Another year, another NHL game from the folks at EA. In recent times, this has been a very, very good thing, with EA Canada pulling out all the stops to innovate and bring the series forward with new features. NHL 09 saw the addition of the Be A Pro mode, allowing players to take control of a single player for the duration of their career, both online and offline. It was a massive success - we thought damn highly of it. NHL 10 doesn't have anywhere near the same level of new features though, with EA Canada choosing to keep the core game intact, while polishing and refining it as much as possible. The result is, undoubtedly, a good one - but is it worth the upgrade for NHL 09 owners?
To be honest, unless you're a hardened hockey fan, probably not. From the moment you turn it on, NHL 10 feels like a refined version of 09 - the presentation is similar and the menus have the same layout to last year's version, which is a little bit disappointing. On the plus side they make a little more sense now, but can still be somewhat irritating to navigate when looking for a specific option or feature. Time for a complete overhaul, EA.
As far as new features go, there aren't really a whole lot. Be A Pro, new to the series last year, survives intact, with the nifty addition of upgradable equipment - which can either be unlocked or bought with MS points. Hmmm. Very little else has changed here - unfortunate, because the mode is very good, it could do with some fleshing out. On the plus side, the line-changing bug that plagued this mode last year is gone. There's a new Battle for the Cup mode, which skips the regular season and takes players straight to the playoffs. Slightly more significant is the removal of the Franchise Mode, having been replaced with a Be A GM (General Manager) Mode. It's basically the same, but with a lot of little tweaks here and there. Based on a player's trade proposals, other GMs will form a positive or negative opinion of them, leading to easier, or harder, trade negotiations in the future. It can seem incredibly complicated and overwhelming at first - EA has introduced some brief tutorials to make things a bit easier to understand, but they aren't quite as in-depth as we would like. Smarter AI GMs would have also been appreciated, as it is still far too easy to make terribly lopsided trades.
As far as the core gameplay is concerned, it plays just as well as last year's game - largely because, fundamentally, it's pretty much the same. The game still feels a lot like the real thing and allows plenty of room for offensive creativity, thanks to the right analog stick control. The defensive controls have seen slight improvements, with stick play without the puck a lot more efficient and more accurate than it was last year, and shot blocking much easier to pull off. Goaltenders are, as always, just a little bit tougher to beat - although most players will still be able to score a little bit too easier after some practice.
The most obvious new feature is the inclusion of board play. Just like real hockey, when the puck gets tied up on the boards, players can trap the puck in, before attempting to kick it out to a team mate. Players can also be pinned against the boards at any time - though it will obviously draw a penalty if the puck is not in the local vicinity. It's not a big change, but it's a nice little feature that makes the game feel a bit more like the real thing.
Fighting has also been overhauled. Pugilists will see things from a first person point of view, and will be able to aim punches and dodge them accordingly with flicks of the analog sticks. It's a big improvement over what we've seen from hockey games in the past, and will no doubt be a big hit amongst fans who only play hockey games for the punch-ups. It does feel just a litttle bit too button-bashy, but it's all in good fun - plus, it's not like hockey fights are even slightly scientific, anyway. In addition to this, post-whistle scrums have been added. Once the referee stops the play, players are free to check, slash and even fight - provided the option is enabled. Penalties will of course result from this (assuming they are turned on), but hey, who cares? It's fun!
The visuals have seen a vast improvement. While on the surface things look about the same - players still look great, with most looking like their real-life counterparts - the framerate has been given a much needed kick up the backside. During gameplay, the rate never seems to drop, even with all players on screen, like it did far too often in last year's game. Post-goal celebrations are still a bit lacking, but this is a superficial problem that has absolutely no bearing on the gameplay, so it's acceptable. Rink sounds have also seen big improvements, with the boards and slap-slots in particular sounding a lot more realistic and impressive through a decent sound system.
Just like last year, online play is a pivotal part of NHL 10. All of last year's modes are still here - the EA Sports Hockey League still allows players to assemble their best team of six players to take on all comers, and its still brilliant fun if you can manage to get the right mix of people in on the act. The online performance has also been improved, which is nice - however, unfortunately, there is still a lack of local players, meaning that if you fancy going online, you'll inevitably be thrown in a match with Canadians - it's still playable, but don't expect to be a useful goalie at any point. Annoying, but not surprising considering that ice hockey is hardly a sport that captures the hearts of millions down under.
There's no denying that NHL 10 is a fantastic package, and plays a wonderful game of hockey - especially in multiplayer modes. The problem is that this game is just too similar to last year's effort to make it a worthwhile upgrade for all but the most dedicated hockey fans. Sure, the board play, revised fighting style and upgraded Be A GM mode are nice, but they are hardly significant upgrades by any stretch of the imagination. However, if you've yet to stake around with NHL 09, this is worth a long, hard look - it's a very complete and polished package that could you have addicted for a long time.