2K Sports' NHL 2K10 is a game of comparisons. It's unavoidable. If 2K10 were the only NHL-licensed title available for Xbox 360 this year, we'd be talking about how much improved the title is over previous years' efforts, how solid and well-rounded the track selection in 2K Beats, how thrilling the game-opening animations, how much the controls have been improved, how much fun it is to play one-on-one or, online, six-on-six. How fantastic it is they built in support not only for four-player co-op offline, but an entire team, including the goalie, in the online co-op mode. We'd commend the game's strengths and gently point out what we'd like to see changed in next year's version.
But NHL 2K10 is not the only hockey title on Xbox 360 this year: It's up against EA's juggernaut, NHL 10. Bear in mind, last year's EA NHL game, NHL 09, was heralded among many sports sim fans as the greatest hockey game since 1994, and in hockey video game circles, that's saying a lot, perhaps even too much. It's expected that if EA's new game doesn't improve upon last year's model, it at least will be as good as the best hockey title since 1994. That's a tall order, trying to leapfrog a franchise that's been troubled in the past but lately has set itself well on course, a game series now widely lauded as the best thing since frozen water. NHL 2K 10, however, does try. It tries very hard to not only to be better, but also to avoid a completely copycat style of gameplay. Yet it doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of its competitor.
For starters, 2K10's presentation is quirky. After the opening load screen, you're dropped right into what looks like a quick-match screen, default Pittsburgh at default Detroit. From there, you can directly choose from a menu that splits the screen right up the middle: go ahead and play an exhibition-style quick match or play online in a ranked match. If you want to do something else, like play a season, play in franchise mode, play a setup Stanley Cup playoff bracket, or just arrange your 2K Beats preferences, watch closely and a list of menu hints will pop up across the bottom of your TV screen. Pressing B will take you to the main menu screen. Alternatively, you can move the right thumbstick to call up the main menu. Releasing the B button or moving the right stick again will drop you right back to that quick-match screen.
Once in the menu, things get even funkier: you use the left analog stick to navigate a nine-block grid of options; you must hold the stick in the direction of the item block you're selecting and press the A button to access it. Usually, you'll drill down to a submenu with even more options. It's unnecessarily complicated straight out of the box. (For example, to write the preceding description, I had to fire up NHL 2K10 and run through the menus, to recall exactly how they work. That just never happens. After several recent hours with a game, I can easily write menu descriptions from memory.) The game's menu system, a stab at stark simplicity, is not an accustomed way to access options. You do get used to it, and it's rather quick and smooth after a shakedown period, but it doesn't break enough new ground in sports game interface design to make it worth being so odd.
NHL 2K10's menu scheme sets the tone for the whole game: a little off. The default control scheme, for instance, is responsive enough and isn't particularly frustrating. Well-crafted one-timers score goals. In properly played breakaways, the puck gets in the net a fair amount of the time. The scheme offers face button alternatives if you don't like, or can't easily acclimate to, the dual-stick control method. But, like I said, it's a little off.
For one, the game mixes some face button assignments with stick control in places you'd rather expect the developers could have assigned the same function to a stick in a contextual circumstance, reducing the number of controls you have to instinctively know once you start serious play. Another issue, some of the button assignments, for common things like poke checks and shot blocking — assigned to the right and left bumpers, respectively — seem to not belong to their button assignments so much that you probably won't use them when you need them as much as you should. The 360 bumper buttons are handy for some things, but it often takes a lot of practice to make them second-nature reflexes — that's why they're so often assigned to in-game menus or special features, not common actions.
Controller miscues also lead to some problems with the overall gameplay. Without habitual poke checks, defending often devolves to a lock of body checks, which in turn lead to many unnecessary penalties. (Before I got the hang of it, learning to simmer down the aggression of my defense, I thought I might have mistakenly been sent an unreleased special copy of the game, something like NHK 2K10: Penalty-Kill Edition.) Although a central marketing theme of this year's NHL 2K is pick-up-and-play control, the scheme is not easy to learn, and it'll take you several hours before you feel comfortable on the ice, whether playing defense or offense.
Speaking of unnecessary penalties, the officials are pretty tough on the player, and you'll probably get the feeling they're going light on CPU-controlled opponents. In one game, I played an entire period against the CPU five-on-three, most of my time in the box as a result of boarding calls — while the CPU team was doing more or less the same thing to my skaters and getting away with it. The default officiating intensity isn't confined to offline CPU games, either. Playing online, I distinctly had the upper hand in several games because I'd already learned to moderate my defense, playing into instead of against the officiating system; I gained a lot of power-play opportunities — and scored a lot of PP goals — that my consistently man-down opponents didn't get. Again, the stiff officiating you can get used to, but it takes some time, and it's not at all the billed pick-up-and-play experience.
Audio in NHL 2K10 is generally loud, proud and spectacular. The thunderous opening sequences and crowd noise is great to hear. For announcing, this year 2K Sports has aligned itself on a presentation licensing agreement with XM satellite radio. It seems perhaps an odd choice for what is generally spectated live or as a televised sport — radio-style commentary in previous sports titles has been much maligned — but in NHL 2K10, the in-game announcing is actually a highlight. It's talky and constant, yet it takes a while before it gets repetitive, and only rarely do you get the sense the commentary might be canned, not called as the particulars of the game unfold.
Graphics are an uneven mix. The arenas look very nice. The lighting effects during pre-game sequences are top-notch and properly exciting. Skating and shooting/passing animations are acceptable; at least they don't get in the way of digging in deep with the game. The character models, especially the uniform detail, look great; but all the play models appear strangely similar. In NHL 2K10, the players have, basically, two types of faces: the clean-shaven and the bearded. Otherwise, many of them look so much alike you can't tell them apart during close-up play-stoppage camera shots. Clearly the art team cut corners developing the individual player models. It doesn't affect gameplay, of course, but it's noticeable, even humorous, after you've spent some time with the title.
A highlight of this year's NHL 2K is the ability to play franchise mode games online. At first blush, this seems like a tack-on feature, but it's actually quite valuable. I can't count how many times I've set out to play a whole 82-game season only to become entirely bored with the CPU opponents halfway through so I give up the season to the CPU sim function — every season for years. Online franchise play should see players actually complete more seasons, even if takes you longer to get through them, since you'll actually be playing a lot more of the games.
Of course, NHL 2K10 is fairly rife with the stock sports title features. There's the aforementioned online and offline franchise mode play. You can create a player and integrate him with online teams you create. There are online leagues and tournaments. Playoff mode is nicely presented via a graphical bracket more familiar to sports fans than a calendar. I can go and on, but suffice it to say that 2K10 doesn't come up the least bit short in the feature department. It may not include absolutely everything you want, but it certainly has everything you need to keep the game spinning in your 360 until next fall.
With a quirky, but not broken, menu interface, good graphics, great audio and music, and a boatload of online and offline features, the final decision on NHL 2K10 comes down to the nuts and bolts of gameplay, both online and off. Here 2K10 stumbles, if only for the fact it's supposed to be so easy to learn and dive right in, but it's not. There's a definite learning curve that will at first curse you, then keep following you for some time over subsequent play sessions. You'll get the hang of it, but it'll take a while, and until you do, you probably shouldn't venture online too much, going up against or playing co-op with sports gamers who've taken the time to really learn this control scheme.
Online play is smooth as silk, and about as lag-free as I've ever seen an NHL 2K title — sadly, there's a caveat — if you can stay connected. Half of the games I played via Xbox Live disconnected during the matches, especially at, but not limited to, period breaks; ranked games that disconnect don't count against you, but they don't count for you, either. It's a frustrating experience.
NHL 2K franchise titles have long been plagued by online games that either fail to start once initiated or disconnect some time during the game. The series is finicky about network connections, and perhaps 2K10 is no exception. It's hard to tell. I don't have problems staying connected or with general network issues when playing any other titles via Xbox Live. Even games now notorious for their lag or network glitches — Gears of War 2, I'm looking at you — typically play for me far better than the average Live gamer's experience. On the other hand, sports gamers are known for wantonly dropping out of games. Hockey gamers are probably the worst. Puck jockeys will drop on you not only when they're down bad, but when they're down even just a single goal, or when they're up too much, or just because they don't like the way you're running your offensive lines against them.
Overall, with some great presentation and truly fun video game hockey, not to mention a laundry list of features and without doubt clear improvements over the past couple years of the franchise, NHL 2K10 is a worthy hockey title. It just isn't likely to be the most worthy hockey title this year. Perhaps the best praise I can ladle onto 2K10 is that I was actually looking forward to bashing this title for its bad graphics, gameplay glitches, ridiculous commentary and often perverse CPU AI. After spending many enjoyable hours with the game, however, I can do nothing but recommend it as a lesser, imperfect, but still quite reasonable alternative to EA's NHL license, especially if you'd just as soon save the $10 difference between the two games' retail prices.
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