Making an arcade hockey game as superb as NHL 09 created one big problem for EA Sports: sky-high expectations. Last year's game was so good that it created an almost impossible act to follow. Good luck trying to top revolutionary improvements made to the on-ice action, controls, and modes of play. Still, NHL 10 sure tries. This is undoubtedly a better game than its predecessor, thanks to a handful of gameplay tweaks, first-person fighting, and a new Be the GM option, but in the grand scheme of things, this is more of a refinement than a full-blown sequel. Anybody who can name the Original Six without checking Google should still buy this outstanding hockey simulation, although owners of NHL 09 might not feel the need to put it at the very top of the shopping list.
You can tell right away that this is a new game on the ice, although the differences between last year's model and this one are limited to a general tightening up of the defense and goaltending, along with a little better offensive flow. As before, you need to understand how hockey works to have any hope of success. Suiting up is a lot like hitting the ice for real, especially when you lock to one position. Positional play is vital in all zones, so it's important to stick to your lanes, cover your man, and so forth. Serious work is required to put the biscuit in the basket because computer defensemen and goalies are always at the top of their game. And since this is not rock-'em-sock-'em arcade hockey, trying to line up a jaw-rattling hit is more likely to land you on your behind or spring a three-on-one going the other way. This really comes into focus when playing online with a full team of friends, because you can do just about anything here that you can do on real ice without the game getting in the way. It may be a bit of a letdown that there are no big-ticket advancements this year, but the game remains an outstanding simulation that just about perfectly blends arcade action with hockey authenticity.
All the developers really need to work on is offense. Right now, computer players are still a little slow on the uptake in the transition game. This causes you to get bottled up in your own end too frequently when you're playing locked to a forward position. Offensive creativity is great once you cross the enemy blue line, with computer players whipping the puck in and out, using the point, driving the net, setting up give-and-go scoring attempts, and so forth. It is a lot of fun just watching them play. But your computer-controlled teammates always sit back a bit when you're on the ice, waiting for you to headman the puck. This is a lot better than having them race forward and forever get caught offside, although right now forwards spend too much time hanging out around the red line. You really notice this when playing a center, because you can't fly up the ice and hit a winger with a quick outlet pass. Well, you can, but it most often turns into a lateral, because your linemate is usually directly across from you or a step or two behind. Another issue is not being able to properly cycle the puck. Right now, play down deep in the offensive zone is a bit slapdash. You can set up in the corner just fine, but you never get much help to cycle from computer players, which leaves you stuck driving the net or looking for a pass into the slot or back to the point. None of these options are great, though, as the defense is so on the ball that you either get steamrolled and stripped of the puck or have a pass picked off.
Modes of play are very similar to last year's. All of the main game options are back, but they have been joined by Battle for the Cup, where you play a one-shot series for Lord Stanley's mug, and Be the GM, which turns everything into a management sim. Only the latter is interesting, and yet it isn't everything that it could be, given the issues that a mostly text-based management simulation faces when dealing with a gamepad. Games like this just work better on the PC, largely due to the ability to sift through data with a keyboard and mouse. Simply lining up a trade takes a lot of futzing around with the D pad and various buttons. Also, too many weird things happen for Be the GM to be totally satisfying for the serious hockey nuts who would be interested in playing this way. Computer trades, for instance, can be incredibly goofy. Teams have a weird tendency to dump franchise players at the start of the season. We've seen Anaheim ship future Hart Trophy candidate Ryan Getzlaf to Detroit for picks and Minnesota practically give away Martin Havlat just a couple of weeks after signing him. Depth signings are also strange. Teams will spend big bucks on players they don't need. Montreal, for instance, sure doesn't need another goalie in Martin Biron, yet they seem to ink him every summer regardless. Minor moves, however, are realistic. A lot of second-tier players rumored to be on the move in the real NHL tend to get traded. It was kind of nifty to see a rumor-mill staple like Drew Stafford sent from Buffalo to Vancouver, for instance.
Other modes of play have just been tweaked. The outstanding Be a Pro game where you create a budding superstar and guide him into the big leagues has been altered only slightly. Perhaps the most noteworthy addition is the Hockey Shop, a one-stop-shopping experience where you can alter your player (for use in both Be a Pro and online play) with the purchase of brand-name skates, sticks, helmets, and gloves, along with skill booster packs. There's kind of a role-playing vibe here. You first buy some cool piece of hardware like an old-school Titan stick that has a boost slot or three and then load these up with purchased booster packs. If your stick has three open slots, for example, you can add three booster packs that increase stick skills like slapshot shooting power or wristshot accuracy. All of this gear is unlocked through gameplay achievements or bought with Microsoft Points, which takes the shine off those magic CCM skates you've been eyeing.
As appealing as it is to be able to custom-fit your player, it's a little disconcerting to see such a core part of the game so thoroughly integrated with pay-to-play downloadable content. Some of the goals needed to unlock the better booster packs are crazy, too. It's a lot easier to just buy them than play 40 games a season for three straight years and win the Selke Trophy along the way, for instance. And it's also a tad annoying that EA saw fit to add this feature while ignoring issues with player ratings and skill types that lead to some bizarre line combos. Too often, players are classified wrongly, so you'll see the likes of a shot-in-the-dark reclamation project like Rickard Wallin bizarrely rated as a sniper and slotted into the first-line-center role in Toronto. This can be frustrating in Be a Pro, because you can easily wind up playing with incompatible linemates.
At least you don't have to pay extra to create a hulking tough-guy type of player for use in Be a Pro and online. You can now unleash your inner Derek Boogard and play a guy who gets paid big bucks for pounding on people for three or four minutes of ice time a night. Fleshing this role out is a new first-person fighting feature where you pull sweaters and launch haymakers from a camera angle so close to the opposition that you can count his missing teeth. Being tossed into the trenches like this and throwing punches with the right stick has a real visceral impact, especially in games where you're controlling an entire team. It feels right to be able to pummel some visor-wearing pest annoying one of your star players, too. But this feature sounds like more fun than it is in practice. Although it's great to beat people up when you're playing an entire team, when you're locked to a position you pay for your 15 seconds of fisticuffs with at least five minutes of game time in the sin bin. At least this isn't the only way you can play physical. You can now get tough without dropping the gloves by working the boards. An all-new board physics system lets you throw the puck carrier up against the glass and hold him there to create a scrum. From there, you can maneuver up and down the boards and maybe even kick the puck to a teammate. This is very realistic, and it's more challenging than it seems since it can be very hard to angle those agile NHL players into the boards. About the only negative here might be the presence of scrums at all, since it does slow play down a bit, and this rugby-style battling has been deemed verboten by the NHL in the post-lockout era.
Multiplayer has been spruced up, too. All of the modes remain pretty much the same as they were last year, with Versus one-on-one play, team play with up to six players per side going head-to-head, a shootout, and EASHL leagues back for more. But the online performance is considerably improved over last year, when frequent lag was a problem. NHL 10 is as smooth as glass even in six-on-six online play with full squads of human players.
Lastly, the interface has been redone in a more user-friendly fashion. About the only thing that keeps you guessing is where to edit an existing player, because going into the new Hockey Shop isn't the first place you look when thinking about changing your power forward's hairstyle. In-game graphics seem to be mostly held over and are virtually identical on both the 360 and PS3. Player art might be a touch better than in last year's game, especially when it comes to facial detail, although you have to look awfully close to see any real improvement. Animations are definitely smoother, though, and there are no more slowdowns during after-whistle replays. Audio quality holds the line. The EA Sports Trax soundtrack once again consists of a mix of old and new rock-pig anthems ranging from the Scorpions' classic "Rock You Like a Hurricane" to a fresh new Nickelback atrocity. And commentators Gary Thorne and Bill Clement still seem to be in dire need of espresso. Both practically snooze their way through games. This is probably better than overcaffeinated screaming, although it would be nice if Thorne could raise his voice an octave or two when somebody rings a shot off the post, or at least come up with a more exciting catchphrase than "Scoring opportunity!" and say it only when someone actually has an opportunity to score. Thorne also mispronounces player names. And not just some of the crazier Finnish and Russian ones, either. Toronto's Matt Stajan, for instance, is frequently called "Stay-on."
The bottom line with NHL 10 is that if you have NHL 09, you don't absolutely, positively need it. But there are enough new features and little adjustments and fixes both online and off that any self-respecting hockey fan should probably still go for it. EA Sports has once again done an absolutely tremendous job of simulating shinny.