NHL 10 is a great game. The amount of ways to play the game, the near-overwhelming upgrade and leveling systems, the gameplay tweaks, and the excellent crowd effects (female fans wear the official female logos and apparel of their home stadium!) are nothing short of amazing for a game on a 12 month development cycle.
- Amazing number of modes and features
- Board play mechanic adds a whole new dimension
- Top-notch crowd presentation
- Wonky neutral zone AI
- Incredibly unbalanced out of the box
- New animations are jerky
Every year since NHL 07 on the Xbox 360, EA Canada has upped the ante in serious ways for each installment of its hockey franchise. 07 saw the inclusion of the skill stick, which completely redefined the way hockey video games were played. In 08, more features and game modes were added, as well as a new dekeing system. 09 sported new maneuvers like the stick lift, Be a Pro mode, and the EA Sports Hockey League, a blend of team-based online gameplay and persistent stat-tracking with league championships. For the 2010 edition, the team has outdone themselves in a big way. Perhaps more than any other year, NHL 10 packs more content onto the disc in a single year's development time than any other sports game in recent memory.
Changing the Way the Game is Played
For starters, fans of an offline single-player experience will quiver with glee at the revamped franchise mode, now called Be a GM. After picking a team, you’re dumped into the shoes of the general manager at the NHL draft, complete with Blackberries that ring off the hook with trade offers. You'll have to pick your young talent, sign free agents, and make some deals as you vie for the Cup. Where it differs from the franchise modes of yesteryear is in the presentation; as a GM you'll be earning reputation for trades you try and make, free agents you sign, and winning and losing. Playing by the rules, making fair trade offers, and treating players with respect in terms of contracts will cast a favorable light on you to other teams around the league. Lowball offers and outrageous trades will make you the next Kevin Lowe. Along with your reputation as a GM comes a list of "tasks," which are like achievements that span from making a trade to winning a certain number of games in a season. As you complete GM tasks, you'll earn upgrade points for your medical staff, assistant coaches, and scouts, which in turn will benefit your team in several different ways. Combined with GM stat tracking over the course of your career, Be a GM mode is one of the most layered, in-depth experiences in any sports game. The wealth of options are astounding; no longer is the single-player experience just “play-game-edit-lines-play-game.” There's always something to strive for and lots of unlockable rewards.
And these rewards aren't just confined to Be a GM, either. They're peppered in throughout all the game modes, with the end goal being your upgraded custom Be a Pro player. New this year is an equipment shop for your skater or goalie. Equipment is divided into four sections (stick, helmet, skates, gloves) and each section has many pieces to choose from. The better the gear, the more upgrade slots it contains, and the more upgrade slots, the better you can make your player. Both gear and upgrades are tailored towards different play-styles; after all, it wouldn't make much sense to increase your playmaking center's slapshot accuracy, would it? Earning better gear and upgrades by completing in-game tasks (like playing a game with all the Finnish league teams, for example) creates a cohesive, inter-woven package that will ensure puckheads will be playing NHL 10 all year long.
Online, the EASHL interface is cleaner and more efficient than before. This year, seasons last only a month, which means teams can compete for the EASHL Cup much more frequently than last year. And because the gameplay has been tuned so much better in NHL 10, online team play is perhaps the most fun you can have in the game. When you and five buddies are cycling, checking, and scoring as a unit, you'll be on top of the world.
Speaking of gameplay tuning, those familiar with the exploits and idiosyncrasies of NHL 09 will have to relearn a lot when they put NHL 10 into the tray. The biggest and most noticeable improvement comes in board play. By holding the Y button, you can now pin players to the glass, giving your teammates an opportunity to poke the puck free for a turnover. On offense, it's incredibly useful to pin against the boards to avoid a check. On defense, it's the perfect weapon to get the puck back from an aggressive CPU forward. One by-product of board play is the ability to finally use the dump and chase as an offensive strategy. In NHL 10, getting the puck deep from behind the blue line so your teammate can chase down the opposing defender and pin is a legitimate tool for an attack. Never before has the dump and chase worked this well, and online, it is a very useful tactic for defenders who stand up against the rush. The effect of board play on the flow of the game can not be overstated.
Fighting has also been improved with a new first-person viewpoint that's both much easier to get a handle on and much more fun. It's also easier than ever to start a fight as NHL 10 now features some after the whistle aggression. It's not only possible to provoke a fight, but penalties will be doled out depending on how wild the tough guys go. This means it's actually a viable strategy to draw a penalty after the goalie freezes the puck with a well-timed face wash. Anyone who's ever wanted to be Sean Avery now has a place in virtual hockey.
Two minutes in the Sin Bin
It's not all butterflies and roses, though. There are some adjustments in this year's game that didn't go so well. First, and most egregious, is the balance of the game on the default settings. In one sense, NHL 10's greatest strength (it's unbelievable amount of sliders and gameplay adjustments) is also its biggest weakness. The goalies are simply too hard to score on without adjusting the shot parameters and passes are usually sent in wild directions even when you're aiming at a wide open player. It's going to take 25-30 games of experimentation to get a game of hockey that's satisfactory to your liking against the AI.
Another failure of the game lies in the neutral zone AI; the CPU makes some really questionable decisions with the puck between the blue lines, especially when you're sitting in a trapping style. When your team has the puck, your wingers simply skate lackadaisically in a straight line down the ice, never trying to get open for a pass or do anything to help throw the D off their game. If you do send a pass their way, they'll often stretch or contort themselves to reach for a puck that would have been much easier received in stride, thus slowing them down and causing your breakout to stall. On the goalie end, the new animations between the pipes are very stilted and unnatural, and when the goalie goes into a desperation save (when they would be much better served just covering the puck at their feet instead), they'll tend to knock the puck into their own net. In this regard, NHL 10 takes a step backward from the previous year's near-perfection.
On the whole, though, NHL 10 is a great game. The amount of ways to play the game, the near-overwhelming upgrade and leveling systems, the gameplay tweaks, and the excellent crowd effects (female fans wear the official female logos and apparel of their home stadium!) are nothing short of amazing for a game on a 12 month development cycle. The team at EA Canada love their hockey, and that fact is abundantly clear in the amount of stuff they've crammed into the game both significant and tiny. If you're a hardcore fan, NHL 10 is a no-brainer. If you're not a hockey nut, NHL 10 still has enough customizability and non-traditional modes to be one of the year's best virtual sports experiences. Worth the upgrade? Absolutely.