After a very successful outing last year with NHL 09, developer EA Canada and publisher EA Sports are back with NHL 10. Instead of just providing an updated roster and a few new animations, EA added a lot of compelling new features and managed to not only match the level of NHL 09, but exceed it. Greatest hockey game ever?
New Additions And Modes
From year to year, most sports titles don't change a whole lot unless the developers either change or take the series in a new direction. I think it was in NHL 08 that EA did that with a radical new control scheme that changed the way hockey was played. It simultaneously simplified the controls while also making them more granular and detail-oriented. With NHL 10, the controls haven't changed much, but there are a lot of other changes and new additions that should continue to please the die hard NHL fan while keeping the experience very accessible for casual fans and newcomers.
Perhaps the biggest change with NHL this year is the introduction Game Styles. With Game Styles, players can choose between four different modes that significantly alter how the game plays. Casual mode is akin to arcade gaming, with lots of big hits, easy passing, and goalies who rarely freeze the puck, making scoring easier and more common. Penalties are also kept to a minimum and everyone can throw their weight around in Casual mode. Moving up to Default mode, player attributes constrain what players can make the big hits and passes have to be a little more accurate to complete, while penalties increase slightly. Next up is Normal mode, which is the mode used for Online and EA's Sports League. Here, gameplay is slowed down a little bit -- passes require more accuracy, big hits are harder to land, penalties are up, etc. Lastly, there is the Hardcore mode. As the name suggests, gameplay is again slowed down a little, penalties are stricter, and passing and shooting require the most attention to detail as players need to pay attention to the speed and direction of their shots and passes much more closely than the other modes. The new precision passing feature gives players the fine tune control and intricate ability they need to compete at this level. I like that EA catered to the different levels and interests of gamers with these modes, making tweaking the gameplay a very easy affair instead of having to manually adjust sliders.
I noticed another really neat feature this year that I had not previously seen (possibly do to how little I played NHL games in 08 and 09). In NHL 10, a detailed system is in place for battling on the boards. This is something you see in real NHL games all the time and it's a very important and unique part of the game. When on offensive, you can utilize the boards by getting close to them with the puck and holding Y. On defense, you can pin someone up against the boards by holding Y. Players trying to maintain control of the puck can attempt to get out of the pin or kick pass it out to their teammates. I'm happy to see board play included here, it's a great and realistic mechanic that varies the flow of the game and can spur some significant changes in possession.
Boardplay and Game Styles are great, but for some gamers, the new first person fighting engine may be more important. Fighting can occur after the whistle and it's easy to get into a fight. Simply skate up to an opposing player and tap Y. The resulting animation shows you turning around and/or facewashing the player. If the player you are wanting to fight is a superstar, there's a good chance his bruiser defenseman or other tougher teammate will come in to fight you instead. New fight controls include the ability to block, power punch, tug, and dodge, and even turtle for cover. You can invite fights in other ways too, like poking at the goalie or taking a shot after the whistle. Doing this can upset the opposing team and you may find yourself in a tussle within seconds. Winning fights gives your team an energy boost though, so there is some strategy to be had there.
Another new addition this year is the Battle For the Cup Now mode. Here, players select two teams, adjust several options, and compete directly for the Cup. It's a very fast way to get the thrill of earning a Cup, but it's not as satisfying as a long march through a full season. The Season mode in NHL 10 offers NHL, AHL, and all of the European Leagues, which is rather impressive. A Playoff Mode is also included that gets you into the post season, although not directly to the Finals. Tournament Mode lets you pit the Americans against the Russians, and any other combination of national teams to see who's the best. The Montreal Canadiens Centennial Cup, which I've never even heard of, is also included for die hards.
There a lot of other new enhancements and changes with NHL 10 including improved goalie intelligence, additional ways to score (slap shot on a loose puck, shooting from knees), stick sweeps, and precision passing. Precision Passing, which I touched on earlier, allows players to use the boards to bank passes off of, and take a bad pass to their skates and kick it up to their stick. These mechanics aren't something you have to directly control necessarily, but they are included to improve the overall realism and play of the game.
If you are more interested in management, the Be A GM Mode is the deepest of such modes you'll find. Players take the role of GM, coach, and player in this mode that allows you to dictate the future of your favorite team for up to twenty-five years. The Be A Pro Mode is here too, in which you can create a player and head to the Draft, or pick an existing player and control their career. You can also be the Tough Guy and play as the enforcer on your team, defending your superstars whenever they are about to fight.
Online play includes EA's Sports Hockey League where players can take their team through a tournament each month to see if they have what it takes to win the Cup. A Multiplayer Season Mode lets you play with up to thirty friends as you each go through a season with a different team. Additionally, online shootout, quick play, and team play are all supported.
Controls and Presentation
NHL 10 offers you a whole lot of ways to play, but you won't be enjoying yourself unless you get a handle on the controls. EA provides a nice tutorial from the first launch of the game that helps you learn the ins and outs of the basic controls. If that's not enough, you can always go into Practice mode and run a variety of drills. The controls may seem awkward for your first few games if you come from a more face button oriented control scheme, but the learning curve is certainly acceptable and the reward is, well, being able to play what is very likely the best hockey game of all time.
Graphically, NHL 10 looks very good and includes a ton of smooth animations for every aspect of the game. I loved the goal-scoring cutscenes that play immediately after a goal. Having played hockey games off and on for over ten years, I've never seen a hockey game capture the moment quite as well as what I'm seeing in NHL 10. This is largely due to new facial animations that display the emotions of players better than ever.
I love the commentary too, and it's actually my favorite part of the entire visual/audio package. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement control the mics and their voices sound exactly as they do in real life and they have numerous lines of interesting dialogue. They'll call the plays and reference other points about players and the league while sneaking in a few witty lines as well. The soundtrack is largely forgettable like most EA Trax sets, while the effects do a nice job of conveying the sounds of the game.
How do you make a great game even better? Add more compelling and innovative features. EA didn't bask in the success of NHL 09, they built upon it, and the result is a superb hockey game in NHL 10. From the presentation to the controls to the available modes to all of the in game mechanics and elements, NHL 10 really does a hell of a job and I think it's safe to say it may be the best hockey title to date.