I'm been increasingly impressed with EA Sports efforts with the NHL series over the last few years. Step by step they had edged away from the NHL 2K series, and this year's edition is no exception as they add another piece of the puzzle with a better simulation of board play, a very solid new career mode, and several small gameplay improvements that put together makes a big difference.
I started playing the NHL series back on Mega Drive (Genesis for Americans) with the original NHL Hockey, titled EA Hockey over here in Europe. Since then I have played every edition of the game, but last year I never got into NHL 09. Not that it was a bad game, it was just that my interest in hockey was at an all time low at the time of the release. During the season things changed, and perhaps most significantly thanks to the historic final between the Pens and the Wings. My hockey interest was back and I've been enjoying NHL 10 greatly over the last few weeks as a result.
The foundation of a great game was already there. The skill stick controls - simple to understand, hard to master and ultimately very rewarding. The great catalogue of teams and players. The flowing gameplay and a number of good game modes. EA Sports have added a few new or improved ones this year including a "Battle for the Cup" mode where you play a seven game play-off series and the very interesting career mode based on the Be A Pro feature. In this mode you take your own creation through an entry draft, onto the big stage, back to the minors and ultimately (hopefully) on to wear many rings. Be A Pro has been tuned and sharpened since last year.
This mode had me hooked from the get go, and I'm sure I will continue to play it all the way until next year's Stanley Cup finals. The RPG like elements are interesting although I fail to grasp what they have done with the equipment. It's not like players in the NHL don't have access to the very best equipment and using slots to boost stats seems like an odd design choice to me. I would rather have things like line chemistry and happiness with my manager and team mates affect stats, and in doing so it would make it more interesting for a player to actively search for a new team to play for.
But let's return to the gameplay. The artificial intelligence is getting better with every year. And it is important as a winger to know what kind of defender you are facing - some like to pin you against the boards while others fall back to cover your passing options. Keepers react realistically to the puck and deflections. It all seems to have come together in NHL 10. A new element is the board play where it is now much more realistic and a it also makes a grinder much more useful in the game. Having someone dig out the puck along the boards and creating space for playmakers and snipers is very important in NHL 10.
Another highly publicised new feature is the first person fighting. Personally I try not to fight, call me a "Chicken Swede" if you like, but you don't score from the penalty box. That said, the fighting in NHL 10 is pretty sweet and it affords you a few nice moves to pull in order to down your opponent. A successful brawl can refill your team's energy and can be the turning point of a game if handled with finesse. It does feel a bit weird and antiquated with so much emphasis on fighting.
I have also spent some time with the "GM Mode" that let's you control all aspects of the organisation. It's one of those modes where you really need to play ten or twenty seasons to find out if things are as solid as they should be. From my early managerial career I can report that things are looking good. However, it seems some of the other managers don't like my trade offers too much...
The only small complaint I have with NHL 10 after playing the Xbox 360 version are a few glitches and bugs I have encountered. During the first 4-5 games NHL 10 crashed on me, a player got completely stuck in the board and for a period it appeared as though all my players skated in the dark (their white jerseys dark grey). I also find it slightly annoying that the sticks go through the boards after the play stops (it just looks bad) and the constant shoving after the whistle blows is a bit strange to me (it may happen after an intense shift, but usually players are disciplined).
These are just minor annoyances in an otherwise brilliant game that offers incredible long term value with its two main career modes (GM and Be A Pro). This is not a season you will want to sit out! And just as I wrote that last sentence a small package containing NHL 2K10 arrives with the mail, for a comparative look at the two games you will have to check out the NHL 2K10 review...