Though EA doesn't advertise it, NHL 10 is two games on one disc. One of them is not exactly a game; it's a full-featured sports simulation for hockey fanatics who pay through the nose to their TV providers for all-inclusive NHL season subscriptions that promise live broadcasts of every single game — sometimes two matches at once in a special picture-in-picture mode. The first game has just about everything on top of the usual sports features: Be A Pro mode, tournament mode featuring national teams, Create A Play mode, online leagues, online co-op for up to six players, online competitive play for up to 12 players, in-game coaching, full control of your team's lines, and, yes, even a robust GM (General Manager) mode, known as Franchise mode in other games, which is deep as the sea and feature-rich.
The other game you get in the box is recreational sports title. This is a game for hockey fans who have perhaps a two or three favored teams and hope to catch TV broadcasts of a couple dozen games during the regular season, but typically only manage to watch half of those. You can play competitively or cooperatively on your sofa with up to four controller-wielding buddies. You can play with beer. You can groan over robbed goals or the travesty of nudging the puck past your own goal line; your friends will bear witness to your outrageous victory dances that would be impossible if you were standing on skates wearing all those pads. You can even play with the controller scheme from NHL 94, if you won't be bothered becoming proficient with the elegant double-stick arrangement that is a true highlight of this EA franchise.
The secret to getting the most out of NHL 10 is knowing which type of hockey fan you are and playing one of the two game styles appropriate to your level of interest. While the sim fanatic likely knows himself and his coaching and line-creation abilities inside and out, it's the hobbyist hockey fan I'm worried about: You have to admit that you are just not that into it or you'll find the game too complex, with many features you'll never even try let alone get any good at playing. The trick is that you must realize you don't have to tap into every feature. Sure, it's recommended you take a couple of weeks to check out everything and see what may suit you. But trying everything is hardly required to get enough out of NHL 10 that you won't feel like you missed a single thing. You also need full awareness that you suck. No, really, you're awful and awkward out there on the ice, and you're going to lose a lot, either against the CPU or online opponents. You're going to improve, but you don't have the time or inclination to become an expert. It's OK; I suck, too. Once I came to terms with the reality, though, I was able to fully enjoy every minute of NHL 10.
Let's start off with the things that both types of players will experience: The visuals and audio presentation. NHL 10 has great graphics, from arena detail to individually animated fans cheering or jeering behind the Plexiglas. Involved in the games, you probably won't notice these elements, specifically because they're not noticeable if they're not hackneyed or broken. You won't necessarily notice that the character facial models all look much like their real NHL counterparts. You won't notice because they don't all look more or less the same, like hockey mannequins; that you'd notice, but instead you'll be busy trying to close ranks in the defensive end or make the unexpected cross-ice pass that eventually results in a breakaway goal. You'll be excited enough by the games you play, you'll press the A button right through most of the replays, so a lot of work in the graphics department will be wasted on you. But, rest assured, it's there. The game looks great, complete with outstanding in-game action and post-action animations. There's even a new first-person fighting mode, which isn't among the likes of Fight Night 4 but looks fairly nice and doesn't go on so long that you're reminded that NHL 10 wasn't visually designed as a fighting game. By the way, if you want a fighting game, you should buy Fight Night 4 right now — but more on that later.
The licensed music soundtrack for NHL 10 is EA's best effort in this category in years. There's a good Green Day track. There's a coarse but pleasant cover of Kim Wilde's "Kids in America." (Most of you will think it's an original song, but it's a cover of a classic pop rock track from way, way back in 1981.) There's Megadeth. No, wait, I know what you're thinking: more virtually nonstop heavy-metal hockey. But it's good Megadeth, listenable Megadeth, fun Megadeth. You don't have to be a fan of the band to enjoy the track when it comes round. There's no question that NHL 10's music producer has done an outstanding job this year.
Crowd noise is, per usual, good, lending verisimilitude to the arena atmosphere without overwhelming the announcing or the on-ice action. The sound of players calling instructions to one another is simply sublime. They can be clearly heard above the arena ambience, as if you're actually down on the ice playing. On the opposite end of the quality spectrum, announcing in NHL 10 is the weakest point in the audio presentation. It's lively and enthusiastic enough but becomes repetitive faster than the radio-style broadcast of this game's competition, NHL 2K10. It's also a bit quirky. For example, playing as Detroit, every time I lost a face-off — and I lose a lot of face-offs — both announcers ran me through the muck, calling for my immediate replacement in the face-off circle. Playing as Dallas, losing just as many face-offs, only every once in a while was I subject to the commentators' abuse. The in-game color commentary is hardly poor, but in such a well-rounded title as NHL 10, I expected more polish in its execution.
For the hockey hobbyist, there is a playoff mode, which in seven game series, even with five-minute periods, will take a while to get through. (You can make other adjustments to shorten the length of the experience.) Playoff mode is still better suited to pastime players than the full season mode, and don't even think about the GM mode. Even better for the busy hockey fan is the full-featured Battle For The Cup Now mode. Although you can play the lead-up as authentically as you'd like, you can also select for a single Knockout Game and take Lord Stanley's Cup with a single win. That's recreational video game hockey at its best.
Onto the other game, the one for the hockey aficionado for whom there is essentially only one sport in the world and infinite time to watch it or play the video game or real-world version. Once again in EA's NHL hockey sim, you can make this game your life until next September rolls around and yields a new, refined version of the game. There's the Be A Pro mode, in which you create your own player and follow him through his career, earning points through gameplay to upgrade everything from his gear to his particular on-ice skills.
(All the better gear is unlockable via game progression, but you can, if you wish, purchase most of it through Xbox Live. If you don't have the time or don't want to wait, you don't have to, but you'll pay for it in Microsoft points, which do have some correlation to real money. Still, it's a commendable balance between unpopular pseudo-DLC that actually comes on the disc and therefore seems like it should be available to anyone who buys the game. You're not shut out of extra content that came with the package if you can't or won't afford to buy NHL 10 trinkets via Xbox Live.)
For the uber-player, there is of course that life-destroying, marriage-ending Be A GM mode. In-game, you can also use your own created plays, and optionally you have complete control of your lines and coaching strategies. Join online leagues if you like. If you're one of those hockey gamers, you know what you're looking for, and it's all here, though I'm sure you'll come up with a few things that you'd like to see in next year's game.
NHL 10's default double-stick control scheme is unparalleled in the history of hockey gaming. There's a learning curve, and it takes some getting used to before you'll feel halfway comfortable, but it's worth it as the control scheme eventually becomes second nature for even casual regular players. The addition of board play is welcome. It seems a small thing, but it makes a big difference. Instead of a locked two-man scrum at the boards eventually resulting in a frozen-puck whistle and face-off, you can pin your opponent to the boards and deftly poke check the puck away, keeping the action going. On defense the right stick serves for basic hits, while using the vision control on the left trigger you mete out whopper body checks. As a concession to reflexive button-pushing from past NHL games, you can also body-check with a face button. You're far better off becoming accustomed to the stick method; that way, you rarely break focus from the double-stick control mechanism, and you're always ready to switch seamlessly from defense to offense and back again, just like real hockey.
The online play in NHL 10 is a treat. It's virtually lag-free, and I'm about sure any lag you will encounter is due to the connection of one of the players in the online match, although EA's matching system is quite capable at making sure everything is good at the outset. I experience zero dropped connections, save for ones in which it was clear the other player had just quit. Further, the ranked matching is finely tuned. For the most part, I didn't play NHL games last year so I'm a little rusty. Starting out, my online ranked games were evenly matched, a straight-up fight to the finish, or at least until the third period when a better-skilled opponent might naturally pull away by a couple of goals. As my skills improved, so did the skills of the players to whom I was matched. I won and lost, but experienced no runaways, no out-and-out drubbings, for either side. The ranked matching is a fine example of algorithmic artistry for all online sports games.
As promised, a note on first-person fighting: It's a gimmick. Sure, it's a fun gimmick, and winning an on-ice fight can boost your team's enthusiasm for a brief period, but it's still a gimmick. Fight all you want offline, but please, unless it's absolutely necessary, minimize the attempts to fight online. No, I don't want to trade punches with you every time play stops, and I can confidently tell you, after the novelty wears off, no one else much will either. Keep it clean, people.
Between NHL 2K10, which I rather liked in some ways, and NHL 10, there is a clear victor. If you're not hockey-mad enough to own both games this year, buy NHL 10. NHL 2K10 has its moments, but EA's title has the greater share of great moments. In online play, NHL 10 is far more technically stable in making and sustaining connections between Xbox Live gamers. NHL 09 was a great game, and moving on to NHL 10, there was not much presenting itself for addition or overhaul. EA's sports developers managed to make refinements and enhancements that are more than just the annual churn. Obviously, this title is highly recommended for anyone buying a hockey game this autumn, but if you've never played a hockey simulation, or it's been years and years since you've bothered, I can't think of a better place to start or return than NHL 10.Score: 9.0/10
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