Each year when I get my review copy of EA's NHL game in the mail, I start by heading over to the GN site to read the prior year’s review. When I did that this year, I realized that this is my 5th year reviewing hockey titles for the site. It’s amazing to me that in an industry where very few games manage to spawn a successful franchise, and fewer still get beyond a few releases; that EA Sports NHL franchise is now in its 19th year. I have literally been playing this game since I was a junior in high school.
I freely admit to being an NHL “fanboy”. I’ve been a fan, a season ticket holder, a booster club president, even a recreational player. Obviously, this means I’m going to play all the NHL titles. This also means that I’m going to have high expectations on these titles. I’m not looking for an arcade game, I want an experience as close as I can get to feeling like I’m in a hockey game. The best way I can put my thoughts on NHL 10; the changes are not for the most part world changing. They are instead about adding to the reality of gaming experience. These small changes seem large because they bring an added sense of realism to the hockey experience, even if they don’t directly impact your ability to score or defend.
Like I said, I’ve been playing NHL titles for a long time now, and in that time, I’ve never once played a game where the AI had trouble scoring goals. But I’ve played plenty of games where once you figured out the AI’s defensive weaknesses the game really couldn’t stop you from scoring. A couple of years ago, EA created an adaptive AI that read your tendencies for scoring, so that the same move would work once and maybe twice, but almost never worked the 3rd time in a row. The goaltending AI behind even average defense was going to be tough to beat. But if you got in alone, you were 99% of the time going to score. That’s because the goalie AI simply wasn’t up to snuff against experienced players, even on the hardest settings.
One of the larger revisions in this year’s game is a retooling of the goalie intelligence. Being one on one against the goalie is no longer an automatic goal. In fact, after 45 games, I’ve only scored on about one third of my breakaways. That’s probably about half as often as last year. Between the upgraded goalie AI and almost total reworking of the goalie animations, the goaltending position has received a solid upgrade over previous years.
To counteract a little of the improved goaltending capability is the ability to score more dramatic goals. Hockey in unique in that you can score in hundreds of different ways from all kinds of angles standing, kneeling, falling, flying, and in some cases laying flat out on the ice. Following Alexander Ovechkin’s goal
in 2006 (where he was knocked sprawling across the ice and put the puck in the net with only his opposite hand on the stick while laying on his back facing away from the net), both NHL titles have attempted to capture more of the unique and unplanned nature of NHL goals.
EA added the Skill Stick in NHL 07, which moved skating and shooting controls to the analog sticks. This opened up a whole world of additional control, but didn’t add to the “fluke factor” of NHL goals. EA has really opened up the ability score in less controlled ways. Loose pucks can be one-timed. Being knocked down doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of the play now. Players can shoot and even stickhandle from their knees. I scored a goal in my second game from the knees, but I haven’t even seen the situation arise since, so it seems they’ve done a nice job of adding this feature without making it more common than it should be. I have yet to figure out how to fake a shot with a leg lift, but once I do, you can bet I’ll be using it.
Another on ice improvement is the ability to battle along the boards. In previous years, playing along the boards was done in the way eight year olds play hockey; sticks on the ice, 3 or 4 of them fighting for the puck. NHL 10 brings us realism in the board battles. You can pin your opponent, forcing them to play the puck with their feet. When you’re the one pinned, your motions are restricted, and you have to rely on teammates to get in close enough to kick the puck free to them. When I first saw it in the game this year I thought “Wow, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that you couldn’t do that”.
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