It's hard to look at NHL 2K10 and not think of how the hockey video game landscape has changed in just a few short years. As recently as 2005, the NHL 2K series was riding high--considered by many to be the superior hockey game (at least when compared to its direct rival, the arcade, offensive-heavy NHL 06). Things quickly turned: EA Sports re-tuned its hockey series with a more focused, simulation approach. 2K's series, however, began to lose ground with a focus on features such as a new presentation, minigames, and sometimes-awkward control schemes. Last year, 2K brought the development of the NHL 2K series internally and found some success with NHL 2K9, especially on the Nintendo Wii, which sold nearly 200,000 copies despite mediocre critical reception. Yesterday, 2K producers came by GameSpot HQ to show off the latest build of NHL 2K10, which we first saw in Las Vegas. While 2K10 hasn't completely abandoned the arcade bent of the past few years, it seems like the series is preparing to set to wheel around and enter the same sim territory occupied by its competition.
In our last look at the game, we talked about stumble shots--which are essentially shots taken by a player when he's being accosted by opponents. Although the game trailer showing off the feature is a re-creation of Alexander Ovechkin's once-in-a-lifetime goal while on his back, it seems that most stumble shots are going to be far less dramatic.
In my time with the game so far, I've only seen a couple of them, and they often involved the shooter being pushed in such a way that he's shooting with only one skate on the ice, for example. In fact, I haven't seen a dramatic stumble shot goal yet, but I'm hoping to see one soon. After all, while you don't want every player to be standing on his head when shooting at the net, at least one spectacular goal every once in a while wouldn't hurt (though, I should admit, there is an achievement for scoring a stumble shot goal).
That said, big hits are still very much a part of NHL 2K10. Checking is a breeze in this game, both against the boards and, often, in the open ice. In fact, the developers behind the game are relishing that contact and have added more incidental contact between players away from the puck. This results in players jostling each other frequently--especially when chasing down pucks during dump-ins--as well as other goodies, such as players pinning each other to the boards.
From an AI standpoint, producers told me that a lot of work has been put into the game in the hopes of improving the CPUs ability to keep possession of the puck in the offensive zone, as well as interrupt passing lanes. In the former case, that's certainly true; on the default difficulty, the AI cycles the puck well, and it can be a chore to gain back possession of the puck. In terms of passing lanes, at least in my time with the game, it seems like more work needs to be done. At the default difficulty, long, up-ice passes are still abnormally accurate, especially those from the goalie to a forward.
New control tweaks for 2K10 include a stick lift button (Y on the Xbox 360 controller), which can be used in a number of different ways--from interrupting a shot attempt to preventing a player from receiving a pass. Naturally, using the stick lift carries a risk with it: If you attempt it with a mediocre player, you run the risk of incurring a slashing penalty. When skating, you have so-called one-on-one moves available to you, which are used to deke defenders. To pull them off, you hold the left bumper and then press a face button or move the right stick up, down, left, or right. These moves range from fairly straightforward, such as dangling the puck to one side, to more showboat, such as kicking the puck off your skate to try to fool a defender. When you're close to the goalie, you can perform so-called "Ovi Dekes" by holding down the left bumper and moving the right stick in one of four directions--these special moves will only be possible for players with a high-creativity rating.
Elsewhere in the game, NHL 2K10 will seamlessly integrate its online modes, similar to NBA 2K10. Instead of having an "Xbox Live" menu option, you'll be able to choose to play online from a specific game mode. So in the "quick game" option, you'll be able to fire up a game against the CPU, play a ranked online match, or invite a friend for an online game with just a flick of the left stick and the press of a button. That "online everywhere" philosophy extends to Franchise mode as well--not only can you play a game in your franchise season against an online friend (for that player, it will be a simple pick-up game), but you can also invite a friend to join you in a cooperative franchise game.
Franchise mode has also seen its share of additions--notably in a new option for salary restriction known as "team budget." Instead of working with the salary cap (which is also an option in Franchise mode), your team owner will adjust your team budget based on how your team is performing. The owner will make these adjustments twice a year--during the offseason and before the trade deadline. Your team status will depend on many factors, not the least of which is the likelihood of your team making the playoffs. In addition, all of the other teams in the NHL will have status updates of their own, so if you're looking to build for a playoff run and have the available cash, you can check around the league to see which teams are looking to off-load some talent.
If you're tired of a certain NHL team (myself, I could do without the Anaheim Ducks), you'll be able to replace it in your NHL 2K10 franchise using the create-a-team option. Here, you can choose to create a uniform from scratch using either generic logos or those from the NHL, as well as a unique color scheme. If you're looking to bring back the Hartford Whalers but want to use the Dallas Stars' color palette or one entirely of your own making, you'll be able to do so. From there, you can choose to invite friends to your team or recruit players from the pick-up games leaderboard to fill out the rest of the spots on your team. In addition to playing online with your created team, you'll be able to use created teams in Franchise mode. In other words, good-bye Anaheim Ducks; hello Winnipeg Jets.
Other details of note for NHL 2K10 include the ability to upload your franchise data such as scores and stats to the 2K Sports Web site, as well as the ability to upload created rosters, draft classes, and sliders via the 2K Share service, which is newly implemented in this year's game.
The biggest news for NHL 2K10 for the Wii is, perhaps, its scope. Unlike last year, 2K10 for the Wii will include all modes found in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions, including full online support via friend codes and Wii Speak. The controls for the Wii version have been tweaked as well--with more emphasis on button controls and less on the waggle controls that dominated last year's game. Wii MotionPlus controls are in this year's game, and the one-on-one motion during a slap shot backswing is pretty impressive. Not only will it register how far back you've swung the Wii Remote, but the speed of your shot will also be determined by how quickly you follow through on your swing. You'll also be able to perform passes by flicking in any direction and pressing the A button. You perform stick handling moves by holding down on the D pad and moving the Wii Remote in any direction--a handy way to pull off stick sweeps and poke checks when on defense.
Though it still has some ground to cover to return back to the simulation-style hockey that defined the NHL 2K series a few years ago, it looks like 2K Sports is set on changing the public's perception of the game. We'll find out how successful that focus is when NHL 2K10 is released on September 15.