EA’s NHL franchise has been around for almost as long as the Madden franchise, which means they’ve had many years to refine and hone the simulated feel of hockey with the added benefit of tremendously enhanced hardware. As we progress through this generation, gamers are looking for more significant alterations to each year’s sports installments and while NHL 10 doesn’t appear to be much different than NHL 09 on the surface, you will quickly recognize and appreciate the variety of upgrades and enhancements sprinkled throughout this new production. Perhaps the best part is that these enhancements are not focused on the graphics and sound; the positive alterations revolve around the gameplay and overall player customization and freedom, which should satisfy the hardcore fans. With everything from classic and old-school control schemes to the all-new Style selections that change the speed, pacing and depth of the gameplay, NHL 10 is a very strong effort.
Visually, this game is slightly better than last year’s iteration, as the animations are a bit more fluid throughout and the background detailing – from the excited fans to the arena effects – is also a bit more appealing. The facial expressions and character designs still seem a trifle lackluster and not quite as clean and polished as we’d like (this becomes even more evident in that first-person fighting mode), but other than that, there’s plenty of accomplished prettiness floating about the rink. The Action camera mode will give you the best possible look at how EA has worked to refine even the smallest aspects of this presentation, right down to the blade marks on the ice. Some replays are prone to a bit of jerkiness and aren’t as intense as we might’ve expected, but we always appreciate the level of polish that is commonly applied to EA Sports’ productions. At some point in the future, we assume they’re going to continue to work on the character models but in the meantime, what we have is more than solid.
The sound is even better and it remains the highlight of NHL 10 . This is all thanks to the on-ice sound effects that are both crisp and accurate, and the excellent commentary that impressed us with its diversity and timeliness. So often in past sports productions, the announcers aren’t always on top of every play but they’re rarely off in this game, and they’ll even recall important plays as the match moves forward. It’s really excellent. The soundtrack (usually only heard outside the gameplay, of course) consists of classic and hard rock tracks that are surprisingly fitting, and everything from a hard wrist shot smacking into the goalie’s glove to a rousing check against the boards is professionally implemented. The background sound of the assembled crowd adds even more intensity to the experience and all in all, the auditory impact in NHL 10 is both significant and downright necessary. If you’ve ever been to a NHL game, you know how important sound is in that arena…
We’ll assume that most hockey fans who have played past entries in this series are familiar with the standard stuff, and that includes Player and Team Creation, devising of various strategies, online play, Play Now and Season modes, the return of Precision Passing, etc, etc, etc. But how’s about the new stuff? When I first jumped into a Play Now session to get an idea of the gameplay, I realized that I was presented with the option of changing the controls to “NHL 94.” Unbelievably enough, I actually have NHL ‘94 sitting next to my SNES in the bedroom! Of course, back then, we only used two buttons – one to shoot and one to pass; conversely, one of those buttons would check a player – and yes, you can choose to take that simplified approach in NHL 10 . I had fun doing this but although I’m often annoyed at the over-complication of controls in sports simulators these days, I was quickly forced to admit that the default settings just afforded me more control over the game. If they didn’t , something would be seriously, crucially wrong.
That’s just one example of the many new features. First and foremost, we’ll deal with the one you’ve probably heard about: the option to instigate a fight, and then participate in that fight via first-person mode. It’s exactly what it sounds like; you just press triangle after the whistle (we’ll get into Post-Whistle Action in a moment) and that’s when the camera zooms in and lets you duke it out with your opponent. The left analog stick dodges incoming punches while you throw your own punches with the right analog stick. Obviously, there’s no real “winner” in a fight as you will be penalized regardless of who ends up on the ice, but it’s still entertaining. However, this leads me to the first problem I have with the game: the Post-Whistle Action essentially means the game never stops – which is great – but what else is there to do but cause trouble? And I saw way too many instances where “Post-Whistle Action” simply downgraded into ice-wide free-for-alls.
I’m just not sure it’s necessary, even though I suppose it contributes to the game’s authenticity and realism. But all the other fresh additions are almost 100% positive: you can now jump directly into the Playoffs with any team you like and better yet, you can skip ahead directly to the Stanley Cup Finals. You can opt to be a “Tough Guy” (the ultimate leader of a hockey team), experience the new Precession Passing that lets you lead other players with passes, and execute pinpoint accuracy on the ice. The game will even slow down to let you gain a better grip on this, which brings me to the new Styles: you’ve got Casual (easy passes, big hits, more scoring), Default (player skill dictates performance), Normal (gameplay slowed down slightly; it’s what you’ll see when online), and Hardcore (full Precision Passing, more penalties). This is akin to the difficulty sliders you’ll find in the Madden franchise, and the altering Styles lets you play almost however you see fit. A very nice addition.
The other aspect of the game I very much enjoyed is that it doesn’t sacrifice hardly any depth and yet still remains accessible. You’ll find this out as soon as you complete the basic tutorial; it’s not so much about learning the controls, it’s more about mastering them, like any quality game. You can shoot easily with the right analog (and aim with the left analog, as usual); all you have to do is flick it up to shoot, or pull it back and then flip it up for a more powerful shot. “Deking” is as easy as moving the right analog back and forth while skating forward, and in this year’s installment, we get to pin dudes into the wall with the Triangle button. Once pinned there, you can release the button and press R1 to try to tap the puck away, or if you’re the one against the wall, you can pass it out of there with R2…just don’t expect it to be too accurate. You can kinda aim but as the boards are about two inches from your nose, it only makes sense that finding a teammate for a good pass can be challenging.
There really isn’t much you can’t do. But before I conclude, I’m forced to mention a few of the drawbacks; first, the camera options. I found only one of them really functioned the way I wanted it to (the Classic angle); all the others always seemed to leave the action behind. When skating up the ice in Action mode – which I would normally use – your players will outpace the camera very quickly, giving you very little in the way of vision. Broadcast angle is okay, but that’s only if you want to play left to right, which few video game hockey fans will be used to. The other problem is that EA still hasn’t managed to institute decent AI. Far too often, the goalie will chase the puck behind the net or simply let an errant puck slide past him (seemingly without even noticing), and the offensive AI never felt accurate or dynamic enough. They all do pretty much the same thing and sometimes, they’ll get stuck in these long, tedious passing modes that are basically useless.
But that’s about where the complaints end. The characters move fluidly and realistically on the ice, EA didn’t go overboard with the momentum physics, the sheer amount of control options that allow you to play with as much complexity or simplicity as you desire is a huge bonus, the new gameplay modes are great additions, the authenticity combined with the accessibility is top-notch, and the online play works well. If you really want to dive right in, you can play with up to 12 players online and really have yourself a blast. I experienced some minor server difficulties and of course, there aren’t a huge number of players online just yet, but the possibilities are almost endless and online matches don’t feel stripped down in comparison to the single-player modes. Of course, EA did have to pick one Style for everyone to use when online, and that’s Normal, so it shouldn’t annoy too many fans. Players in all stages of the game react realistically; they fatigue, they bobble passes, they fall down, and in general, they appear as players would actually appear on TV.
NHL 10 is just about everything we expected, plus a little bit more. We will be taking a look at the competition – NHL 2K10 – later this week, but it’s safe to say that EA’s effort has definitely set the mark. Keep a close eye out for our next hockey review before you decide which game to purchase, but if 2K delivers, you could be faced with an awfully difficult decision…