NHL 2K10: First Look and Ovechkin on (Synthetic) Ice

Las Vegas might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of the NHL, but that's just where 2K Sports held its latest motion capture event. In support of the its upcoming annual hockey game--NHL 2K10--the developers at 2K Sports set up an open-ice mo-cap event with 2K10 cover...

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Las Vegas might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of the NHL, but that's just where 2K Sports held its latest motion capture event. In support of the its upcoming annual hockey game--NHL 2K10--the developers at 2K Sports set up an open-ice mo-cap event with 2K10 cover star (and Washington Capitals All-Star winger) Alex Ovechkin.

I know what you're saying: Ice? In the middle of June? In Las Vegas? Outside? In this case, "ice" is a bit of a misnomer, as the outdoor half rink that was set up just in front of Caesar's Palace featured a synthetic ice that, at least from the look of things, skated like the real thing. During the event, mo-cap engineers looked to capture some of Ovechkin's best moves and, before the event began, 2K developers showed off an early build of their latest hockey game for the press.

The demo of the game was brief but developers gave us a good sense of what the approach is this year. Since moving development away from the now-defunct Kush and bringing NHL duties to 2K's internal Visual Concepts studio, the focus has been two-fold. Last year, it was simply getting a playable hockey game out the door on a shortened development cycle. While that game was met with lukewarm critical reception, the focus for NHL 2K10's full year development has been to continue to lower the barrier of entry for more casual hockey fans.

With NHL 2K10, opening up the game to more players includes making the game more appealing for multiplayer. As producers put it, they're looking to put the "party" back in multiplayer hockey videogames, adding a sense of fun to the game while focusing on the essentials that will please the true puckheads. A big part of that focus has gone into the game's presentation--there's a new menu system that looks like an improvement from previous years (not that that would be hard--2K Sports in-game menus have been ugly for years). In addition, the game's character models have been tweaked, including more attention on accurate player faces this year.

New presentation only goes so far, however, and the developers realize that a lot of the things that bugged players of NHL 2K9 need to be addressed. And while developers didn't spend much time in the demo talking specifics, we do know of a couple of additions that sound promising. The signature style feature, which looks to model the playing style of the athletes, will be in effect in 2K10, with signature shots, dekes, and goal celebrations (and with Ovechkin doing the mo-cap last night, there's a good chance you'll see a bunch of his signature celebrations. Too bad for you, Don Cherry).

The team is also working on new animations that will directly affect gameplay, such as stumble shot animations that will let players get off a shot even if they're being jostled by an opponent. Stumble shots won't be as accurate as a normal shot, of course, and have been added to the game based on fan reaction to NHL 2K9's preponderance of checking to prevent shots. In addition, the team is promising a some subtle improvements to the skating physics, making finesse moves easier to pull off both on offense and defense.

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Images courtesy of 2K Sports

Though I didn't get a chance to try 2K10 for myself, I did get a sense of how the game is played by watching it during the demo. Player movement seems to be roughly the same speed as last year, and the same blistering shots from all over the ice are still in the game. Developers are promising some tweaks to the AI that will make it better adapt to the multiplayer focus the game is going for this year and, by the looks of things, the game's AI looks to be decent, with proper player spacing on defense and a good amount of hitting as well. 2K wasn't talking about game control specifics but, after watching the demo, it seems like it will continue to be a mix of face buttons and the analog stick.

The game will include support for multiplayer franchise mode and 2K Share will be implemented across all versions of the game. We expect to see more on the Wii version of the game, which wasn't showed last night, in the coming weeks.

As for Ovechkin, who last appeared on the cover of a hockey game as the star of EA Sports' NHL 07, he's a man of few words and a large entourage. Last night's mo-cap was the first time he had skated on the synthetic ice (which 2K Sports used last year for their motion-capture session with the Columbus Blue Jackets' Rick Nash. I had a brief chance to speak with Ovechkin, before he took to the ice. He doesn't strike me as the world's biggest game fan but definitely has his favorite team when he fires up a hockey game:

"Capitals. Always the Capitals." Naturally, right?

Including last night's mo-cap session, development will continue up until NHL 2K10's release in mid-September. There's lots of work yet to be done too; after sneaking a peek at the menu screen I saw the Detroit Red Wings overall team rating was 99, compared to the Pittsburgh Penguin's 93 overall. Considering the outcome of this year's Stanley Cup Finals, it looks like those ratings will need some tweaking before release…

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