Every year, the August release of “Madden” tends to overshadow one of EA Sports’ other most long-standing and highly cherished franchise: the “NHL” series. Following a few stumbles in the middle of the decade, EA reclaimed the top spot with a series of stellar annual hockey games. “NHL 10” is no different.
“NHL 10” is the premiere hockey video game out there, with so much content that everyone from “Blades of Steel”-loving arcade junkies to crazy, face-painting team supporters can find something to like. The basic on-ice gameplay is mostly unchanged; a few tweaks offer more options to your virtual skaters, but the controls and feel are familiar and comfortable. On the simulation side, Be A Pro and GM modes offer a ridiculous – nearly unmanageable, at times – amount of depth; hockey noobs had best start following the business moves if they hope to keep up with “NHL 10”’s off-ice play.
Hockey = Fun
EA has been tweaking the basic “NHL” formula for years and, as always, the latest is the most streamlined offering yet. The controls have a natural feel; your virtual skaters move exactly as they ought on the ice. The puck, meanwhile, has a physical presence, and will bounce off of errant sticks or bodies if not carefully aimed. A new control feature allows the carrier to press up against the boards to protect the puck, kicking it loose only when a teammate is close enough to receive it.
Fighting – aka hockey’s lost art – has been completely redone in “NHL 10.” The most obvious change is a first-person viewpoint once a scuffle starts. While there are controls for dodging, blocking and power punches, most engagements will simply boil down to who lands the most blows the quickest. The best part about the renewed focus on fighting is the AI’s awareness of the change. Rough up players on the opposing team after the whistle blows and they’ll fight back, maybe even go after some of your other players. This makes multiplayer showdowns especially exciting, especially for longtime fans of the series who remember a time when scrapping after the whistle was a matter of course.
Between Be A Pro mode and Be A GM mode, players can role-play on either the micro or the macro level. Pro is basically unchanged; you create your skater, get yourself drafted and play out a career over a series of seasons. GM mode is new to the series, sort of. There’s been similar in previous entries, but this is the most detailed team management sim that the series has yet seen. Players must maintain relationships with other team GMs, complete specific tasks for points (which can then be spent on upgrading support staff), participate in the draft, fret over the trade deadline and all manner of other activities relating to overseeing a professional hockey team.
As welcome as it is to see such a focus on off-ice simulation, none of it is particularly user-friendly. As a GM, players will receive scouting reports and then not be able to access them during the draft, when it might be useful. Other teams will constantly offer trades, and almost none of them will be worth your time without any tweaks. The game will tell you which players you need, but it won’t recommend the types of players you should be looking for; silly, considering that each position has different classes of player. In short, unless you’re a hockey master, learning the simulation side of “NHL 10” is going to be a struggle.
Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return to handle on-ice commentary once again. Unfortunately, they have a tendency to repeat themselves. A lot. What’s more, whatever script they’re reading from sounds like it was written by a grade schooler with a stunted vocabulary. Every hit, every shot, every move factors into some “big time” play or another.
“NHL 10”’s least compelling new feature is Playoff Mode. You basically get to build a 3, 5 or 7 game series between two teams. That’s just about it. Snooze.
If you’ve been playing EA’s “NHL” games in recent years, you’re not going to find much in the way of dramatically new content here. While “NHL 10” is certainly more than a roster update, don’t expect a reinvention. The short version of this review: if you were a fan before, you will be again. If you weren’t a fan, this won’t turn you around.