September brings a few things... The end of summer, the start of the school year and a new version of Electronic Art's yearly hockey franchise, NHL. With the way EA pumps out their sports franchises it's important that they introduce new and improved features and not just a fresh coat of paint, and some flash and splash here. This year's iteration, NHL 10, has a plethora of new features the question is are they worth the price of admission.
The game ships with the now standard game types, Be a Pro, Be a GM, Play Now ( quick game options ) etc... however there are some welcome additions this year. "Go for the Cup Now", "Playoff Run" and "Season Run" have been added to
give the player more choice over the long and sometimes tedious "Be a GM" mode which puts you at the helm of an NHL franchise, where you're able to build the rosters, draft players, make trades, change the lineup, set ticket prices,
coaching options, hire staff and of course... play the games, and you get to do this for as many seasons as you can churn through.
The playoff and season runs are trimmed down versions of the "Be a GM" mode with the mode lasting only one season, or playoff run respectively. "Go for the Cup Now" drops you right into the Stanley Cup Finals in a best of 7 series for Lord Stanley's cup with whatever team you choose against whomever you want. These modes are available for clubs in the NHL, AHL and many of the European Leagues so you can go for the Calder Cup or any of the other championships available. Coming from someone who doesn't always have the time, or attention span to get through more than one season, I love these additions. They offer more options for players who don't want to micromanage multiple seasons, and just want to play through and win the cup, without taking away anything from players who want more.
Now the important stuff... gameplay mechanics. While much of the game remains the same, which is a good thing, they've added some really strong features that definitely make the experience more authentic. The first is "Board Play" which enables players to shield the puck along the boards, kick-pass the puck out to teammates amping up that real hockey feel. Players can go into the corners and pin opposing players against the boards forcing them to use their teammates in a classic "puck cycling" style. Another change is the intimidation factor EA has added. The more aggressive and physical you are with things like fore-checking, puck pressure and finishing off checks
causes the opposing players to become intimidated which may result in a bobbled puck, bad pass or the classic bail-out when they see you lining them up again.
Throw in a little bit of scrumming around after the whistle, another new addition, and you'll have your opponents shaking in their skates! Don't take it too far though, the referees are watching, and they'll toss you in the sin-bin for roughing if you get a little carried away.
The fighting system has been completely revamped. Their new "First Person Fighting engine" puts you into first person mode face-to-face with the NHL's "Tough Guys"... or not so tough guys. My first fight had me as Tomas Plekanec against Sergie Gonchar... none the less... it was a doozy, that I lose.
The controls are pretty straight forward, and give you a better sense of being involved in the fights. I found older versions of fighting never felt quite right, and I'd just mash buttons only to end up on my butt with a splitting headache. You can even tug on your opponents jersey and land a bone rattling uppercut sending their helmet flying! Come out on top and enjoy a nice boost to your team's energy. You're still sitting for five though. While it's not a game changer for me, as I try to stay out of the fights, tough guys should find this a breath of fresh air when they decide to drop the gloves.
Along with these, EA touts over 200 gameplay mechanic changes that are designed to improve the realism of the game and allow it to feel like a real hockey experience. Things like improved goaltender AI, precision passing allowing for banked passes off the boards or simply dumping it in and chasing is down. Missing the mark with a pass? No big deal. Players will stick out their skates and hands and pull in those errant passes just like pros. These were some of the first things I noticed when playing the game. They definitely add that extra level of authenticity and realism which makes for a more engaging game of hockey where students of the game can really push the limits of strategy by breaking out of the zone with a bank pass off the glass, simply firing a shot down the ice to kill the momentum, call a time-out and regroup and much more. With the on-the-fly strategy changes that the game has always featured, you can show off your coaching side with last minute changes to defend a lead, increased pressure to try to get back into the game or simply adjust the AI of your team to suit your play style.
Another step in creating that authentic feel comes from the crowd. Star players get booed in opposing team's arenas, fans bang the glass during board play and they break-out the towel waving for the playoffs! In my Be a Pro career I was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks, and noticed immediately that whenever Luongo made that big save, the fans responded just like they do at GM Place with a resounding cheer.
Speaking of the Be a Pro mode, when you start off your career, you're given the option of playing in the prospects game in which you can raise your draft ranking and go higher in the draft then you currently sit. I moved up from
15th to second. Just play your role, and try to get taken first overall. I'm pretty sure being on for two goals against is what kept me from going number one... The Islanders are gonna be sorry for passing on me! Against a small, but welcomed addition.
Some changes come in at the GM level. There is a much deeper amateur scouting system in play, and you can throw players up on the trading block and see what other GMs are offering. Player's trade values move up and down depending on their performance on the ice, so you might have to get that player scoring again before you pull the trigger on the big trade. For the hard-core hockey fan, the Be a GM mode continues to offer a ton of customization options for players to get really engaged with their team and run their favorite team through up to 25 seasons!
Also revamped is the Be a Pro "hub" labeled "The Hockey Shop". From here you can modify your Pro, from the equipment he's using to the colour of his eyes. As you play through the game, you'll unlock content such as new sticks and skates that you can use to further customize your look. Different equipment have different amount of "boosting slots" that allow you to put "Boosting Packs" into them to improve attributes like your skating, your
shooting etc. The packs can be earned, or if you don't want to spend time unlocking them, you can go onto the marketplace and buy them with some Microsoft points.
Overall, the changes made definitely add to the game. They haven't reinvented the franchise, but they allow players to be more engaged and offer that authentic feel in gameplay, team management and knocking each others heads off. As the old adage says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!", and the NHL franchise continues to be a solid one where players can expect to enjoy the sport they love, at a level of depth and complexity that they choose.
The Way I See It: An increase in authenticity and realism with gameplay changes make this year's edition worth the price of admission for hockey fans of all levels.