NHL 10 Review (Xbox 360)
Since the invention of yearly sports games and the less-than-12-months development cycles, it has become virtually impossible for videogame developers to fix everything that went wrong with the last version of their games.
Give the NHL 10 team credit, then, for coming the closest anyone’s gotten in recent years to fixing everything that plagued the last version of a sports game -- in this case I'm obviously talking about NHL 09.
Fact is, if you had a problem with something in NHL 09, there’s a good chance it has been fixed for NHL 10:
The "money" goals that ruined the game’s competitive balance online?
Gone, unless new ones are found to take their place.
The ridiculous tape-to-tape passing that made cross-ice passes a low-risk play?
-Much more risky with the new 360-degree passing engine.
The brain-dead CPU that fell for the same dirty tricks all game long?
-The CPU has been completely rewritten to play a more realistic game of hockey.
I could easily spend this entire review talking about gameplay flaws from NHL 09 that are no longer issues in NHL 10, but instead I’ll simply say that the development team has clearly made the on-ice action its primary focus for NHL 10. The end result is that this is EA’s most realistic game of hockey to date -- if you make a few slider tweaks.
After firing up the game for the first time, there were a few major issues that prevented NHL 10 from being an accurate simulation of hockey to me:
- Shifts are too long because player fatigue is turned down too low
- Player acceleration is too fast, which leads to a lack of realistic locomotion
- Tape-to-tape passing is prevalent amongst CPU opponents (even the low-rated teams)
- CPU defenders are too passive in their own end of the ice
- AI teammates are dumb as bricks compared to their CPU counterparts
Thankfully, the fatigue, acceleration and CPU aggression issues are easily solved with one or two slider tweaks. Teammate intelligence and CPU passing, unfortunately, remain unrealistic, regardless of what is done to the sliders -- or at least I have not been able to find a middle ground in this department.
Various new sliders have been implemented in NHL 10, yet it’s surprising that a “teammate awareness” slider was not added to the game.
While the opposing CPU players in NHL 10 do not have any issues moving themselves or the puck around to all the right spots, your AI teammates must have their hands held at all times if you don’t want them consistently costing you goals in the offensive and defensive zones.
On offense, AI teammates still lack the awareness needed to shoot when they’re open or pass when they’re covered, leading to lots of unnecessary turnovers and botched scoring chances. And even if the user decides to take matters into his own hands by telling his AI teammates when to shoot or pass, they usually do so with poor results, sending passes way wide of their intended target or clanking shots off one of the goal posts when the net is wide open.
While the CPU players are constantly skating around and cycling the puck on offense, your AI teammates seem to be lulled into a type of “LeBron James offense” that involves standing around and watching the star player (you) do all the work.
But the biggest headache shows up when trying to play good team defense. I say that because, while on the defensive end of the ice, your teammates consistently fail when trying to complete the most basic and crucial task: picking up loose pucks and clearing them from danger.
After completing a full season in the Be a Pro mode, which took my player from the AHL up to the NHL, I was amazed by the amount of goals my minor league and NHL teammates let in on plays where they could have cleared a loose puck out of the defensive zone. However, during most of these instances they instead chose to let the CPU pick up the puck (or take it off one of my teammate's sticks) and rocket a one-timer into the net before the goalie even had a chance to react to the turnover.
As quick as the CPU is to turn a loose puck into a hard one-timer, it is even quicker when it comes to passing the puck around the ice –- too quick, in fact.
Even with the global pass speed turned all the way down and CPU pass accuracy set to 0, teams of all different ranks and abilities are able to move the puck around the ice in NHL 10 with lightning speed and robotic precision.
You can put an end to the game's robo-passing by getting physical with the CPU and intimidating your AI opponents, which will lead to bad passes, but it's a solution that would not be necessary if the CPU passing sliders simply worked as well as the human set of sliders.
Since the CPU's superhuman puck movement forces players to adopt a strict, positional brand of defense that gives up a lot of open looks in favor of playing the passing lanes, it’s puzzling that CPU teams don’t take advantage of the open shooting lanes. Instead, the CPU teams prefer to sit back and endlessly cycle the puck.
In fact, if the player maintains his defensive discipline long enough, the CPU often short-circuits itself with one too many robo-passes, turning the puck over before it can even muster a shot on goal.
For as robotic as the CPU passing seems at times, the human passing in NHL 10 is definitely one of the game’s biggest strengths.
Players in NHL 10 now have 360 degrees of control when aiming their passes, which allows users to be much more creative on offense because they can bank the puck off the boards or lead a teammate with a pass. Users can even adjust the degree of “assist” that is involved with the pass aiming, which should allow all gamers to find a balance that suits them.
Board play, when combined with the new passing mechanic in NHL 10, helps to create a slower and sloppier game of hockey. Being able to pin opponents against the glass eliminates the ability to breach the offensive zone by skating right up along the boards, which is great. However, the one flaw to these new pinning animations is that they also allow defenders to “pull in” puck handlers from behind with an unrealistic “tractor beam” effect.
Anyone who tried manning the net in NHL 09 knows that it was a mess of bad animations, bad lag and bad controls. But this year user goalies will be happy to know that, for the first time since the Genesis days, the position is not only functional but also a blast to play.
Whoever worked on the user goalies this year deserves a raise.
The “magnetic posts” of NHL 09 are mercifully gone, and now users have the ability to move their goalie on or off the posts with the right trigger. Gone, too, are the days of accidentally triggering a save or poke check animation when trying to go into the butterfly -- that position is now triggered by holding in the left trigger.
Desperation saves were mostly for show (and stat padding) last year, but in NHL 10 they are much more functional, with a number of different moves available by holding down the right bumper and pressing the right stick in one of four cardinal directions.
The normal right-stick saves have been reworked as well. They feel much quicker and more responsive than in NHL 09, to the point that goalies just starting out can essentially rely only on the butterfly, foot kick and glove lunge to stop the majority of shots.
If there’s one flaw to the user-goalie controls, it’s the new “cover puck” button, which is really more of a “desperation cover puck” button that causes your goalie to do a full-extension lunge towards the puck when it's out of reach. Essentially, players looking for a routine cover-up save are stuck waiting for the game to automatically trigger the animation because there is always a chance that your goalie will lunge for the loose puck rather than simply cover it if you press the "cover puck" button.
With the large number of exploits and glitches that could be used to create “always goals” in NHL 09, it’s impressive that no obvious glitch goals seem to have made it into NHL 10.
I say “seem to” because I’m sure once the game is in everyone's hands, the people who dominated the game’s online play last year will likely spend their nights in practice mode looking for the next big glitch goal.
But if there is one area I’m worried about in NHL 10, it’s how CPU goalies are still prone to letting in some sketchy goals along the posts. (Specifically, where the goalie will open his legs for a split second and let a dribbler trickle through his legs.)
Whether these animations lead to the discovery of some “always goals” remains to be seen, but aside from the glitchy post animations, the only major flaw I can find this year with the CPU goalies is the large discrepancy between angle recovery and save recovery.
At times it seems like every goalie in NHL 10 can slide across the crease to shut down shooting angles with impossible speed and precision. But for whatever reason, those skills completely disappear whenever the CPU goalie is recovering from a save animation or reacting for a rebound.
So whole online scoring in NHL 09 was done almost entirely off the rush via a variety of glitch goals, players will soon discover that the easiest way to beat goalies in NHL 10 is via deflections and rebounds. I say that because simply taking blasts and one-timers from high-scoring areas is not enough to get the puck by this year’s CPU goalies.
All faults considered, the great thing about NHL 10 is that, with the addition of “tuner sets” that can be uploaded by the developers and downloaded by users without getting approval and certification from Microsoft, it’s possible that the small number of gameplay issues might be tweaked out of the game within a few weeks.
(During the two weeks that Operation Sports has had NHL 10 for review, two tuner sets have already been released for download, so it may not be that much of a stretch on our end to hope that updated tuner sets become a common occurrence.)
Since the major focus of NHL 10 was improving the overall on-ice experience, it’s no surprise that presentation, like gameplay, is one of NHL 10's major strengths. While old issues like clunky menus and generic pregame entrances have gone unchanged since NHL 09, the atmosphere once the puck drops has soared beyond expectations
The crowds in NHL 10 are dynamic and intelligent. They break into chants when your team is on a crucial penalty kill, and they cheer the home goalie after a series of spectacular saves. These chants are even team- and player-specific, such as the Nashville favorite “Let’s-Go-Pred-a-tors!” or arch-rival Detroit’s “Ozz-y! Ozz-y!”
Just how deep does NHL 10’s library of team- and player-specific chants go? So deep that, after getting denied on a penalty shot by Manny Legace in an AHL game against the Texas Stars, the crowd responded with a chant of “Leg-a-ce! Leg-a-ce!”
Team-specific goal horns have also been improved for NHL 10, but sticklers will notice that some horns are still not 100 percent accurate. Thankfully, the painless custom-soundtrack feature allows players to insert their own goal horns (and other types of arena or menu music), and this year the feature even comes with some much-needed volume sliders.
And not only do the arenas sound better this year, they also look a lot more realistic on the pan-away and close-up shots. This is partly because there is a larger number of fan models filling up the arenas, including several female models with pink-colored jerseys. Fans also stand up or sit down depending on whether the game is in the middle of a lull or an exciting moment like a goal or home-team power play.
The arenas may not look as sharp as NHL 2K10's, but NHL 10's dynamic crowds are state-of-the-art.
In terms of the commentary, while there are a lot of generic placeholder lines, Gary Thorne and Bill Clement still do a great job providing timely, contextual comments for the game they are calling and for the season at large. The duo can easily describe one team’s offensive tendencies on any given night, or discuss a team’s offensive results over the course of its 82-game schedule.
I think it's telling that when I play with my hometown team in NHL 10, the Nashville Predators, it's similar to actually going to the Sommet Center and seeing the Predators play in-person -- EA just needs someone to tell Gary Thorne that it's pronounced "Som-ay," not "Som-et."
All told, the presentation, barring a few minor holdover issues from last year, feels fresh and exciting in NHL 10.
If you can’t find a mode that fits your style of play in NHL 10, you might want to consider giving up videogames because there literally is a mode for every type of gamer -- barring the jaded, Internet forum dweller.
Be a Pro
The addicting Be a Pro mode returns with minimal changes from NHL 09, which is perfectly fine since the experience remains one of the best in the industry. I say that because the mode still gives players a heavy dose of personal glory while still immersing them in the team experience.
One thing that should have been fixed, however, is a line-change glitch that occurs frequently (at least twice a game) while playing Be a Pro with position lock turned on. According to NHL 10 producer David Littman, this glitch got overlooked because less than three percent of users played NHL 09 with position lock. But for those who do, it’s a major pitfall in what is otherwise an awesome game mode. Thankfully, Littman said that the issue should be addressed in NHL 10's first title update.
But as a fan of position lock, it really says something about the overall quality of the Be a Pro mode when I am able to put up with the glitch and have fun despite the fact that I am giving the opposing team a couple of free “power plays” per game via the bench glitch.
For those who prefer to control an entire team instead of one player, two options exist: the traditional season mode or the all-new Be a GM mode.
Season mode gives players the ability to control every aspect of one of the game’s professional leagues, which includes messing with individual team rosters/strategies or playing (literally) every game on the league’s schedule.
While some may be frustrated by the fact that season mode only goes for one year, the new Be a GM feature tries to appease those pains by serving as the game's primary franchise mode. All the usual "franchise" features exist in this mode, such as negotiating contracts, tinkering with your team’s playing strategies or managing the team roster.
But the Be a GM mode tries to separate itself from other franchise modes by forcing users to manage the organization’s reputation. Even in the salary-cap era, not all sports franchises are created equal, and Be a GM mode tries to replicate that disparity by giving your team (wherever it’s starting from) the goal of becoming a regular “championship contender.”
Creating this type of dynasty means that your team has to perform well on the ice and maintain class-act status off the ice as well. This means that GMs who want a good reputation need to treat their players -- as well as the other GMs -- with respect by not trading away rookies, resisting the temptation to swindle the CPU with outrageous trade offers and abstaining from signing and then dealing too many free agents.
But while Be a GM mode does an excellent job immersing players in the maintenance of their own team, it does so with a type of tunnel vision that has your GM ignoring everything else that’s going on around the league.
One can't help but think back to the Genesis days of the NHL series -- where league-wide scores and highlights were shown during pauses and intermission reports -- and wonder why that sort of thing hasn't been added to NHL 10's Be a GM mode, or any of the game's other season modes for that matter.
Ultimately, Be a GM's inability to keep players tuned in to the league’s “big picture” creates a little bit of hollowness in what is otherwise a solid addition to the NHL series.
Battle for the Cup
One of NHL 10's successful throwbacks to the Genesis days is the new Battle for the Cup feature, which functions as the game's revamped playoff mode.
Just as the real-life NHL playoffs have an energy and intensity that far-surpasses what’s seen in a normal regular season game, Battle for the Cup turns up NHL 10's in-game atmosphere by creating a louder crowd with new chants, synchronized towel-waving and boos directed at enemy players.
The revamped fighting engine takes last year's button-mashing contest and turns it into a more strategic affair, complete with the risk of black eyes or broken bones.
Little details like post-series handshakes, playoff logos on the ice and announcers who keep up with each playoff series’ top storylines -- whether they be injuries or point streaks -- only add to the authenticity of the experience.
Overall, Battle for the Cup feels like a great update to the classic playoff mode that dominated dorm-room TVs back in the heyday of NHL '94. Better yet, the revamped playoff atmosphere even carries over to NHL 10's regular-season modes, where everything you see in an abbreviated Battle for the Cup mode occurs once the 82-game season has ended and the top 16 teams have moved on to the playoffs.
For better or for worse, very little has changed in the online arena. Online leagues and standard versus play are largely “as they were” in last year's game. The menu system also remains difficult to navigate if you don’t take the time to test out every inch of the interface -- sub-menus expand into sub-sub-menus, and one of the game’s best features (Online Team Play Community games) is still buried in the online menu.
Of the changes made, some of the best include a penalty for playing the same opponent too many times (to discourage "win trading"), a rankings boost to EASHL teams who are brave enough to play with a human goalie, and an improved interface for scouting new players or inviting old friends to an EASHL club.
Another nice addition is the separation of EASHL teams into “professional” and “casual” leagues, though, it’s peculiar that no actual differences exist between the two groups aside from the arbitrary classification.
There are a number of gameplay changes that “professional” players would surely approve of, such as mandating a higher player count for ranked club games. But for some reason, EA has -- despite the name -- done nothing to bring the “professional” league closer to simulating “professional hockey.”
Perhaps the most controversial change is the inclusion of unlockable equipment in NHL 10, which now works in combination with last year's “player cards” that could be earned by playing "X" number of games and achieving "Y" overall player grade.
While it’s great that NHL 10 adds more customization to the Be a Pro online experience, there’s a feeling amongst some fans that the game is simply going about it the wrong way.
This "electric blue" ensemble is one of NHL 10's more conservative equipment packages; but it, like most of the game's best equipment, remains bizarrely out of place in what is otherwise a staunch simulation of hockey.
Mistake number one would be forcing players to wear ridiculous-looking equipment like chicken boots and camo hats just so they can receive the maximum attribute benefits on the ice.
Mistake two would be, well, the entire “attribute boosts” fiasco:
- 80 Microsoft Points (MSP) for a +1 attribute boost
- 120 MSP for a +3 attribute boost
- 160 MSP for a +5 attribute boost
- 240 MSP for a boost pack
While it’s nice to at least have the option to purchase these upgrades if you don’t want to grind out three or more seasons playing the game’s offline modes just to get a single plus-five attribute boost, one has to wonder why all these boosts had to be included in the game to begin with -- especially given the fact that the community did not have many issues with the old player-card system from NHL 09.
It amazes me that, as someone who could not stand to play the offline modes for more than a period or two in NHL 09, I find myself wanting to play nothing but the offline modes in NHL 10.
The reason for that change is that offline players now have a great set of sliders they can tweak to make NHL 10 a realistic simulation of hockey, whereas online players are still stuck wearing ridiculous camo gear while flying around the ice at top speed thanks to the (unrealistic) default skating sliders.
Unless EA can make some slider tweaks to get the “professional” EASHL leagues playing more like “professional ice hockey” and less like “professional table hockey,” I can’t see myself sticking with the online modes for very long this year -- especially once the hardcore players start getting all those plus-five attribute boosts unlocked and leave us normal people in the dust because we do not want to grind out multiple Be a Pro seasons against the CPU or fork out $10-$20 worth of Microsoft Points just to stay competitive.
All told, online players might want to wait a week or two to see how things play out, while the offline guys should know that this is the most fun I’ve ever had taking on the CPU in a hockey game.
As much as I want to give NHL 10 a higher score based on the tremendous amount of fun I have had with the game -- and the fact that it's only a patch away from becoming an all-time legend -- I'm ultimately stuck rating the game as it exists on store shelves, not the game I'm hoping it becomes after a patch or two.
On the Ice: It's a bit rough out of the box, but slider tweaks help make it the most realistic hockey game that EA has ever put out.
Graphics: NHL 10's arenas are still a bit behind those from 2K's latest hockey game, but when it comes to player models and especially the animations, EA leads the way.
Presentation: Commentary is sharp as always, and the revamped crowds lend that added touch of authenticity that the NHL series has been missing since the Genesis days.
Entertainment Value: For once, the EA slogan is right: "If it's in the game, it's in the game." With some slider tweaks, NHL 10 captures the sport of hockey better than any game I've played to date.
Learning Curve: Newcomers will have a lot of button commands to master, so expect to spend at least a season taking your lumps before you're ready to take on the rest of the world.
Online: It's hard to go back to default sliders after getting used to a slower simulation game while playing the offline modes, but if you can deal with the default settings and the over-the-top player equipment, you'll have some fun for sure. How long that fun will last depends upon whether player boosts will affect the game's balance and whether or not any "always goals" are discovered in the next couple of weeks.
Score: 8.5 (Excellent)