Hockey may be the fourth of the big four professional sports in North America, by a long way, but as a video game it has often been number one. NHL 10 continues the trend. Like the sport’s highest paid power forwards, it’s big, has a good helping of flair, a bit of a mean streak and a nice sense of the dramatic.
The main problem is it’ll always be compared to last year’s model. NHL 09 got a lot of praise for its gameplay and realism as well as introducing some great new features. In this year the European leagues are still there, you can also still use the NHL 94 control system, and there are all those gameplay and AI tweaks that come along every year and are generally buried away under a truck load of checking, dekeing and scoring animations. Although NHL 10 brings its own list of new features, if you have NHL 09, it’s probably not enough to warrant the price of a new game. However, if you haven’t bought an NHL game in a while, NHL 10 is a fantastic game and well worth the investment.
Actually, there are a few things new to the franchise. There is now a first person fight mini-game. When the play is whistled dead pressing the triangle button will, depending on your position, either clip some opposing player across the back of the head or rub your glove right in their face. If they don’t want to fight they’ll get some help from their teammates. But, if they want to fight then the gloves come off and the action moves to the first person. With the left stick you can dodge punches and tug on the other guy’s jersey, while the right stick controls the direction and timing of your punches. It’s all pretty short and sweet, but if it’s not looking good pressing the L2 and R2 will let you give up and cover-up. Going for the turtle option, while embarrassing, may just be worth it if you’re playing for the Stanley Cup and looking to get that game breaking power play.
Another new feature is the ability to pin a player to the boards. If a game accidentally breaks out during the fighting, by pressing and holding the triangle button you can loosly lock yourself to the wall, either to protect the puck or try to dig it out while holding an opposing defender out of position. This along with being able to shoot and pass from your knees and redirect a puck in the air add nicely to the gameplay of what is a very detailed sports simulator. When it all comes together, the moves, hitting, passing and shooting, NHL 10 feels effortless and wonderfully entertaining. With the lights and roar of the crowd as you run out onto the ice, with goalies calling for a whistle when they cover up, and the jeers and boos when you get the first star in an away game, NHL 10 has that allnighter potential.
New gameplay modes have also been added. In addition to the Play Now option and the long and involved Be A Pro and Be A GM alternatives, you can also jump straight into the Stanley Cup, end of season playoffs or single seasons. Although these don’t add anything of real significance, they are there for those not willing to invest the time in playing through a decade-long career. They do however highlight NHL 10’s rather sparse list of improvements and additions in comparison to NHL 09.
One thing that has improved is the online play. EA Sports, and their 2010 series of games, have been pretty good when it comes to playing on the net. Especially when compared to the lag, and issues with bugs allowing players to steal wins and increase states, that troubled NHL 09. Now that’s all behind us, getting into a game has never been easier. Once in a game, all the desperate saves, OTs, shootouts, wins, losses and fights run virtually trouble free. Also, if you want to be more selective in who you play then there are a multitude of options for clubs, teams and leagues, whether you are trying to find one to join or designing one yourself.
Unfortunately, this may big one of the games more difficult problems to overcome. Getting your head around all the menus, multiple saves, and endless list of options is a nightmare if you haven’t played an EA sports sim in a while. Even if you play them all the time it can still be a chore. My NHL 10, My Online NHL 10, Media Hub, Ranked Online, Player Hub, Online Games, Creation Zone, Community and the new Store where you can earn upgrades as well as buy them if you’d rather be really good now are just a small taste of what's buried in the menus.
But once you have it sorted, the game can be boiled down to two main career options with significant gameplay differences - Be A Pro and Be A GM.
Be A Pro is where you design your rookie and take him through an entire career. You’ll play in the prospects game, hopefully get picked up by and NHL team and spend the next season being shuffled between the NHL and its feeder AHL team. After a few seasons of raising you stats and skill levels, and upgrading your equipment, you will be an NHL all star. If you want to be realistic about it you can play just as your Pro. Watching games from the bench between shifts, calling for passes from your team mates or trying to hold your position in the slot while defensemen hack away at you mercilessly. If watching from the bench sounds a bit like realism taking precedence over gaming, it may be. Still, there is something dramatic and very enjoyable about watching your team hold on for the last few minutes of a game while you’ve taken a stupid instigator penalty on top of five for fighting. If that still doesn’t sound like fun, you can turn the realism down and play a position, or turn off line changes completely and leave your player on for the whole game.
Be A GM is the alternative look at the NHL, obviously from the point of view of a club’s general manager. It’s a classic management program full of trades, salary caps, scouting and contracts. You get tips and updates through your cell phone, gain points and rewards for closing deals, picking up prospects, and winning. You also build relationships with other clubs by being fair and realistic with trade offers over your 25 years career. Unfortunately, with Be A GM there is a real case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. Being in New Zealand, with barely a hockey game in sight for the last few years, has meant that all those high priced players, all the rookies with unlimited upside and those franchise players are just names and stats. Players that ruled the league like Steve Yzerman have stood aside and stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are now the game’s icons. I mean how many people her have heard of Patrick Kane, the player on the cover of NHL 10 let alone seen him play a game. Being so far out of the loop makes enjoying Be A GM a struggle.
But that’s a complaint for another day. I’ve always liked hockey and hockey games. The game has it all. It has speed, violence and the beauty. If you play football, you appreciate at the positional play, the moving into space, the triangles and the one-timers. If you play rugby you got to love the big hits. If you’ve tried ice-skating you simply marvel at the fact that they can stand up. But, there was something about the way the game flowed that lent itself to video games, and most recently to the analog stick control system that EA has begun to use.
NHL 10 is a great game, hampered only by a lack of anything new. Okay, there’s new stuff there, some fixes, some tweaks - all familiar and standard EA Sports upgrades. If you have NHL 09 it’s good, if you don’t - it is so much better, and if hockey ever gets back on the box it would be better still.