Since 2007, each new iteration of EA’s NHL series has been a marked improvement over its predecessor. NHL 07 introduced the Skill Stick control scheme, NHL 08 sweetened the deal with far more content, and NHL 09 tightened up gameplay and introduced the excellent Be-A-Pro mode. The annual improvements have been so great, in fact, that last year’s game seemed to reach the pinnacle of hockey simulation, leaving many to wonder if the series had any more room to grow. Fortunately, EA Canada was not content to rest on their laurels, and NHL 10 is a drastically improved hockey experience, and one of the best titles of this year.
While the basic Skill-Stick controls haven’t changed much since 07, NHL 10 adds a few wrinkles to the control scheme. You still shoot, deke, and check with the right stick, and pass with the right trigger, but now the Y button, when used near the boards, will pin a puck or puck carrier on the boards. Scrums along the boards have long been an ignored aspect of hockey video games, and EA does a great job of representing those struggles. When skaters are pinned to the wall, they’ll trap the puck between their skates, attempting to maintain control. Opponents can attempt to poke check the puck out of their control, or check the puck handler into the wall to try to free it up. These battles play out very realistically, and really help to make the game’s pace feel more authentic.
Perhaps the most hyped new feature of NHL 10 is its first-person fighting system. For the first time, players will experience fights through the eyes of the fighter, and while the system isn't perfect, it might be the best method of presenting fights that anyone has come up with yet. Your right stick acts as your fist, and your left stick moves your head, with blocking assigned to the left trigger. Fights tend to end very quickly, but the same can be said for real world hockey fights. The fighting action can be a bit hectic at times, and usually devolves into wild swinging of the right stick. Still, it's the most visceral fighting method yet devised, and one that should see improvement with further iteration.
Every position has received an upgrade in AI, but it’s most apparent in the play of goaltenders. No longer the simpletons of the previous games, goalies are now far more aware of their surroundings, and will make second and third effort stops, swat pucks out of the air, and even dive for desperation saves. Goalies play more like their on-ice counterparts, as well, with more aggressive net-minders more likely to try to come out of the net to cut off shot angles, make poke check attempts, and handle the puck.
The main reason these new features work so well is the game’s all-new physics system. For the last few years, we’ve been treated to hockey titles with extremely realistic player physics. NHL 10’s skaters move better than ever, carrying all the momentum and weight that they should. For the first time, NHL 10’s pucks move just as realistically as its players. Every carom, bounce, and roll of the puck feels 100% natural, unlike previous games where rebounds would fly off of goalies’ pads at odd angles. Players’ interactions with the puck are more lifelike as well; you’ll often see players kick pucks to their sticks when receiving an off-target pass, and even fan on one-timers when appropriate. This makes scoring in the crease far more faithful to the real sport, and allows, even demands, that players to set up realistic offenses instead of constantly crashing the net or finding a “magic spot” from which to shoot.
All the standard game modes you’ve come to expect make their return in NHL 10, including Be-A-Pro mode. The single-skater-focused game mode that took us by storm last year is better than ever, with an improved dynamic camera, and smarter AI teammates. They’ll still occasionally get stuck in a loop of passing back and forth, but, for the most part, they’re smart enough to get you the puck when you need it. There’s also a Be-A-GM mode, which allows players to take over behind the scenes of an NHL franchise, but it feels a bit shallow and tacked on. Fortunately, NHL 10’s creation modes fare much better. Building teams and players is a pretty standard affair, but creating plays is simple, intuitive, and surprisingly effective. When the opportunity arises, created plays will show up as blue paths on the ice. Not requiring extra button presses to run these plays is a brilliant move, and allows you to utilize pre-determined strategies without slowing the game down in the least.
NHL 10’s presentation is every bit as impressive as its gameplay. Visually, the game represents a solid step forward from last year’s already great-looking title. Character models look better than before, with marked improvement of the quality of players’ jerseys. While arenas themselves haven’t changed much, there are more varied and natural-looking fans populating it, adding to the overall feel of the game. Even better than its looks, though, is its audio presentation. Bill Clement and Gary Thorne provide the play-by-play, and, with a few glaring exceptions, it’s very good. There are even language-specific play-by-play tracks for the different European leagues, meaning that Russian teams have their goals and assists announced in Russian. This is the first time this has been done, and while it may seem like a small thing, it speaks volumes about the game’s level of polish. Likewise, crowd noise is well-executed, and includes unique crowd chants for every NHL team. On the ice, every screaming slapshot, crushing body check, and ring off the post sounds identical to what you’d hear in the arena.
As a reviewer, I must look at games with a highly critical eye, deliberately seeking out flaws, glitches, and overall shortcomings. I’m happy to report that NHL 10 is a nearly flawless title; only the most cynical and jaded gamers will take issue with any of the game’s extremely minor problems. Out of all the major sports, hockey is probably the easiest to translate to video games. Ever since 1992, we’ve had at least decent hockey games, and EA’s newest entry is, without a doubt, the highest point in a series of high points. With NHL, AHL, international, and European league teams on the roster, along with unlockable (or purchasable, if you’re a cheater) skill upgrades, there’s no shortage of content, meaning many fans will easily get a full year of entertainment out of it. NHL 10 is, hands down, the best hockey game ever made; it’s not even close. Whether you consider it the best sports game of all time depends largely on your preference of sports, but in any discussion of the best sports game ever, NHL 10 must be in the argument.