Demo Impressions: NHL ’10 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

As a sports gamer, I look forward to the end of summer every year, because this is when the big annual releases come out. NCAA Football usually kicks off the season, with everyone waiting around for the spectacle that is the yearly Madden release. This then leads into the other sports, with the NHL, Football/Soccer, and NBA games following suit. It’s my favourite time of year, but no release gets me as excited as EA Sports’ NHL series. While there were a few off years this past decade NHL ’08 was one of the greatest games of all time, and NHL ’09 mostly improved on it. However, NHL ’09 wasn’t without problems; franchise mode was more or less unchanged, and legitimate offense was sometimes hard to come by. Regardless of any niggling issues, the past two years, our Sports Game of the Year award has almost unanimously gone to the NHL series, for good reason: it’s truly been the best.

I don’t even start celebrating at this point when the actual game comes out; I start when the demos release. Every year, I patiently wait until the demo of the yearly NHL game comes out, almost to the point of camping on David Littman’s porch. Finally, a few days ago, while checking the XBox Live marketplace randomly, I noticed that it finally hit. After a positively giddy Twitter update, I dove in, to see just how things are coming along. Give EA Sports credit where it’s due; they’re criticized for a lot of their actions – rightly, in a lot of cases – but one thing they do brilliantly is bring out timely, well made demos well ahead of the release date (as opposed to weeks after release date, like too many companies are doing nowadays, once the preorder push is done). They don’t hide, and even with the games that don’t match up to expectations, it’s something I’m thankful for.

Thankfully, the demo for NHL ’10 has me exceptionally excited – more so than usual – for the upcoming release of the full game. And not really for the reasons EA would like me to be excited.

Upon playing the game, it seems this year is less about revolution and more about evolution. There are bullet-point changes that EA is hyping up, but those aren’t going to be too apparent to players of the demo. You still basically do the same things; you’ll go through the forced tutorial in the beginning, which will go over the new stuff like fighting and board play, and then you’ll have a choice of either going to Be a GM mode – essentially, allowing you to play the third period of Game 7 between the Penguins and Red Wings – or Be A Pro mode. This isn’t new for anyone that played last year’s demo before ’09’s release.

However, anyone who played the hell out of last year’s game will notice differences once the game is on the ice. The big thing for me is that they fixed shooting. Shots are more accurate, but it’s not like ’08 where you had second liners hitting one-timers from the blue line, in stride, to the top corner. Now, it’s more realistic in that the main thing a shooter is going to do is get it on net, depending on where they are. This is great because in ’09, I had top-flight shooters missing one timers wildly, even right in front of the net. I’m a goaltender by trade, and not even an NHL one, and even I, if given good passes, can hit my spot from in front of the net on a one timer at least eight out of ten times, so to believe that NHL forwards cannot, like NHL ’09 did, is a bit strange. They also fixed goaltending AI, making it so that goaltenders did the standard butterfly less and actually reacted to shots more, and as a trade-off, I notice less stupid goals (like wristers from the blue line) going in, as well as better reactions if the puck’s bouncing around the net; one play I liked was a shot that rolled up on Chris Osgood, which he turned and batted away with his blocker. It’s the little things like that that get my attention.

One of the biggest on-ice changes, board pinning, is maybe a bit too prominent. You hold Y to pin along the boards now, which is fine, but it got rid of the hooking command (you can slash with LT + Y, but it’s not accurate). The computer WILL pin you every chance it gets, but it’s generally easy enough to get rid of the puck unless there’s a lot of help. It’s also better to pin along the boards now, as they (thankfully) nerfed hits from behind; now, if you hit someone, you bounce off them the entire time. I like this, because last year, people would get sickeningly crushed from behind too much; very rarely would it be called as a check from behind. Now, instead of just flying into the boards, defensive positioning is more important, and little kids aren’t being taught bad habits that will get them game misconducts or match penalties in youth hockey games.

Fighting is also improved. Tapping Y while near a player invites that player to fight. This is a step up from last year, when it was the same as the hook button, and trying to hold someone up in front of the net was the same as asking for a fight with anyone on the ice, leading to times when I’d have a breakaway, and my opponent would decide “OK, now’s a good time to fight!” (be wary that if a fight request is not accepted during play, there’s a chance of there being an Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty). There’s three punch angles, and you can wind up for a power punch as well; if it’s countered, you can be uppercut, which is very strong. There’s also a palpable bonus – an energy boost – to the winning team as well. Finally, I think there’s going to be a genuine benefit for people in Be A Pro mode that fight properly, and at the right time; they added the “tough guy” class for the type of player you want to be in BAP, so fights might finally be worth something if done right.

There’s also scrums after the whistle. While this ends the practice of just randomly slamming people after whistles that was once condoned in the old Genesis games, it adds a bit of strategy, as people can now hit a couple times, get the other team pissed, and then run away, hoping to draw a penalty. I don’t like it as it is; two hits always starts trouble, and then the maelstrom develops. I can see this being exploited online by little Sean Avery wannabes. Also, there’s no real rhyme or reason to it. If you shoot at the goaltender after a whistle, other players will come after you, and you can go after players, but there’s no psychology to it; if you decide not to plant the guy getting too close to your goaltender after a whistle, there’s no negative effect, just like there’s no benefit if you do. Also, if we’re going to shoot at the goaltenders, why isn’t there a penalty for Unsportsmanlike Conduct? If you shoot at the goaltender and it’s adjudged to be intentionally late, at any level of hockey, it’s a penalty, so all this does is piss the other team off and bait them with no repercussion. I hope they add something more to this element of the game than what’s been shown.

Be A Pro mode, from what little I was able to play, is about the same as last year, with the difference being the prospects game. If BAP mode comes out in the regular game the way it does in the demo, you start at the prospects game with central scouting saying you’re the 15th pick; since the NHL has thirty teams and thirty picks per round, that means you’re right in the middle of round one, and your play can make your pick “better” or “worse” – having the “best” pick means you go to Bryan Berg’s New York Islanders™, so the use of the word “best” is EXTREMELY liberal – though it isn’t really apparent if there are other benefits/issues with going higher or lower, such as ratings boosts. From my time in BAP mode, the off-ice issues were again, in my mind, put aside by the fact that I noted much better AI in terms of where players go on the ice; I didn’t spend any time screaming “shoot, shoot, shoot, SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT THE #%&*@$! PUCK” like I sometimes do in ’09, as players in last year’s game sometimes pass up golden opportunities to get a great shot. Once again, the off-ice lustre is overlooked by subtle changes with the actual gameplay. The only thing the demo didn’t have that I wish it did was the ability to play as a goaltender. Looking at the control screen, I noticed a lot of changes to how goaltenders actually make saves. Hopefully, the game’s giving players the tools needed to be a great goaltender; playing that position was simply too hard in last year’s game due to an inability to stay in proper position and an over-emphasis on the butterfly.

NHL ’08 was the best sports game of 2007, but looking back, it was a bit too arcadey. NHL ’09 was the best sports game of 2008, but looking back on it, it was a bit too schizophrenic due to some wonky shooting. My first impressions of NHL ’10 are that, like the baby’s porridge, they got it juuuuuuuust right. We’ll find out for sure on September 15th, and so will you, dear reader, as I will personally be bringing you the review of that game as close to that date as possible.

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