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”.I spend most of my time playing the Be A Pro mode, which allows you to create your own player, pick a position, choose their appearance choices, pick his style of play and handedness, and off you go. EA added the Be A Pro mode in NHL 09, and it was well done for a first stab at a new feature. Obviously they had learned from the other EA Sports titles that offered similar capabilities. The problem last year is that as a rookie you picked which team you wound up with. In hockey, unless your name is Eric Lindros or Alexander Daigle, it just doesn’t work that way. You play for the team that drafts you.
So, with NHL 10 that problem was solved with the addition of the prospects game and NHL Entry Draft. Once you’ve created your player, your first action is in the prospects game, before which your agent calls to tell you that your play in this game will determine your draft status. With my first character, a defenseman, I was able to raise my status to the 3rd overall pick. I played D last year, so I wanted to give another position a crack this year, so I went with playmaking center, and I wound up being drafted 9th overall by Nashville. I got a four game tryout with the big club, and I scored a goal, but didn’t do well enough to stick in the NHL, so I was sent to Milwaukee of the AHL where my player is currently toiling on the road back to the big time.
The biggest change I’ve found in Be A Pro mode is that feedback about your shift by shift and game by game play is a lot stronger this year, and you can earn unlocks in terms of boost slots to your equipment. These boost slots allow you to improve stats and abilities further than you could through experience earn stat improvements. I don’t like that you can purchase these upgrades with Xbox Live points, which to me is cheating. But to each his own I guess. Some folks wouldn’t enjoy the most realistic portion of Be A Pro; sitting on the bench between shifts on the ice. Yep, I find I really enjoyed watching the game play while my character was recovering from his turn on the ice. There are times when I want to get right back out there, which is why you’re given the option to call for a line change.
It was actually sitting on the bench in Be A Player mode that I noticed the only issue I see with the game where vast improvement can still be made. The individual animations of every player on the ice are generally quite good. However, when a player changes actions, and a different animation is triggered, it sometimes looks quite awkward and even funny sometimes. Players skating forward, stopping, then skating sideways, the animations don’t run smoothly together, and it looks jerky, like watching a bunch of kids in a hockey camp. It stinks, because the actual movements individually are overall very lifelike.
NHL 10 like its recent predecessors does a nice job of teaching gamers how to make use of many of the new features. There’s a strong practice mode that allows you to work on specific skills, and you can practice each as much or as little as you like, with only a single success at each new skill allowing you to progress. I like that the more unique shooting capabilities have been left out of this mode, making it something you can’t really practice.
Like with so many other titles, as your skill in the game improves, you can always increase difficulty to the point where you’re going up against the best the AI can offer. This year the folks at EA Sports did one better in creating Hardcore mode. The best way to describe this mode is that it’s hyper realistic. In most modes, the line between the 1st line players and 4th line players are intentionally blurred so that as gamers, we’re not put off by user players that can’t do most of the things the gamer wants them to. In Hardcore mode, I found out quickly that you have to adjust your style of play based on the lines you have on the ice. Trying to dangle the puck with your tough guy and it’s going to be picked off and wind it up in your net.
The most heralded change this year was the introduction of first-person fighting and the agitation that leads to it. In previous years, fighting came mostly from big hits or dust ups in front of the net. Roughhousing after the whistle usually didn’t lead to anything, and was how I worked off aggression during bad games. Now, instigating during a game or after the whistle will lead to a penalty or with a willing partner, a fight. In journalistic parlance, I buried the lead by addressing the fighting feature so late in the review. But it’s really a small feature that’s gets a lot of hype; in part because so many people love the role of fighting in hockey, and because it’s such a hot button issue to others. The controls are smart and easy to master. In keeping with realism, a player’s size, strength, balance, and role are taken into account. Ability to fight is as key as throwing a bunch of punches.
In closing, while there are a couple of things to work on for next year, NHL 10 is the best sports game I’ve ever played. Previous incarnations have had issues strong enough to take away from what was otherwise a solid game. But with the addition of the new features, and the improvement to the AI, there isn’t a lot the development team can improve on for next year. This game has a reached a plateau against which all future versions will be measured. It’s not perfect, but it’s the closest thing we’ve seen, and after 19 seasons, this veteran is truly an all-star.