NHL 10 is the newest entry in the well received and successful NHL series of games by EA sports (EA Canada to be exact). It has big shoes to fill as NHL 09 was extremely well received, winning many game of the year and sports game of the year awards. While NHL 10 isn’t the giant leap forward that last year's entry was, it is still an amazing game with many subtle innovations.
One of the things that impresses me most about the EA sports titles, the NHL series in particular, is the presentation wrapped around the game. As you boot it up you are presented with stirring music, slick visuals and amazing intuitive menus. The presentation really is one of the stars of the game and gets you excited right from the start.
When talking about a game in the EA sports series, especially the NHL games, it is important to understand that there are so many game modes that you could literally play it for years. Returning modes such as Season, Be a Pro and Be a GM are tweaked slightly with refinements to make them more involved and complete then ever before. New modes (and I use the term loosely) such as Battle for the Cup and Playoff are on hand to get you to playoff action as quickly as possible.
For those not familiar with the NHL series of games a quick rundown of the various game types is recommended, if you are well versed in the series, feel free to skip down a few paragraphs.
The main crux of the game will be found in Season and Be a Pro modes. In Season mode you choose a team and play through a full season of hockey whether it is in the NHL, AHL or any of the European leagues. This year they have added full roster control so you can change your lines and players as you see fit with full control. The Season mode allows you to simulate games and also gives updates on trades, injuries and general performance of the league and your team. Season mode is a staple of the series, but still an incredibly entertaining mode and one that will eat dozens of hours.
Be a Pro mode, which is my personal favorite, has you creating a new up and coming player and engaging in first a draft then playing through a career. You can choose a particular player and take over their career, but I find building a new superstar to be much more satisfying. During the career of your player you will only play as your Pro (unlike regular modes where you can switch to any player on the ice) and you will be drafted, moved up and down from the minors, get injured, get new contracts, and evolve your player. There is a hockey shop as well as boosters, as you progress you unlock items to equip, of course this being EA you can buy them at any time as well. A great mode for hockey fans as it gets you in the skates of a player you can care about.
The other modes are Be a GM, Battle for The Cup and Playoff. Battle for the Cup and Playoff are ‘new’ modes, but really all they are abridged versions of Season mode. You have the ability to start from the Stanley Cup finals as any team or to choose a Playoff round from any of the leagues featured in NHL 10. These modes are for quick satisfying tournaments and make a great feature for gatherings of friends looking for local multiplayer or people with a desire for tournament style play.
Be a GM is a fully featured General Manager sim (an extra feature in some other franchises). Choosing a team and GM settings you are pulled into a deep and complex simulation that allows you to control your team for 25 years. This mode is for the hardcore only as the mostly text based simulation can be daunting for action seekers. The mode is solid, but with so much going on the AI for other teams seems odd at times. A great feature for the business minded hockey fans and nice to see in the game.
Of course there is a fully featured and very functional online element to NHL 10 with quick games, shootouts, team play and custom leagues all available to play. The online is very stable and finding a match happens quickly. If you believe you are a great NHL 10 player, try an online match and you will quickly learn how good some people are.
With so much to do it is gratifying that such a great engine is powering all the various modes. The EA NHL series is very mature and the stick controls have refined to the point that playing the game is enjoyable and natural after a short while. The left stick controls the skater’s direction and speed, the right controls your shots (or checks when on defense). This system is simple but adds a visceral feel to the game that is almost magical at times. The shoulder buttons control checking, passing and deke options. EA has tuned these controls over the years and I have a feeling they will stay for quite a while.
All the gameplay elements we love in the series are still there: one-on-one dekes, saucer passes and normal ones, hard hits, fast moves, targeted shots and spot on hockey action. Some new additions have made the cut this year with board play, after the whistle action, game profiles, better goalie animation and a first person fighting engine.
I will start with the worst addition (that I hope is dropped next year) — the new fighting engine. You have more control over how aggressive you are on ice and fights can happen a lot if you choose. Once a fight is started you are put into a first person view with watered down and clumsy Fight Night 4 style controls. The engine is flawed, hard to use and pulls you out of the feel of the game. Not a stride forward for the fighting that is part of the NHL experience, hopefully EA hears this feedback.
The other additions are all great though, one of which has goalies benefiting from hundreds of new animations enhancing the excitement of a great save or from beating the goalie with a shot he just missed. After the whistle you are free to stir up trouble, try a shot or just skate around till the puck is recovered. Game profiles let you choose whether you are Default, Casual, Normal, and Hardcore, basically each setting auto sets the game modifying sliders to suit the style of play you like.
The best addition though is the new board play mechanic. In NHL 10 you can press a player against the boards (or be pressed yourself) and engage in a cat and mouse game for the puck. Flattening someone against the boards is very easily accomplished with the triangle button. From there you can pressure him as you get support or try and steal the puck. In a defensive position you can jockey for the puck and kick pass it out if you are unable to break free. The refinement is simple at it’s heart, but frankly I can’t picture the game without it anymore. If you watch hockey at all you see this type of pressure on the boards often and it is great to see it in the game.
Gameplay in NHL 10 is, as mentioned, a joy to experience. The controls are at a level that many games of any genre wish they had and it makes the game itself incredibly enjoyable. The new fighting engine is not fun, but thankfully fights can be turned off or simply just don’t happen often enough to come anywhere near harming the experience.
NHL 10 is one of those games that looks and plays so well you often don’t realize how much effort must have gone into the art for the title. Looking better then ever, NHL 10 has crisp textures, amazing looking stadiums, dynamic and well realized fans cheering at all times, and lighting that is indistinguishable from the real thing.
All the players have their likeness in the game and of course all the stadiums and uniforms are picture perfect to their real life counterparts. Framerate is silky smooth despite the highly polished graphics which is important in such a fast game.
Every year things look that much better in this series. Facial detail and crowds look a little more realistic. Uniforms have visible seams, labels and a cloth-like texture. The ice looks, well like ice, with true skate damage as periods progress. The replays are truly stunning with creative camera angles and the sheer quality of animation makes the game really shine.
Audio when done right in a game like this becomes something you almost overlook. The grunts, hits, swish of skates on ice and commentary all come across incredibly well. Crowd sounds are evident and well done with cheers starting during comebacks and for the teams as they arrive as well as plenty of chatter.
The soundtrack provided on the disc is capable, but a little too top 40 for my tastes at times. Luckily the game has a great custom soundtrack option that allows you to use your own playlists (it recognizes pre-made PS3 playlists which is very nice) throughout the game from menus to on the ice. The truly great implementation though is how the music sounds when playing. During stops in play your music streams as normal, but has that authentic echo that anyone who has attended a hockey game knows very well. Ice and a stadium lend a unique sound to music. Of course outside of gameplay the music sounds crystal clear.
The on ice commentary is great as always, but like any game of this type it does repeat and at times the comments just don’t fit. In spite of that minor issue, the implementation is great and adds a lot to the feel of the game. The audio overall is exceptional and is a critical, but generally overlooked, aspect of this great series.
The Final Word
NHL 10 is not a giant leap forward from the outstanding NHL 09, but it is a fantastic game in its own right. I tend to get every second year of the series (NHL 08 was my last version) and it pays off with this iteration. The new features for the most part make this a deeper, more involved experience resulting in NHL 10 being the best hockey experience you can have short of really getting on the ice.
NHL 10 is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Mild Violence. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360.