|System: X360, PS3||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: EA Canada||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Electronic Arts||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: Sep. 15, 2009||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1-12||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Jonathan Marx
EA heads back to the rink with NHL 10. After last year's absolutely stellar offering, it's hard to imagine they could come up with something better. However, lots of subtlety and care have gone into NHL 10 to make this the superior of the two. That being said, board play, crisper passing, more forgiving shooting, first-person fighting, and slightly tweaked game modes may not be enough incentive for everyone to upgrade. Though this is essentially the exact same game as last year's offering with a few tweaks that further hone it beyond its already razor-like edge, hardcore fans of the sport and the franchise would be remiss not to slap down the $60.
If you haven't purchased an entry in this franchise in the last few years, you owe it to yourself, your friends, and your gaming cred to run out and pick this title up. Seriously, this series represents perhaps the finest translation of a sport to video gaming. From the game's outstanding, über-realistic presentation to the depth and natural feel of gameplay, this franchise is fun to its core. Going to the Stanley Cup with a friend on the coach, or putting a jackass from cyberspace head-first into the boards are some of the best virtual sports experiences around. Building on the quality already established in EA Canada's previous handful of games, NHL 10 represents the pinnacle of the franchise.
The most noticeable gameplay improvement this year is the ability to score from anywhere. While there are still bread and butter positions and motion patterns found around the ice, you can score from pretty much anywhere unscripted. This is really refreshing, as it feels like you're in control on offense rather than being subjected to the fickle pre-programmed whims of goaltender AI. Of course, this does mean extremely high-scoring affairs. Upon firing up the game and setting up my preferred gameplay settings in the "My NHL 10" menu, my first contest (on All-Star difficulty with four minute periods) resulted in me shellacking the computer-controlled Penguins 5-2 with my beloved Blackhawks at the United Center. In that game there were an additional four pucks turned away by the pipes (split evenly between the AI and me). Supposedly EA Canada has tightened up goaltending with better positioning, but I found I could abuse AI and human netminders on a much more consistent basis.
This trend continued throughout the time I spent with the title until I cranked it up to Superstar - that's when I learned just how powerful (overpowered?) the new board play mechanics can be if not meticulously accounted for. Players can now dump the puck into the zone and fight for possession in the corners. Whether on offense or defense, holding the puck up in this way adds a tremendous amount of realism to the game. It also provides yet another layer of strategy to the title - one that was sorely missing from previous versions. As much as I love this new feature, it does feel a bit roughly implemented, as it is easy for defenders to unbalance the game through overuse. For example, it is very easy to hold up wingers along the boards at the blue line without any risk that you'll get burned, because enacting the mechanic, even from a distance, essentially locks the defenseman on his target and paralyzes the winger, stopping his momentum. This really slows things down. Finesse players that were able to dominate play in NHL 09 by breaking out quickly are in for a rude awakening, as they'll often be stymied in the neutral zone. Unless you get really good with the Skill Stick (I mean really good), prepare to dump the puck almost every trip down the ice against quality competition.
I also really enjoyed the ability to take out my frustrations on opposing players via the new first-person perspective fighting. Now, rather than the play ending with the whistle, you can instigate a little extracurricular fisticuffs at the touch of a button, even as the refs are collecting the puck to set up for a face-off. This means enforcers play a stronger role in the game, and it further adds to the simulation character of the title.
While I liked the realism of this first-person view, it would have been more satisfying and better controlled if a third-person, side-angle view was used - Fight Night Round 4 controls and perspective should be standard fighting mechanics across the EA-family of sports games. Nevertheless, putting your ungloved fist in an opposing Centerman's face that's working on a hat-trick is decidedly gratifying. Besides, you'll soon get used to the simple dodge, punch, grab, and turtle-up commands, as they're proficient if not ideal.