Let me tell you a story. About 8 months ago, I had no interest in hockey. In fact, you could even go so far as to say I had a slight disdain for the sport. “Why, it’s nothing more than guys on skates fighting each other,” I would have spat if approached on the subject. Then one day, my friend Adam convinced me to play NHL 09 with him.
Current-day Scott now owns a Blackhawks t-shirt and several posters. Better yet, he also purchased hockey gear, and spends every Sunday out on the ice, learning to play the game. So trust me when I say, I love NHL 09. The game so effortlessly captures the urgency of an actual game of hockey, where each goal is earned tooth and nail, and overtimes and shoot-outs are a regular, yet nerve-wracking, occurrence.
It should be no surprise to learn then that I have been following NHL 10 rather religiously. While I cherish NHL 09, it certainly has its share of shortcomings and exploitable bugs. Above all that, however, is the fact that players just don’t always behave as they should. The virtual skaters never react to a puck in the air, letting it fly right by them without trying to hit or catch it. Goalies, on that same note, will let a puck bounce in front of them or even on top of them without trying to knock it away or, at the very least, grabbing it and removing any chance for a player to come in and get a rebound goal.
Having played many, many games in the NHL 10 demo, I can say for a fact that this has all been vastly improved. Goalies react to pucks above and behind them, making wild dives and motions to knock a stray puck out of the crease. They are also much more prone to grab a puck and hold it instead of lightly knocking it away, preventing costly turnovers. Meanwhile, skaters can jump into the air and catch a puck, crucial for preventing a power play clearing attempt. As long as your skater is in the way of the puck, he will automatically pull it out of the air and drop it at his feet. It doesn’t happen often enough to be a problem, and feels like something you would see in a real game when it does occur.
Staying on the topic of skaters, two new additions have been at the forefront of EA’s advertising, those being first-person fighting and board play. In NHL 09, fighting really served little purpose, and was difficult to initiate, requiring both players to press a button at roughly the same time. There was no on screen indicator to show that the other guy wanted a fight, essentially requiring you to turn to your friend and say “hey, press Y.” In NHL 10, pressing the “fight” button will cause your skater to provoke the other on screen. You might stick your glove in his face or give him a push, but it’s clear that you are antagonizing him. Meanwhile, in one of the top corners, it will tell your opponent that someone wants to fight and to press Y or Triangle to drop the gloves and go at it.
Once the fighting begins, things get a bit chaotic. The left analog stick controls your player’s body, allowing you to shift from left to right to dodge punches. Meanwhile, the right stick throws punches. Just like it works for shooting, the right stick responds to the direction you are pushing. If the guy you’re grappled with dips to the right, simply push the stick up diagonally to the right, and your punch will land. I wish I could say that I’ve mastered the art of fighting in NHL 10, but in the 30 or so games I’ve played so far, the fighting typically degenerates into throwing random punches, just hoping they hit. I’ll have to spend more time with the actual game to see if tactics develop, but I can say that regardless of all that, the fighting is a lot of fun, and my friends and I never miss an opportunity to drop the gloves.
The other new feature, board play, makes it hard to even go back to NHL 09 now. In an actual game of hockey, being near the boards with the puck can result in not only getting slammed against them, but should the player still be on his skates and in possession of the puck, the defensive player will keep him pinned up against the boards, resulting in a scramble to either get away with the puck or to pass it out to a teammate. NHL 10 allows you to recreate these actions with ease. More importantly, it adds a bit more strategy to the game. When a player is against the boards, it may be better to just check him and knock him down, but there is a chance you could either miss him, or earn a penalty if you cross-check or hit him from behind. Pinning them to the boards doesn’t guarantee puck possession, but it is certainly safer in terms of penalty minutes or being way out of position if you miss the check.
NHL 10 hits the ice September 15th, and you can look forward to my review sometime after launch. The demo is now available to both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. With this preview, I would also like to make a request to the CFD! community. NHL 10 will feature month-long online leagues, and I am looking to create a team and participate in one in order to comment on the feature in the review. I would love to make a CFD! team, so if any of you plan on picking up the game for Xbox, be sure to let me know.