Meet the New Game, A Lot Like the Old Game?

nhl 10When EA Sports released NHL 09 a year ago, the game racked up more awards than last season’s Boston Bruins, notching an impressive 12 Sports Game of the Year awards. Naturally, when EA’s latest effort, NHL 10, hit the ice a few weeks ago, it had some pretty big skates to fill. But while NHL 10 is an improvement over its highly-acclaimed predecessor, it won’t be taking home nearly as much hardware this time around.

If you played NHL 09, you’ll be pretty familiar with the gameplay in NHL 10. That’s because, by and large, it’s very similar. Sure, producer Dave Littman and his team made efforts to improve some of the problems with the gameplay in 09, but many of the supposed improvements fail to live up to their promise. Take passing, for example. One of NHL 09’s biggest issues was passing. Passes in last year’s game were laser beams and rarely off-target. Enter Hardcore mode, a new settings option that gives players full control over the direction and speed of the pass, and likewise, gives the player full responsibility over the success of a pass. Now, Hardcore mode is not perfect, but it is an improvement. A lot of good that does online players, however, since it’s turned off in NHL 10’s most commonly played online modes.

The moment EA spilled the beans about another new gameplay addition, board play, you could almost hear a collective groan emanating from the mouths of many of the game’s loyal fans. Play on the boards is certainly an intricate part of the sport of hockey, but while it’s a great addition to the game in theory, it just ends up another thing that cheap gamers can exploit endlessly in practice. If you play the game online, it won’t take you long before you see opponents using the board pin feature to suction you into the boards, even when your positioning relative to your opponent and the boards would seem to make such an action impossible.

Same goes for the new leg fake feature. Pressing down on the right stick allows you to kick your leg back in an effort to fake out the opposing netminder. Of course, the move wasn’t meant to be used in all three zones as a way to get away from defenders, but that’s exactly what some gamers will do with it.

There’s also a new after-whistle scrum feature. Again, great in theory, terrible in practice. Start causing chaos after the play is dead, and you may have to sit there and wait about 30 seconds for the cutscene to begin. This ties into the brand new fighting system, which allows you to bash in the brains of your opponent from a first-person perspective. It can be kind of amusing, but really, it’s just a video-game version of Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots, button-mashing and all.

As far as game modes, you’ve got everything that you’ve come to expect from sports games this day in age. EA claims to have made large improvements to their Dynasty mode, but all they’ve really done is found a not-so-clever way to bombard you with Blackberry product placement. The Be A Pro mode, which lets you start a solo career as yourself or any real player in the game is back, with some mild improvements. The AI, however, is still as stupid as last year. Playing most of the game’s modes offline, in fact, is simply boring thanks to the problematic AI. That’s why most gamers will spend the bulk of their time with NHL 10 online.

The biggest thing NHL 09 had going for it, of course, was the EA Sports Hockey League, the online version of the Be A Pro mode where players can join teams and upgrade their attributes to improve their players as their “careers” progress. The ESHL is really what it’s all about with this game, and it’s fun enough that it overcomes the multitude of flaws in this game. And while there are still obviously plenty of cheap moves that opponents can use to gain an unfair advantage, at least Littman and crew have done away with the majority of glitch goals that polluted NHL 09. Aside from a few pre-game matching adjustments, though, the ESHL is largely the same experience it was in 09, but that isn’t a bad thing.

In terms of presentation, NHL 10 again fails to offer much of anything new. The graphics are still nice, but they’re exactly the same. The commentary from Gary Thorne and Bill Clement is still decent, but hardly updated at all. What does stand out in NHL 10 is the crowd. The fans are now more active than ever, cheering and booing at more appropriate times. In Dynasty and Season modes, in fact, the crowd will even remember injuries caused by opposing players and boo them accordingly.

All in all, it isn’t that NHL 10 is a bad game. Not at all. It’s just that it’s so similar to NHL 09, and fails to improve several annoying issues while creating a number of new ones. But if you’re a hardcore hockey fan, then you’ll still probably want to pick this one up. And if you played in the ESHL in 09, then you know how fun that can be.

NHL 10 isn’t a revolutionary hockey game, but it’s a fun game. Sometimes, that’s good enough.

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