This year has been one of the most impressive for EA Sports. NHL 09 is regarded as one of, if not the best hockey game ever created. The developers were wise with this year’s iteration spending most of their time tweaking the sore spots from the previous game, while still adding enough to make NHL 10 worthy of shelling out the dough once again this year. It may be a bold statement, and even a bit cliché, but the team has delivered yet again. NHL 10 is the best hockey game currently available on any console, and quite possibly the best sports game of 2009. If you are even remotely interested in the sport, you need to own this game.
Like I mentioned the on-ice action is mostly unchanged. Once you dive into a game you may not notice a difference, which is not entirely a bad thing. Last year’s game already played near flawlessly, and the right stick control, tons of controller options and smooth as butter player movement returns. The new additions mesh right into the action, but do add a significant amount of finesse to the game. The most notable additions are board battling and first person brawling. Both bring the authenticity of the game to a new level of realism.
Battling on the boards is as simple as pressing a button to pin you, or the opposing team player against the board. Here you can pass, steal and attempt new strategies with just one button and the analog stick. The one thing that amazes me the most is that this is one of the most common acts in the game, and it hasn’t been included in any previous incarnation. At first I found myself forgetting the option was there, but once you get more comfortable with it, it becomes second nature. I love the depth it adds to both your offensive and defensive strategy.
The other major addition is first-person fighting, which also ties in with the post-whistle action that you can now instigate. This allows you to take cheap shots on other players, finish up checks and of course pick a fight with another player. Fighting is initiated by holding down the designated button and you grab the jersey and it is time to throw down. You now have momentum in your punches, using the analog stick to draw back your fist delivers some punishing blows. You can tell the team spent an admirable amount of time on this mode. Things are still rough and some features are still surprisingly absent, but it is by far the best interpretation of dropping the gloves I have seen to date; not to mention the most satisfying.
Being a casual fan of the sport it was nice to see a wide array of gameplay options to choose from. You can opt for classic controls from NHL 94 and a host of other preset sliders, or even customize your own. The game speed changes drastically depending on which you choose, and really allows you to tailor the experience to your liking. The beauty of the multiple styles is that there is something for everyone; whether you enjoy the realism or just an arcade experience, you can find something to fit your needs. What I love most about NHL 10 is that the longer you play, the deeper you realize it really is. It isn’t one of those sports games that expects you to know everything from the beginning, but rewards you for learning the subtle nuances of the gameplay.
I had never been a big fan of the right stick analog control. I am sure it was because I had grown so customized to the traditional button press layout, but it never set well with me. This year I decided to give it another whirl, and I cannot go back. Much like last year being able to aim each shot and the power you sling the puck at the goalie, not to mention being able to deke the puck by sliding the analog stick left and right. It works flawlessly, and remains the best way to play the game by far. There are also a lot of tweaks that you may not notice without taking the time to appreciate them. Goalie AI is highly improved, precision passing is well implemented, and the integration of the crowd has been significantly enhanced. Everything about NHL 10 feels like a bigger, better version of the already perfect game of hockey.
Like any good EA Sports game there is plenty to keep you busy in NHL 10. The GM mode returns with a ton of new options such as hiring/firing staff, scout and even draft players. There is even a new reputation mode that tracks your relationships with other teams when trades are dealt. You could literally get lost just toying around with all the available options in the Be A GM Mode. Be A Pro also receives some updates with the Be A Tough Guy mode. This dictates one player on your team to be the aggressive man on the field. This includes starting fights and of course, protecting your best players. The one new mode to the game is called Battle for the Cup, and is exactly what it sounds like. You choose two teams and skip the entire season and go straight to the final showdown. It is nice for those who want to see how it would play out, but it feels more like a novelty than anything else.
The online offerings are just as substantial as the offline. Online season makes a return with the ability to link up with 30 players and play through the season on your own time. The EA Sports Hockey League also makes a return with monthly competitions and even unlockable gear. You can of course still play standard one-on-one games or link up with multiple players. The online runs relatively smooth with lag only rearing its ugly head in some of the Hockey League play. Of course you can also save your most impressive replays and upload them to the EA Sports servers to show to your friends.
Visually the game looks nearly identical to last year outside of some new animations. This is certainly nothing to scoff at as it still remains the best looking hockey game on the market. The frame rate holds up well enough during regular games, but during some of the Be A Pro modes it can begin to dip. Stadiums look great and the fan reactions have been improved, but for the most part the game remains highly unchanged from last year. Commentary is delivered with very little delay and the announcers have a wide array of dialogue to cycle through. The sounds on the ice are solid, but the crowd chants and noise steal the show, especially when playing with headphones or through a good sound setup.
NHL 10 is the epitome of hockey games. Granted the changes are not as revolutionary as last year’s game. What is here is the best experience a fan of the sport could ask for. 2K Sports has its work cut out for it, and my colleague will be reviewing their effort later this week. If you prefer EA’s take on the sport then NHL 10 is definitely going to please. Fans of hockey couldn’t be luckier, let’s just hope next year brings more innovation to the table.