It's that time of year again.
Like clockwork for the last two decades or so, EA has put out an improved version of last year's hockey title. Unlike in years past, with minor enhancements and upgrades from edition to edition, EA has put out a hockey title that plays so well, offers so many options, and is so incredibly deep, you may never buy another hockey video game again. Well, until NHL 11 comes out anyway.
The other day I was playing some NHL 97 on the Sega Genesis in preparation for this review, and it's simply jarring to think how far this franchise and video game hockey in general has come in 13 years. NHL 10 packs in everything a hockey fan could ever want into one little disc, and it all begins with the gameplay.
For the hardcore hockey fan, there's no simulation of the sport quite like the one that EA has concocted for this season. NHL 10 returns with the use of skill stick, which essentially means that the left analog stick controls your player's feet, while the right stick controls his hands. Move the right stick right, and you'll deke right. Move it up and you'll shoot. Move it down and you'll wind up for the big slapper. The control system has been refined to a razor edge since its introduction in NHL 07. Controlling your players, setting up plays, and putting your shots exactly where you want them is a total breeze. The only complaint I have on the controls is that very occasionally while trying to cycle the puck, the game will blatantly pass to the wrong player in the zone. I wanted to pass the puck back to the defence, not to my centre who has three guys surrounding him… oh well, there's always NHL 11.
If that sounds too complicated to you, you can always just play the game with the classic NHL 94 controls. This is a nice bone to toss to the newbies, but beyond the controls, a real understanding of the game of hockey is required to succeed even at the medium difficulties.
The on ice product has been enhanced this year with a few tweaks that add another layer of realism to the game. The first is board play. With a push of the triangle or Y button (depending on your console of choice), you can now pin a player against the boards to stop up rushes. The player being pinned can either protect the puck or kick it up or down the boards. The system works seamlessly with the timeless design of the game.
The other new additions are the scrums after the whistle and the first person fighting. In past games, you could body check and slash your opponents after the whistle and have them stand there dumbstruck while you proceeded to perforate their pancreas with your stick. Now, the CPU will take exception to those sorts of extra curricular activities. They'll shove you back, facewash your players, and take extreme exception to any sort of traffic around the goalie's crease. If things get really hairy, players will drop the gloves.
The new fighting engine is a lot of fun, and controls similarly to EA's Fight Night. The left analog stick controls where you're going to tug the jersey, and the right stick controls your fist. Hit up to do a quick jab, and pull down to wind up for the big haymaker. There are strategies here too. For example, you can pull the opponent's jersey down while punching to do a devastating uppercut. It's a shame the fights don't last too long, but it's easy to get into another one. Overall, it's a fantastic addition to the game.
Player injuries are also handled very in depth this year. When a player gets hurt, you have the option of sitting them out, benching them for a period, or putting them right back into the fray. Do you risk injuring them further for that tying goal, or do you protect your superstar? It's all up to you. In a nice touch, I had Daniel Alfredsson break his jaw on a play, and when I put him back on the ice he was wearing a jaw guard. Its little touches like this that really makes NHL 10 such a complete hockey experience.
Off the ice, NHL 10 offers a staggering amount of options. Any way you want to play hockey, this game pretty much gives you the option. Want to just guide your team through to the cup without worrying about salary caps and entry drafts? Jump into the season mode that supports multiple players.
Be a Pro mode also comes back this year after a successful rookie run in NHL 09. This mode allows you to jump into the skates of your favourite NHLer, or create a player and take them up through the minors to the big leagues. Unlike last year, where you controlled only your player on the ice and watched the rest of the game, this year's edition allows you to lock into your position, so you're not watching as much as you're actually playing. After all, this is NHL, not Metal Gear. Further deepening the Be a Pro mode is unlockable gear for your skater, which improves stats like slapshot accuracy and skating speed. Some of the challenges are pretty time consuming to get, but EA has allowed players to bypass all this stuff by just paying real world money for the gear, which you can then take online. Aren't you glad that you don't even have to play the game to dominate online?
The big addition this year is the brand new Be a GM mode. Taking over from the franchise mode of past instalments, this new mode is simply dripping with NHL fan service. In this mode you must assign scouts to specific players, positions, and countries. In addition, you must also maintain relationships with other GMs, complete tasks your owner sets for you, gain experience, upgrade your staff (medical brings players back from injury for example, scouts can bring up more accurate trade rumours, etc.), and build a team towards a dynasty. This mode is really recommended for the hardcore puckhead, because it can really be information overload at times. For the true fan though, this mode will be everything that you've ever wanted out of a hockey game.
For competitive roommates and friends, there's also a new Battle for the Cup mode, which throws you into a seven game series with the Stanley Cup awarded at the end of it. Being able to select from 1, 3, 5, and 7 game series is the icing on the cake.
The single player modes alone could theoretically keep one busy longer than playthroughs of Oblivion and Fallout 3 combined, but if that's not enough for you, there are a ton of online modes to pick and choose from. You can take your pro online and join other teams of six, and join competitions against other teams. There's even seasons hosted by EA Sports, and awards and championships are awarded to the best teams. Of course, there are all the other modes you've come to expect from this franchise, such as challenging single friends and shootouts. Online play is normally silky smooth, but I did run into a few bouts with lag here and there.
NHL 10 is a gorgeous game of hockey, but not hugely improved over last year's game. The game always runs smooth as butter, and player models look uncannily like the real deal. You'll likely get chills down your spine when you watch every individually rendered fan in the arena cheer on a home goal, especially on the awesome replays. Goalie animations have been ramped up too, with new desperation saves being a real standout. The arenas all look spectacular as well. Hockey has never looked this good in a digital realm, on either available system.
It bears noting that every 3rd or 4th time I booted up the game, I got a black screen that I couldn't escape out of in the PS3 version, which required a full restart of the system. I never had the bug show up twice in a row, and it's a minor annoyance at worst.
I don't know if EA sold their souls to the devil, but this seems like the first hockey game I've played where the play-by-play isn't a repetitive slog. Sure, you'll hear a few choice phrases a few times over, but no more than you'd hear from a real play by play commentator. Bill Clement and Gary Thorne add great authenticity to the proceedings, and actually give useful trivia and analysis of the game. The on ice product sounds great too, but that's been the case for years now. The soundtrack is also solid, featuring the likes of the Scorpions, Green Day, Nickelback, and other bands of their ilk.
Hockey fans, this is your digital holy grail. There has never been a sports video game that has combined such silky smooth playability, technical excellence, fantastic AI, and respect for the game as presented here. While NHL 10 may be a little too daunting for casual fans of the sport, there may not be a better teaching tool to the magic of ice hockey than this title. I can only imagine what little EA can improve for next year's instalment.