Review: NHL ’10 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

NHL ’10
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Genre: Realistic Sports Game
Release Date: 9/15/2009

Every year, starting in July and ending in October, is the big sports game rush. For most so-called “hardcore” gamers, this is something they pooh-pooh while wearing a beret coloured like Mario’s hat and whistling on a flute shaped like the one in the original Legend of Zelda. For a sports freak like me, it’s basically my yearly holiday season. Unlike Christmas – or even eight-day long Hannukah – my holiday season lasts almost three good months. The season starts slowly, with NCAA Football, NASCAR and Tiger Woods in July, building up to what is essentially the Christmas of our little holiday, the Madden release which is celebrated by all. This heads into the NHL ’10 release – our Boxing Day – and ends with the fortuitous releases of the NBA games. If you want to extend even farther, call the FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer releases our Chinese New Year.

Unsurprising to those that know me, I get more excited for Boxing Day than Christmas, in both literal and figurative ways. Ever since the original NHLPA Hockey ’93 established the trend of yearly releases, I’ve had to have a new hockey game every year. Though it’s mostly been EA’s NHL franchise, it hasn’t been an exclusive marriage. EA’s been good enough to me to let me have one-year stands with games like Faceoff, Powerplay, Fox NHL Championship Hockey, Breakaway and NHL 2K, knowing that at the end of the night, I was coming home to it and our comfortable understanding. It’s hard to believe that this is my eighteenth year with the NHL/NHLPA franchise, having seen the highs (NHL ’94, NHL ’04, NHL ’08) and the lows (NHL ’96, NHL 2000, NHL 2005) of what is the most transcendent sports game franchise in history not named Madden. On Tuesday, like clockwork, a new NHL season brought us a new NHL game: NHL ’10.

Before I go further, I feel it necessary to establish something: I am not your average game reviewer when it comes to hockey, as I have been involved in this sport for most of my life. I started playing when I was a little kid, and played goaltender throughout the vast majority of my playing career, making it as far as the semi-professional ranks in 1999, where I briefly played until I enlisted in the US Navy. From 1996 on, and throughout my time in the Navy, I officiated both ice and inline hockey, making it back to semi-pros in that field as well. I also have coached varsity high school hockey for a couple seasons before real life got in the way of that. In short, I have legitimate credibility in every aspect of hockey from top to bottom. Therefore, this will NOT be a brief review. I will be reviewing this partly as a gamer, but mostly as a someone who’s entering his 22nd season in the game, knows it from top to bottom, and compares his games to the real thing in minute detail. If you’re a casual hockey fan, just skip down to the Short Attention Span Summary. However, if you know and understand the game, this will be mind-spinningly detailed. Hang on for the ride, it’s going to get bumpy.

In terms of new options, this year’s NHL game is a bit lighter than past efforts. The biggest addition is the “Be A GM” mode, which expands greatly on the default Franchise mode of games past. You have an option of starting either from the entry draft or the beginning of the regular season, which is a nice touch, especially if you’re taking a weak team that’s drafting high. If you do decide to go through the Entry Draft after getting your tutorial, you have, before every pick, a chance to field trade offers from other teams via your Blackberry/Blackberries (you start with two of them), and a chance to propose them. If you propose a trade that bombs, you lose that trade, so the more phones you have, the better. Every round, you could receive or make calls. For example, a team can call, offering for you to trade up in the draft. You will do the same minigame at the trade deadline, so get used to it. I like it. To be honest, it’s fairly indicative of what a GM goes through during the draft and the trade deadline, and the only way they could make it more realistic is if they had TSN’s Pierre McGuire screaming at a camera like he needs to be restrained. That said, I don’t like the arbitrary, “gamey” bit of having to have a high reputation to have multiple phones, though that’s a minor complaint.

“Be A GM” mode is set up around the same premise as “Be A Pro” mode. You do things properly, you gain experience and advance “levels”. Take your first one-for-one trade and gain a few points. Everything from that to winning 60 games gains you points. The issue, however, is that each task can only be done once. You get points for your first win and only your first win, but you also only get points for “Win the Stanley Cup” once. This means that in order to advance, you have to do a lot of different things, and depending on what you want to do at a certain time, a lot of those tasks are likely counter-productive. Maybe I don’t want to scout forwards in Scandinavia for four weeks. Maybe it’s a weak class for forwards, or maybe I need defencemen more. Maybe I’m trying to win a Cup and cutting some of my Cap money would cost me talent. These are things you have to weigh because there are benefits to getting task points with these moves. They’re the only way to build your team’s off-ice help up, in medical staff, assistant coaches, pro and amateur scouts. This is a noble idea, but I don’t understand games that make me play by their rules – instead of, or in addition to the rules of my league – in order to make my team better. Football Manager – hell, even the old Eastside Hockey Manager – had this right. My team’s resources should be in line with what they have in real life, if that’s the way I want to play the game. The Coyotes are likely going to be bought by the NHL as they’re strapped in real life, and they should be strapped in the game, just like Toronto and Montreal are rich in resources for things like scouting and other niceties. If you take the Rangers, you should make obscene profits, be able to hire the most expensive scouts and the best free agents, and then have them go south immediately… just like real life!

“Be A GM” isn’t all bad news, however. For one, they finally put a fantasy draft option back into the game, which shuffles each team up and allows them to pick players in a snake fashion (last pick of round one gets first pick in round two, etc.). It’s a wonderful addition that should not have been taken out, and working with a fantasy team is strangely addicting. However, I don’t like the fact that your expectations don’t seem to change based on your roster. Your team owner will expect your team to advance far if your team was good before the draft (ie, the Red Wings), but won’t expect much if you weren’t good in ’09, even if you have a great team. Therefore, due to that, combined with the NHL Draft not randomizing order, it’s almost always more advantageous to just pick the Islanders, have expectations be lowered, and get the #1 pick in the Entry Draft. NHL ’10 also sports an improved trade mechanic, which delivers in spades so long as you’re one that likes not being allowed to game the system. Before, it was relatively easy to tilt the trade odds in your favour and acquire young talent at a discount. I used to pick out who would have the #1 pick in the draft, wait until after they draft, then poach their rookies if they’re good enough. Now, it depends on what the team wants to do. The pro scout option you have, depending on how high his level is (again, because apparently, an NHL team hasn’t had a top-notch news department since inception), shows what each team is looking to acquire in a trade, what they want to get rid of (example, they might have a surplus of defencemen, but need to become more athletic, and might be willing to trade away draft picks to do this), and anyone on the trading block. Once you initiate a trade, it’s either accepted, mulled over with a request to sweeten the pot, or rejected, with a stated reason. It’s not always just a matter of, “You just tried to trade me Eric Carins for Jay Bouwmeester, piss off.” if the team is rebuilding, it will take a lot to pry their prospects away, whereas a team gunning for the Cup wants to keep prime players and veterans, or a team might not want to take on anymore 1-way contracts lest they have to put someone on waivers. It’s a much more realistic system, and I love the way it works. Also included in the trade logic is a reputation factor. Some teams have a great rep with your team, others have a poor rep, with most teams in the middle. While offering teams fair trades is a good way to build up rep, trying to bilk teams openly will get them to lose respect for you. The teams that start off with a poor rep are usually your rivals. This is basically another way of saying, “The Maple Leafs don’t like to trade with the Canadiens”. I like what they were going for here, but getting trade reputation up is yet another task to be done to get to Legend status in “Be A GM” mode, and frankly, when it comes to the running of my team, I couldn’t give a shit if the Calgary Flames like me or not.

Something that went unnoticed to me before was the Season and Playoff modes. “Who gives a crap about these modes, there’s ‘Be A GM’ mode for these”. However, EA Sports has finally added in full Season and Playoff modes for the European leagues. It’s about time, and it’s the touches they put in like the different languages spoken by the PA announcers, the advertisements in the ice, the semi-circular creases, and the general European atmosphere that make this mode. This is something I’ve been asking for for a long time, and I’m glad we finally have it.

Injury management is the last real change with “Be A GM” mode, and it works out well. If someone gets hurt or they’re unplayable, your assistant generally makes line changes for you to compensate. However, if it’s a playable injury, you have a choice during the game the player got hurt in to either play that person, keep him on the bench or sit him out altogether, depending on recommendations from the assistant coach and/or trainer. Between games, if the player still has a playable injury, you have a choice of either sending him back out there with the injury, or benching him, which you can do right from the opening screen before games. I like this touch. Injury management now has a more day-to-day feel, and managing the injury during the game, while not perfect, is a nice addition for people who might not want to double shift a weak player. There are more injuries this year than years past, be it from shot blocking, taking a hit, fighting, and even missing a hit and crashing into the boards (Which is an A+ move. Anything that punishes stupid players who still think they’re playing NHL ’94 is great to me.), so the opportunities will be there to test this game mechanic. A nice touch is that if a player has a head injury – like a cracked jaw, or broken nose – and comes back, he gets fitted for a half-cage that protects his jawline. Unfortunately, one bug seems to have worked its way into the game, as I currently have Mason Raymond injured until January 2nd, 1900. This needs to be patched ASAP. Overall, “Be A GM” has its mind in the right place, but it needs to drop the “gamey” aspects that make ignorant reviewers who review the back of the box drool, and concentrate on more realistic team management for those that don’t want to go off a check-list of things to do.

“Be a Pro” mode saw some light changes, most of which revolved around being able to play in the prospects game. Last year, all you could do was choose your team along with your position and skill set. This year, you get one game to either strengthen or weaken your draft stock in a randomly generated draft. It doesn’t really matter how well you play, but for newcomers, it serves as a nice little “tutorial” to the game. After you’re picked, you get a tryout with your NHL team, after which you’re likely going down. Not much has changed elsewhere, except the game seems better at grading you this year. It’s not as easy on positional play, not so rough on team play and there’s also a new grade of player, the “tough guy” class for forwards and defenders. This gives your player something else to do, if you just want to fight people all day, but what disappoints me about it is that the things you have to do as a “tough guy” don’t really reflect your skill set. My tough guy had to take X amount of shots and get Y amount of hits, which is alright, but there’s no reflection in this for fighting. There should be something like, “get into X amount of good fights”, or, “pick up Y amount of penalty minutes”, which would be much more indicative of my skill than taking shots on net as a defenceman who fights. I also noticed a bug where fights I won were counted as fights I lost most of the time, which goes nicely with the bug that personal settings are almost never remembered, just like last year. Was QA asleep at the switch?

The other big change with “Be A Pro” mode is the ability to add boosts to your player via equipment changes. As you hit milestones, you can change your regular equipment to something else, usually fantasy or retro based, which has boost slots that you can attach boosts to. I understand the logic, but compared to last year, our created skaters start off much worse than they did in ’09. My 79 rated defensive defenceman or 78 rated goaltender from last year is now something like a 74, making those boosts necessary, therefore meaning I have to wear this retarded looking equipment to make my player better. What EA should have done here, if they deem boost slots, another foolish “game” addition, necessary was add the ability to add them to regular, real equipment. This way, if I choose to, I can go out there not looking like a tosser if I want to. Furthermore, all of these boosts and equipment pieces I’ve mentioned are purchasable with Microsoft Points, which is never something I’m fond of. This reeks of something marketing ordered so that they could make money off of impatient gamers.

The last big addition is Battle for the Cup mode. This is more or less the demo of the game expanded upon. You pick two teams, and can battle for your Cup of choice in a best of seven series. Want to have an AHL or European team try to win the Stanley Cup from an NHL team? This is your chance. It’s quick, it’s dirty, and it’s for people that just like accomplishing a Cup win without having to go through an entire season.

Overall, I wasn’t as impressed with the off-ice changes that NHL ’10 brought upon us this year. However, let me state for the record that any displeasure I had was dissipated as soon as I got going with the game itself. EA took last year’s game, improved it grossly, and didn’t even tell us about any of the really good stuff.

The biggest change is actually in the options screen. In addition to picking game difficulty, you can pick your game “style”, which is essentially how you like to play the game. If you’re a hardcore, anal-retentive hockey guy like I am, you can go with the “hardcore” style which slows the game down a bit, removes any of the game’s “helpers” such as sucking you into checks, and plays a generally more realistic style of hockey. On the other hand, if you’re a casual gamer, you can go with an arcadey version of the game, which plays closer to NHL 3-on-3 Arcade. Since this is independent of game difficulty, it’s possible to have a really hard, but arcade-like game style, which I like tremendously as this makes past versions of the game obsolete. While I played NHL ’09, I actually found myself pining for NHL ’08 where players could actually hit the net. I don’t have to worry about this anymore, and best of all, there’s a downloadable game “tuner” package that fine-tunes the little things in the game. It’s running patch management, and if EA can use that to fix their off-ice bugs as well as any on-ice tweaks that are necessary, this would become the perfect sports game.

For most everyone who picks default gameplay, most of you are going to have to adjust the first few times you jump in. Defensively, the computer is a lot tighter than in years past. Blind passes across the slot that used to find your own sticks are either deflected, stolen, or get your players decked now, and you have to really work to get open shots. There are times when I have to work almost a full minute to get my rotation in position to get a good shot on goal, and even then something happens to cause me to turn the puck over, typically because players act much more realistically than they used to in the past. If the puck handler is a bad passer, more passes will be off-course, either causing “buddy” passes that make your player stretch (dangerously) for the puck, or missing the player altogether. If the receiving player doesn’t have good hands, the passes sometimes bounce off his stick. When someone passes back to the point, you see the far-side wing trying to streak in for a tip or to set a screen. It’s the little things that these games have been lacking through the years, and this year’s game is almost as big an improvement over it’s predecessor as FIFA ’09 was. The more I played NHL ’09, the more I realized how bad the computer AI was, with bad shifts on defence, bad stick management in the passing lanes, pucks going through limbs, and the fact that for some reason, NHL forwards couldn’t come close to the net on one-timers or wrist shots that I – a lifelong goaltender – could hit about nine out of ten times. All of that has been fixed this year. There are little things like the way penalty killers wave their sticks in the passing lanes randomly (A+ to EA for allowing stick wavers to keep skating speed this year; before, they were stationary), the way a defenceman pins his legs together to keep end-around plays in the zone, the way intelligent defencemen will look over on two on ones to make sure he’s between the other wing and the puck that casual fans won’t notice, but experienced hockey players and fans will be all over. Furthermore, there’s a legitimate chance of scoring on breakaways this year if you have a decent player. Breakaways should look different with Evengy Malkin than they do with Colton Orr, and for the first time in too long, they do. In response, there’s more “weak” goals that you don’t expect to see in video games. More goals going through arms, more goals deflecting in, more five hole goals, etc. If I have any criticism towards this, it’s that there seems to be too many point shots going in that shouldn’t be. They even made it so that the home team finally gets the last change, like they should be. I don’t know what the hell took people this long.

More to do with the options are a few nuggets that might be missed otherwise. Passing has changed now for players that want it to, in that you can take off the CPU assistance and make it so that it’s 100% manual; you pass where you point, and the degree you hold the button down determines the strength of the pass. This is a Godsend for people that missed this after it was taken out of NHL 2004. It’s hard to learn, and definitely NOT for novices, but for those that get used to it or remember how it was in NHL ’04, it’s actually better because you can now lead players the way you want them to, and with careful usage and good coaching,

Something else that deserves it’s own paragraph are the improvements made to controlling goaltenders this year. Last year was an exceptionally frustrating experience for goaltenders due to the poor controls and necessity to play a strict butterfly style to stop shots. This season, everything’s been improved, and most of it can be attributed to the LB button. LB is essentially an edge control button. By using it, you can slow down the speed of the goaltender, depending on his momentum and skating direction. If he’s going side to side, you’ll see the goaltender’s feet shuffle more. If he’s going forward, pressing LB will visibly show the goaltender turning his legs and feet into an inward C-cut. This enables you to keep your angles better, and with deft use of the LB button, both on and off it, controlling the goalkeeper is easier due to you now having the ability to shift over on cross-ice passes while not overplaying subtle angle changes. This was my biggest complaint with Be A Pro mode last year, and it’s been addressed to the point where I can now effectively play the game at my native position. There are still improvements to be made, however as the default camera angle makes it sometimes hard to see what’s happening on your off-wing, making cross-ice passes dangerous if you aren’t able to follow where the cross-ice wingers are going. The biggest problem, though, is in covering pucks. Covering pucks on the ice is a separate button press this year (Y), and while the intention is nice, in action, it’s a nightmare. Goaltenders often just blindly miss covering the puck, and since the puck’s often in front of your goaltender – and since this isn’t Punch Out!!, your goaltender is not transparent. This means it’s not possible to see how far in front it is. This makes covering the puck something of a lottery, especially considering that if you miss, it’s often a tap-in into an open net. There needs to be a better way to cover the puck or learn when to do it, because until then, the best thing to do on scrums in front is just to drop into the butterfly and hope the puck keeps hitting you; another thing that could be done is having the ability to slap your hand on top of the puck after sprawling or stacking the pads, because as of right now, you have to get up to cover the puck. Another issue I had is that when you choose to pin yourself against the post with the RT button, the game’s AI has a hard time picking the correct post; I’ve given up goals because I went to pin up, and the game decided I should be on the complete opposite post. Regardless, goaltending is finally a rewarding endeavour if you have the skill to do it, and for that, EA should be commended.

After all of that, we finally get to talking about the things that EA Sports wants people talking about. Board play was a much hyped part of this year’s game, and for the most part, it works well. By holding the Y button pins a player to the boards, at which point, if that person has the puck that you’re pinning, you jostle for position while teammates come in and try to work the puck loose. This adds a dimension of realism to the game, and one consequence is that you can’t just cram someone who’s back is to you; you have to work the puck loose, or you’ll either bounce off the guy, or get what you should get, a checking from behind call. The one thing I don’t like about this is that you’re forced to sit there and either kick a pass off or wait for a teammate to come and help; you can’t force your way out of a pin. Most opponents pin you anytime you have the puck by the boards (making a cycle-based offence hard at times), so the ability to force your way out of it – and potentially either getting your opponent a holding call, or possibly even yourself an elbowing call, depending on the players’ discipline rating – would make things a lot better on this front.

Another big deal was made out of being able to have scrums after the whistle. This is a big change, but was carried out in a disappointing manner. Basically, things like slamming or slashing other players, poking at a goaltender that’s covered the puck, shooting after the whistle and other things will result in repercussions, sometimes fights. This is a great idea, and it’s about time something was done like this, but it was done in NHL ’98, so advertising this like a big deal is a bit of a head-scratcher for me. Also, depending on how you have post-whistle rules set, it can either be impossible or very likely to pick up a penalty from these actions. Most of the time, both teams will get a minor. The problem with this mechanic is that there is no intelligent design to this. If yo hit someone twice or shoot after the whistle, someone will attack you. Eventually it escalate into a ten person slam dance. If I have a skill line on the ice, this is not what I want, and I’m sure it’s not what my opponent would want, either. Furthermore, it’s too easy to exploit. Took an offensive zone penalty? No problem, shoot the puck at the goaltender and watch the other team beat you up until the referee evens things up. I think a lot more work needs to go into this, including something akin to a momentum or anger meter. It would depend on the toughness/discipline of both teams, how heavy hitting has been, how chippy the game’s getting, whether or not a star has been hit, and whether a star’s been injured. Call it the Kyle Okposo meter, if you will. As it stands, this part of the game is half-cooked.

This leads comfortably into fighting, however, which is now done in a first person perspective. Shockingly, it doesn’t suck. Once a fight is accepted, or if a teammate comes to someone’s rescue who’s been challenged, players drop the gloves, lock non-punching hands, and can pummel each other at will. There’s a good balance to this, in that there’s three punching angles to take, the option to pull back for more power, and the option to block punches with your punching hand. You can also tug on the jersey of someone trying for a power punch, and follow up with an uppercut. The higher the toughness rating of a fighter, the better chance they stand. It’s not perfect, and fights with human players still usually lead to spam fests more often than not, but overall, this is the best hockey fighting engine I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a great addition compared to the awful fighting game engines that have persisted since NHL ’04. It’s also nice to have the option to turtle in case someone’s in a fight that you don’t want getting hurt, like when I looked up once and went, “Oh shit, how did Nick Lidstrom end up in a fight, ABORT ABORT ABORT”. Line brawls would have been nice to have, but the NHL will hire Jim Balsillie as it’s commissioner before it allows a video game to have a line brawl option.

Online mode is for the most part the same as it was in NHL ’09, with the major change being a monthly EA Sports Hockey League, instead of last year’s model which meant you essentially had to live on your 360 to get anywhere with it. Essentially, there’s a new league winner each month, with the teams winning their leagues getting medals for that month. This is nice for people that play this mode, but two years after the Be A Pro style was incorporated into online play, I still cannot just jump into a game and play as a defenceman with the BAP camera. I have to join a team, hope my teammates are online when I am, and then hopefully we can get a game going. This is much harder than it should be. Otherwise, I noticed no real changes from last year, though the interaction with easportsworld.com is still fantastic, as you can still upload videos and pictures to the site for your own personal use; as an example, every image and video you see in this review was taken by me personally.

Graphically, NHL ’10 underwhelmed me a bit. There have been no improvements made to the core graphics, and if anything, they got washed out a bit, leading me to believe this engine has been maxed out. The most disappointing thing to me is how poor some of the player models and faces are compared to their real life counterparts. The picture you see in this paragraph is the first pairing of my second year Vancouver fantasy team, Niklas Lidstrom and Trevor Daley. I linked their profiles because they could not look any more different than they do, but in this picture there’s virtually no difference; the engine has a hard time with light-skinned black players. It’s also hard to tell apart even better NHL players, unless it’s someone extremely obvious like Jarome Iginla. To be fair to EA, a lot of their work this year went into atmospheric changes, such as giving personality to every member of a 20K seat house, and even having them all waving towels like mad-people during playoff games. They also caused some changes such as the aforementioned jaw bar when someone’s hurt, and even black eyes and stitches for people that have been in fights (again, look at Lidstrom’s picture carefully). The atmospheric changes carry over to the sound department as well, as crowd reactions have been greatly improved; the arena is a madhouse in the playoffs, as the crowd reacts to every hit, boos star players, and even boos a road player that has injured a home player; again, it’s the little things. However, I’m going to very slightly penalize sound because of this year’s EA Trax selections, which are anywhere from meandering to kooky; it’s a mix of punk, alternative rock, old-time rock anthems like Scorpion’s Rock You Like A Hurricane which impressed us when EA used it back in NHL ’98, and a sweeping, seven minute long speed-metal track by DragonForce that, while a fun listen, easily wins the Moby Award for Most Out Of Place Song in a Sports Game for 2009.

The Scores
Modes: Great
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Enjoyable
Control and Gameplay: Amazing
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Great
Originality: Pretty Poor
Addictiveness: Unparalleled
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Classic
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

NHL ’10 isn’t just the sports game of the year so far. To me, it’s the game of the year, period. I don’t say that lightly; this isn’t just a good game, it takes every bar that sports games have set and raises them memorably. This is the most realistic sports simulation I have played since video games started paying attention to realism, and there is enough to do off the ice to convince even casual players to pick up this year’s copy. What’s criminal is that EA didn’t even really tell us about most of the truly significant changes they made. Yes, there are changes that have to be made for next year’s game, and some bugs that still have to be worked out, but between the boards, there is nothing better. Hell, there’s nothing close, including the past two versions of this series.

I am not prone to hyperbole and haughty statements, but after almost a hundred hours with this game in a week, I’ll submit to one here: NHL ’10 is the greatest sports game of all time.

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