As someone who has purchased the latest hockey video game every season since NHL 94, I sometimes feel like a real sucker for falling for this sort of thing. Essentially we are paying for a full priced game every year just for a few minor enhancements and roster updates. Fortunately, after a solid but unspectacular rookie season on the Wii, NHL 2K10 returns with a load of enhancements, but also loads of headroom for improvement in later instalments.
Gameplay is noticeably improved over 2K9. The game moves faster, the controls have been tightened up, and the AI has been given a noticeable overhaul. If the Wii is your only console, you won't find a more in depth and satisfying game of hockey, although I'd argue that Blades of Steel on the virtual console is still more fun.
Motion controls have permeated every facet of the hockey game here, meaning that NHL 2K10 is a style of game that you won't find everywhere else. Everything from diving in front of shots, body checking, poke checking, shooting, passing, and even winning faceoffs have a motion slant to them. Best of all, despite all these gestures, the controls never feel gimmicky or tacked on. For example, to take a faceoff, you hold down the trigger on the Wii-mote and wave the controller left or right to try and move the puck in that direction. Poke checks are controlled by shifting the remote forward. Shooting is done with a flick of the wrist, or by holding down the trigger while flicking for a slapshot. Body checking is done by moving both arms forward forcefully. My favourite feature, the IR passing, returns this year as well. Passing is controlled with an onscreen cursor, which makes setting up plays and running the powerplay has never been easier in any hockey game, ever. The controls truly work well, but they do take a few games to truly get used to. If you have a motionplus attachment, the controls become even more intuitive, allowing you to do things like lift sticks and control which direction to move your stick when playing defence. The only complaint I have on the controls is that I couldn't find any way to dive to try and knock a puck loose when trying to defend on a breakaway.
Coupled with the controls is a vastly improved AI. Players stick to their assignments, block up the passing lanes, don't just shoot the puck from any angle, and set up plays with surprising efficiency, especially at the higher difficulties. The excellent AI extends to the goalies as well. The follow the play well, are rarely caught out of position, and you won't see many of those chintzy, glitch goals that have plagued hockey video games for eons. Scoring any goal against the AI always feels earned and not blind luck.
While the action on the ice is undeniably solid, getting to the gameplay requires navigating a menu system that makes Windows 3.1 look like a marvel in user friendliness. These menus are done in a 3 X 3 grid, and no option is where you would expect it to be. The worst part was that when I created a player before the season began, it put my team over the salary cap, and my only option to start the franchise mode was to play without the salary cap turned on. You can't make the game auto adjust for the cap, and if you manage to find any useful information to help you run your team, I hear Indiana Jones could use your help finding the lost Ark of the Covenant.
Worse still, while the controls in the game are great, navigating with Wii-mote is a tremendous pain on the menus. The pointer goes all over the place, menu selections get selected and deselected without warning. I even simulated games in my season by accident because of the twitchy menu configuration. Even finding what mode you want to play on the main screen is far more difficult that it should be.
NHL 2K10 has a huge emphasis on multiplayer this time around. Even in franchise mode, you can invite friends to come and play with you at any time online. Unfortunately, the game relies on Nintendo's horrendous Friend Codes system, which makes connecting with friends on the ice far clunkier than it should be, although that is hardly 2K's fault. Whether online or on the couch, there are a smattering of casual modes in addition to the full featured game, including a fun skills challenge with your Miis, pond hockey mode, and a tiny rink mode. All the modes are fun, and become even more so with a friend or three to play with. With all the online options, it's baffling and disappointing that there are no options to download new rosters from the internet.
Oh, by the way, you can still drive the Zamboni between periods if you like. It's a fun little gimmick that you'll probably play two or three times and then forget about.
NHL 2K9 was one of the ugliest looking games I've ever reviewed, and the developers have clearly put some effort into the visual presentation of the game. Make no mistake, this is still a really ugly game, but it's not the sin against your retinas that last year's game was. Player models have been improved, and animate well during gameplay, but during replays and cutaways, animations don't transition well into one another, and generally look very canned and awkward. Texture work is also poor, especially on the goalie helmets, which look like pixelated crap. Player faces look nothing like the real thing, and the players still look ridiculously disproportioned. Worst of all are the fans in the arenas, which are all 2 dimensional sprites. Every game looks like it's attended by two dimensional cardboard cutouts that don't even react or move to the action on the ice. Maybe the Phoenix Coyotes can increase attendance this way. At least the game runs much smoother than last year, and from a gameplay perspective, that's the most important thing. The Wii is certainly capable of better than this.
The sound design is a mixed bag too. The licensed Rock soundtrack certainly pleases the senses, and all the on ice sounds and arena chants and cheers all sound great. At the same time, the play by play is generic and repetitive, causing you to hear lots of canned phrases that you'll hear several times in the same game.
NHL 2K10 is a marked improvement over last year's game, but there's still tons of room for improvement, especially in the presentation and online aspects. The template is there for a superior game of hockey, but much work remains to be done. If 2K sports wants to stay competitive, they'd do well to address these concerns before the competition starts developing for the Wii too, otherwise, this franchise could find itself toiling in the minors. For hockey fans with only a Wii, NHL 2K10 still comes highly recommended, warts and all.