the boards instead of pinning him, which tends to bring the overall pace of the game down. Speaking of penalties, NHL 10 seems to have gone a bit overboard with these, calling you on infractions rarely seen in real life at an alarming rate. Seriously - when was the last time you saw someone get called for spearing? It’s not all bad, though, as you can now start scrums after the whistle, which can go on for quite some time. Be warned that these scrums will usually lead to roughing calls or maybe even fights…
Ah yes, fights - probably the single biggest change from the NHL '09 formula. Instead of the usual third-person fisticuffs that we were used too, this year's edition features first-person fighting. As a fight begins, you zoom into the eyes of your player and start exchanging blows by rapidly flicking the right stick. You can also tug on your opponent’s jersey to try to throw him off balance and wind up for a power punch. It even goes as far as giving you the option to turtle (duck out of a fight) if you don’t want that particular player gone for the full five minutes (as long as he didn’t throw a punch). The whole affair kind of resembles a 'Fight Night lite'. The effects when you get hit of your player losing his vision gradually are very sharp, and the sounds of punches landing sound ‘meaty’ and realistic. However it seems that fights are just over way too quick, and the strategy of tugging at your opponent and trying to get the high arm on him is gone. This means that what it all boils down too is a stick mashing contest. Also, what’s with all the jerks online who only want to fight?
Speaking of online, NHL 10 comes with all the modes that were featured in NHL '09. You can play a quick game online, or take on a whole season, be it alone or with friends. You also have the choice of importing your own created player from the ‘Be a Pro’ mode and creating an online team with friends. The E.A.S.H.L. also got a revamp; now every month teams will have a chance to go for the cup and try to earn the title of 'Best Squad'. You can also buy (with Microsoft points / your PSN account) new equipment for players and goalies that will boost their stats and allow them to make prettier saves, bigger hits and nicer plays. When all is said and done, the online is very well implemented, with all the features you would expect, like updated rosters and new jerseys to download. However, it does seem to be a bit more unstable than last year’s edition, with more lost connections, not just in games but while browsing menus. (Note: this is based on the Xbox 360 version). The offline multiplayer is what you would expect. You can go into-a-head to head match against up to six friends (only four on the Xbox 360, sorry), or tackle a full season in co-op mode.
The visuals are obviously taken straight from last year’s game, with a few clean-ups and some polish added to the players' faces and the menu interface. However, while the graphics may not have seen a serious improvement, the atmosphere has gone from a junior hockey pre-season game to a full NHL playoff experience. When you score a goal, the fans will jump out of their seats and cheer. Pin a guy to the boards? Some guy who’s had a few too many $10 beers will start banging on the glass (probably shouting something inappropriate, too). And when your team finally makes it to the post-season, fans will start waving towels and be much louder then usual. It all comes together very nicely and really makes NHL 10 the closest you can get to being in a tense hockey atmosphere short of actually going to a game.
Reprising their roles as commentators for NHL 10 are Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, and once again the argument can be made that while their scripts are solid, there's just too much repetition in the dialogue. You can tell EA added some new turn of phrases for the same situation so that player won’t be hearing the same play-by-play over and over again. However, if you are going to be play through an entire season, get ready to for some serious déjà vu when it comes to the color commentary.
When I first saw the soundtrack for NHL 10, I was immediately excited. With bands like Alexisonfire, Green Day, Cancer Bats and Papa Roach, the music in this year's game is a metal head’s dream. However, as any fan of heavy metal will tell you, not everyone shares your enthusiasm for head banging and screeching vocals, which can turn some people off NHL 10’s hard rock-oriented soundtrack. Thankfully, EA included a feature that allows users to import their favourite tunes into the game. So, if you were so inclined, you could make your team's goal song anything from the new Kanye single to Kate Perry’s 'Hot and Cold' (cringe).
Now here’s the sticking point for me: while NHL 10 does see some improvements over 2009’s edition, is it enough to justify the $59.99 price tag? The gameplay refinements, such as board play and first-person fighting are very welcome additions to the roster, but the rest of the game just seems like NHL '09 with a bit of polish thrown on for upkeep. Luckily, the game does come jam packed with features and modes that will more than last you till next season when NHL 11 hits. If by that point EA Sports still hasn’t made enough changes to justify the price, then it might be time to move onto greener pastures.
NHL 10 is a great game. It’s a faithful recreation of Canada’s national sport and definitely a game deserving the attention of not just hockey fans, but sports fans and gamers alike. But be warned, if you played last year's edition, there will be moments on the path to Lord Stanley’s mug that will leave you with serious déjà vu. And that’s NHL 10’s biggest downfall - it’s that NHL '09 was so good we were left expecting the next great one. Here’s hoping EA Sports realises this and makes the next hockey game the one to once again lift the cup.