Strong, yet imperfect iteration of EA's annual NHL franchise.
NHL 10 is probably the best hockey game ever made. However, I can't give it five stars.
I've spent a lot of time with this game (I went to the midnight release of it and it has barely left my 360 since) and didn't want to write a review that was at all hasty and I think I'm familiar enough with it to say this: I love this game.
Ever since NHL 07, I've wondered how EA could top their current title with the next year's iteration and they somehow have always pleasantly surprised me with a quality product that is a marked improvement over last year's game. NHL 10 is no different in this regard.
First (and maybe most importantly for the purposes of this review), EA has added tuning sliders and presets, which dramatically change the way the game feels. They have presets for casual, high tempo games as well as for super-realistic games. I play nearly exclusively with the super-realistic settings. This makes passing pretty difficult, fatigue a significant concern, and scoring a real challenge. Hardcore hockey fans who have been playing hockey video games for years should enjoy the challenge presented by the appropriately named 'Hardcore' preset.
NHL 10 adds significant depth in game play and is probably the first hockey video game to significantly reward intelligent, realistic, strategic hockey, at least to the extent that NHL 10 does. This is especially true in the offensive zone. An intelligent forecheck is very effective in NHL 10 and will win you games, whereas in previous hockey titles a player could easily exploit AI tendencies and weaknesses to score goals virtually at will. AI defensemen finally care about forwards making their way into high-percentage scoring areas and they won't let you waltz across the slot anymore. Just like in real hockey, the best way to score in NHL 10 is to get defending players out of position or to get fortuitous second chances off of rebounds. One-timers still work, but this isn't NHL 2K5. You will rarely have the passing lane available to pull off a successful one-timer and, even if you do, it takes pretty precise timing to get a clean shot off. My only complaint about the defensive AI is one I've had since last year's game, when it really became noticable in Be A Pro: AI defensemen don't seem to play any differently when there's an empty net behind them. Further compounding the problem is the fact that AI players don't seem to miss empty nets very often, even from 100+ feet away.
AI goalies feel just challenging enough. They aren't brick walls and they aren't super-exploitable either. EA added some new cool and useful goalie animations. They also added animations for skaters to bat pucks out of midair as well as take shots from their knees and all of it seems to work well.
Offensive AI is better. It isn't perfect. I still find myself frustrated with my teammates' decisions with the puck in Be A Pro, but AI teammates are much better at getting scoring chances this year. They'll pass the puck to you (or, worse, nowhere near you for a turnover/offsides) when you don't want it in BAP/EASHL, but they also are much more aggressive about shooting and crashing the net.
In NHL 10, EA has added Precision Passing. This allows for 360-degree control of where your player passes the puck. It's a great idea on paper, but when you get an Xbox 360 controller's analog stick involved, you realize that sometimes the controller just isn't precise enough to do exactly what you want. I think that it is a good addition to the game, but could be better realized with a different controller. I hate to say it, but I think a Wii Remote may be the best way to make for realistic passing in an NHL game. Hockey players don't think of passing in terms of angles from their body; they choose a spot on the ice to deliver the puck to. A Wii Remote and a cursor on the screen seems like a great system. I think 2K's Wii hockey games use this system, but I'm not sure. I haven't played NHL 2K9 or 2K10 on the Wii and it may not work as well as I think it would.
When you don't have the puck, it can be frustrating being caught in your zone. However, this is to the game's credit. It's hard to take the puck from the other team, especially if you're killing a penalty. Often I find myself very happy if I can simply get the puck out of my zone. In real hockey, this is very often the case.
One new tool in NHL 10 for getting or keeping control of the puck is the addition of boardplay. Other hockey titles in the past have implemented attempts at realistic boardplay, but NHL 10 really hits the nail on the head. By holding the Y button a player can either protect the puck against the boards or pin the puck-carrier against the boards. A player can then get support from his teammates. I think this new system was implemented nearly perfectly and it is another way that NHL 10 really captures the feel of authentic hockey.
The AI, boardplay, and passing tweaks are all well and good, but let's get to the dirty stuff: penalties, scrums, and fighting.
Penalties, for the most part, seem to be exactly where they need to be. You'll still get the occasional penalty that makes you scratch your head when the replay video plays, but you aren't getting a penalty every time you poke check and miss the puck and you're not getting away with hooks, holds, and interference.
After the whistle, you can now facewash, slash, and otherwise bully around the opposition. While this is kind of fun the first dozen times you do it, it really slows down the game. This is especially true online. EA should have nixed the post-whistle scrums for online play, at least for the EASHL. Even if you don't go around cross checking the star of the other team every time the whistle blows, it still takes longer than last year to get to the next face-off. Penalties for post-whistle scrums are generally realistic and add a nice touch to the game, but sometimes the referees will make strange decisions in regard to who to send to the penalty box after a full-on scrum. However, referees in the real NHL make mistakes all the time and this certainly doesn't ruin the game.
EA has yet again rebuilt their fighting engine and I suppose maybe they got it right this time. In NHL 10 when a fight starts, you are given a first-person view of the fight and you control your punches and dodging with the analog sticks. It works, but it feels gimmicky. One could argue that fights are a gimmick in themselves, though. A player's toughness rating seems to significantly affect their likelihood of winning a fight and, in another realistic touch, players can break their hands or noses in fights.
Injuries in general seem like they're handled pretty well. Players can be injured by fights (as mentioned), pucks, hits, and slashes. NHL 10 adds a new strategy element to injuries as well. If a player is injured in the middle of a game, you will often have to decide whether to keep the player on his regular shifts, keep him on the bench, or just take him out of the game altogether. There's real decision-making involved, as an injury could worsen if a player gets hit the wrong way again. Your staff gives you a good idea of what you should probably do, but if they say a player is 50/50 and you're in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals facing elimination, you're in an interesting spot for sure.
The playoffs feel more dramatic than ever in NHL 10, thanks in part to the much improved crowd. The crowd in the arena is now much more interesting than in years past. If you're in Buffalo playing as the Bruins and get scored on, every player with a Sabres jersey will jump up and cheer if you get scored on, while the few Boston faithful peppering the seats remain in their seats, disappointed. The opposite is also true. There are now women in the crowd as well, which I never noticed not being in the crowd in games past until EA announced their addition. They're often wearing the pink variants of clubs' apparel, which I hate in real life but appreciate the inclusion of in a game. Crowds now wave towels in the playoffs and bang the glass when players are nearby.
EA's last few NHL games have sounded great and this year is no exception. As is the case with pretty much any sports game, the music soundtrack is largely left up to your taste. I was personally pretty excited when I noticed that CKY was on the soundtrack, but they use a really strange, edited cut of the song and I don't really know why they would. Regardless, the sound design is very well done. This has always been one of EA's franchise's strengths and this year they've outdone themselves. The crowd remembers if a player of yours injured a player on their hometown team and boo puck-carriers appropriately, just like in real life.
The game looks really good. It doesn't look astonishingly better than EA's past NHL titles on the current generation of systems, but the jerseys do seem to look a little bit better. However, I noticed a graphical glitch that was funny, but should have been taken care of. If your player is injured in a playoff series and wearing a jaw guard (which in itself is a nice touch) and you end the series, he'll wear a jaw guard attached to nothing while shaking hands with the other team. There are other small glitches here and there, but they're mostly ignorable.
I've spent a lot of time praising NHL 10, but I gave it four stars out of five. Here's why:
First, you have to be a hockey fan to appreciate how well this game plays. So it's not for everybody.
Also, there are a few things that EA confused, frustrated, or disappointed me about...mostly in regards to game modes.
First, last year's Be A Pro mode returns and disappoints me. While they did improve it by adding a prospects game that affects your draft position and not making it so easy to advance to the NHL immediately, I was left disappointed by a few things. These are just my personal hopes for the mode, but I think they're pretty realistic. I think it should be way more RPG-ish. They don't need to outsource it to Japan, but right now it's not much more than playing through seasons only controlling one player. You should at least be able to go to the coach/GM and demand more ice time or a trade. Also, you should be able to do your minor league development abroad. I don't see how this would be difficult to include and while the most practical way to do it may not be realistic to the ways contracts work in real life, I'm sure EA would sell a few more copies of the game if gamers from Örnsköldsvik could play as themselves alongside Peter Forsberg as members of the MoDo hockey club in the Swedish Elitserien. Negotiating your contracts is still far from engaging and I don't understand why your attributes can't progress more naturally. I don't see why you shouldn't improve your wrist shot accuracy simply by taking more wrist shots, improve passing by passing, improve your high blocker saves by making high blocker saves, etc.
Speaking of attributes, a new addition to NHL 10 is the Hockey Shop. Here you can buy and wear licensed and EA-created gear for your BAP or EASHL avatar. If you pre-ordered from GameStop (like I did), you get to use Patrick Kane's skates, stick, and gloves. This equipment is, unfortunately, the only licensed equipment that offers attribute boost slots. Pretty much everything else that has boost slots is EA-branded gaudy-looking equipment.
These boost slots allow you to assign attribute boosts to your player. Your skates, stick, gloves, and helmet each have 0-3 boost slots. These boosts are +1, +3, or +5 to a specific attribute that is usually somehow at least loosely tied to the piece of equipment it's attached to. For example: you can boost your wrist shot power but not your skating speed via your stick.
I have mixed feelings about these boosts. To be truly competitive in the returning EASHL, you pretty much need at least a few boosts. These boosts need to be unlocked by using Microsoft Points or meeting specific goals in the game. The problem is that many of these goals either take many, many hours to unlock and/or you need to do really specific things. If you could unlock most of the attribute boosts simply by playing through a few seasons of BAP, it wouldn't seem so bad. Also, nearly all of the equipment that has boost slots is--as I mentioned--EA-branded and really unauthentic-looking. However, I need to begrudgingly applaud EA on assuredly making themselves a bundle on the Hockey Shop. It's pretty brilliant, even if it's got a pretty foul aroma to it.
The online play seems to work pretty well, but I'm still not sold on how they're handling EASHL. Leagues, versus play, and shootouts all seem fine. I love hopping online for a few minutes to play some online shootouts, but I don't love EASHL. I don't understand how they haven't made it so both teams need a human-controlled goaltender and I'm really not into getting 0-3 forfeit losses if my teammate drops halfway through the first period when the score is 0-0 or when we have a lead. And sure enough, it only took players less than 36 hours to find a cheesy, game-y way to score goals. Finally: I don't like ladders. I don't know who does. Ladders for competitive online play were okay in 1999, but I don't like them for EASHL, especially when it's hard to tell what exactly the algorithm for ranking is.
One of the two new modes that I haven't mentioned so far is Battle for the Cup. It's pretty much just a seven-game series for one of three trophies available in the game: the Stanley Cup, the Calder Cup, and the EA Cup. It seems like a trivial addition, but I like it. I haven't been in this situation to definitively say either way, but it seems perfect for local multiplayer. Injuries carry over from game to game and I think it'd be an awesome way to kill a couple hours with a fellow hockey fan.
Finally, we have Be a GM mode. Remember how revolutionary Be a Pro was for hockey games? Well, Be a GM isn't that. Not even close. It's pretty much just Dynasty/Franchise mode from games past with a few tweaks. If your team's owner thinks you're ruining his team, you're fired. But it's not Game Over. You get to sign with a different team and your accomplishments are recorded from franchise to franchise much like your Player Tracker for BAP/EASHL. They made some incremental improvements to team management from games past, but this mode has some significant problems, especially if you're like me and your standard for ice hockey management is the Eastside Hockey Manager series.
In BAGM, you're treated to a trading mini-game at the NHL trade deadline and NHL Entry Draft. It's nice that they slow down the game for you in this spot, but while you're sitting looking at your Blackberry phones (damn you, Jim Balsillie), you really feel handcuffed. Unless there's something I'm missing, you can't look at other teams' trading blocks or even your own roster during these mini-games. EA's NHL games have had interface problems in the past few years and this game seems to have failings in that area as well. That said, I've probably spent most of my time with NHL 10 playing BAGM. So obviously it's not a miserable experience.
All said, NHL 10 is the best hockey game I've ever played. If you want to control hockey players while they play hockey, this is the game to get until NHL 11 comes out. If you want to be a GM and build a franchise, you should go back to NHL Eastside Hockey Manager 2007. Contextualized within the fact that it's a yearly iteration of a franchise that has had such strong offerings in the past, you can't help but be a little bit disappointed. My cynical side is suspicious that they've held things back to make sure that they have a meaningful product to release next year...and I'll probably buy it at midnight just like I did NHL 10. And I'll probably play it for dozens of hours, just like I will NHL 10.