A Victim of It's Own Success
NHL 09 scored a hat trick with reviewers, shut out the competition, and other hockey-related pun with gamers with the huge addition of Be A Pro mode (BAP) and the EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL). So does NHL 10 match up to the leap between 08 and 09?
Be A Pro returns this year with the outstanding addition of the prospect game before the NHL Entry Draft. Last year, simulating being drafted meant closing your eyes while rapidly cycling through the team list and pressing A to get picked by a random team. Some may not like being drafted by their favorite team's rival but you can save before the draft as the team draft order is randomly selected each time. You also can opt out of the prospect game and the Entry Draft and pick any team you desire. After being drafted, you get a 4 game tryout with your team before they decide whether to keep you on the team or send you to their AHL affiliate. Coaches still grade you on your play in NHL 10 and are a lot more lienent with their team play rating. In 09, one or two turnovers would have a huge impact on your rating for the worse, but now blocked shots, interceptions, putting the puck on net, and even just taking away passing lanes counteracts any ill-advised passes.
The EA Sports Hockey League also returns, essentially in the same form but with teams playing in one of two leagues, Casual and Professional. No real difference between the leagues except Professional seems to have a lot of players using purchased boost packs (more on that later). Glitching, at least in the first week, seems to mostly be gone. Curve shots work even less than after the patch to remove them in 09 and the new puck physics make it extremely hard to make passes across the crease along with goalies being more aggressive with poke checks. The EASHL now rewards players familiar with the way hockey is actually played now and good puck cycling is as effective, if not more, than run-and-gun hockey.
Franchise mode is out and Be A GM mode is in. The difference? Not a whole lot. The game does do a good job now of tracking your shady deals and punishing you for them but the AI still makes head-scratcher trades (perhaps EA Canada consulted Mike Milbury on trading). The fantasy draft is back and it is fantastic. The AI does a good job of building franchises and staying under the cap with a few teams of course getting a little. Top young players always go quick and older and more expensive talent is around later in the draft (players like Alexei Kovalev can be had past the 10th round almost always). Knowledgable hockey fans are also at an advantage here as they should know the lesser names that are as servicable at a smaller price. Zbynek Michalek is a better bargin at $1.5 million per year than Mike Commodore at over $3.5 million per year. The Entry Draft and trade deadline have a trading minigame where before every round at the Entry Draft (5 of them) and 5 times at the trade deadline, you break out the Blackberry and send and receive trade proposals. The number of phones you have is tied to your performance and more phones means more chances to negotiate.
Battle For The Cup mode drops you right in for a Best-of-7 for Lord Stanley's Cup with the much improved crowd atmosphere. Fans are loud for their hometown team and into the action. The sigh when close chances don't go in, cheer for big saves, and boo enemy players that wound fan favorites.
The passing system has been completely overhauled so now passes go to the direction you press the stick, not the nearest player to that direction. It's great for making lead passes, bank passes around defenders, and rimming the puck around the boards in the offensive zone to trigger the new board play mechanic. It makes the dump-and-chase a viable offense this year. The other large gameplay changes are to fighting, goaltending, and puck physics. Last year's much loathed Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots style fighting is gone and first person fighting is in. You can block and dodge punches but it usually ends up being a stick mashing affair. Goalies this year now can swing around at the puck behind them, unlike last year where should would fly into the air and roll down their backs and occasionally in, they can bat the puck out of the air or try to catch it. Goalies now cut down on the angle for long shots, butterfly across the crease before desparation saves, and dive out to cover loose pucks or attempt to poke them away or pull them back in and gobble them up. The puck physics have be rehauled to coincide with the new passing engine. Now pucks will hop over sticks on high dumps, bounce back into the neutral zone on good shot blocks for a breakaway chance, and roll off the stick of unskilled players on dekes. It feels extremely natural and a shot that beats the goalie clean for a goal feels different than last year.
As great as all that is, the new hockey shop leaves a bad taste in your mouth. All locked equipment and boosts can be unlocked through gameplay or can be bought with real money. I have no problem with having the equipment being something you can pay for as it has no effect on attributes but playing EASHL against a team that paid for a boost set to automatically raise their overall rating from 72 to 80 isn't as fun when you lose to two meatheads with gold skates and frat guy tribal tattoo helmets zipping all over the ice with 99 speed ratings. Most of these players seem to be in the Professional league so keep that in mind when you create an EASHL team.
So is NHL 10 better than 09? Yes and no. It's made some great changes to GM mode and play feels even more natural than before but it can't match the huge jump from 08 to 09. If you love hockey, you need this game. If you liked the game last year but aren't a big hockey fan, you might want to hold off on buying it. It's still an absolutely fantastic hockey game but it's become a victim of it's own success with not much room for the game to grow now.