Puck Daddy - NHL

(Note: We'll have a review of NHL2K10 within the next week)

It's the most wonderful time of year. The NHL preseason is underway and EA Sports' NHL 10 releases today for video game puck heads everywhere. As they have the past few incarnations, EA has tried their best to make their annual hockey game more than just a roster update. For the latest version, the producers at EA Sports have added new gameplay features and modes to make the NHL 10 experience better than ever.

Like in NHL 09, you begin the game creating a player, which can be used in the Be-a-Pro mode as well as the EA Sports Hockey League, the online multi-player feature that was a huge success last year. Players are customizable with various equipment as well as unlockable content such as camouflage sticks, helmets, and gloves.

Did I mention that the fantasy draft is back via the Be A GM mode?

In the Be A GM Mode is your chance to run a franchise, except you are in more control of your team than ever before. You're given tasks to complete during your time as general manager and in order to succeed in making deals, you'll need to keep good relationships with other GM's around the league. Your GM Reputation also affects whether or not free agents will sign with your team. Throughout the season -especially around trade deadline day and the NHL Entry Draft- you'll have access to a Blackberry (Bettman approved?) that will be your way of making trades and listening to offers from other general managers. The AI has been reworked in regards to making deals and depending on where your franchise is in its development will affect the type of offers you'll receive and the returns you might get on potential trades. Adding to the realism will be the option to buy players out of their contracts and feeling the cap hit.

You'll also have the option of playing in a number of international leagues such as the Sweden Elitserien and Finland's SM-liiga or represent your country in a world tournament. (Wouldn't it be great if EA released a roster update once the Olympic teams are announced?)

Puck physics are more lifelike than ever. No longer will you just press the pass button and the puck will find the tape of your teammates stick. There's the chance it could carom off a stick, body or skate and you better aim your pass correctly, and otherwise the puck will glide well behind or ahead of your teammate with EA's new Precision Passing. It might take some getting used to, but being able to lead teammates or bank passes off the boards will come in handy along with the ability to play dump and chase hockey down low.

Scoring is much tougher as EA worked at eliminating the cheese goals that plagued online play and improved the AI of goaltenders. Working in over 150 new goalie animations, including desperation saves and batting pucks out of the air, if you're going to be successful in scoring in NHL 10, you'll need to play real, offensive hockey by setting up plays (or use the new Create-a-Play Mode) and not just crashing the net. Goals will be much more rewarding with a nice setup or a deflected point shot.

Another gameplay refinement is the addition of the all-new board play. Instead of crushing an unsuspecting defenseman against the glass, gamers are now able to tie them up along the boards while their opponent shields the puck in an effort to kick it to a teammate or have someone pull it out of the scrum. When I first read about the board play addition, I feared that it would occur much too often, but the frequency of a board scrum isn't nearly as high as I originally thought. It's a very useful new feature that only ups the gameplay.

As we've discussed before, NHL 10 features a new first-person fighting engine that will give old timers flashbacks to Sega CD's "Prize Fighter". More often than not a scuffle will occur as a result of a post-whistle scrums. Shoot the puck after the whistle has gone? Bumped an opponent while the goaltender has the puck frozen? Then you're bound to have an opponent give you a face wash or a little tap with the stick to let you know that's unacceptable. If you join along with some extra shoving, depending on the player you control at the time, you have the option of dropping the gloves or turtling.

Last year's biggest addition, the EA Sports Hockey League (EA's online multiplayer league) was a huge hit and things have been revamped for the 2009-10 season. Monthly leagues will be held thereby ensuring multiple champions in various divisions broken down by skill level. Playing on a team with four-to-five other people at one time was a bit of a mess at first in NHL 09 with everyone chasing the puck, but once your "team" begins playing smart, positional hockey, you'll find success and be able to enjoy the full EASHL online experience.

If you're like me and you enjoy playing a series of games with a buddy, NHL 10's Battle for the Cup mode allows you to skip the season and play just for the title in a 1, 3, 5, or 7 game series. As with any playoff series, storylines develop and are followed throughout and crowds will be more animated with waving towels, cheers, and chants. Injuries are a big factor in NHL 10 as depending on the severity, you have the option of either bringing the play back into the game or sitting him out for the remainder.

EA has yet another quality hockey game to add to their impressive resume. Their continued focus on the realism of a hockey video game is something that comes out in the finished product. With new game modes and polished traditional features, NHL 10 will give you plenty of reasons to keep coming back.

Gameplay 10/10

The added features add to an already deep game. With the smarter AI and reworked player engine, your teammates will think hockey and skate themselves into position and not stand around like in the past.

Graphics 9.5/10

Players still look the same -some like their real life counterparts and others, not so much- but the crowd has been given a facelift acting more animated. Still very solid all-around.

Sound 9/10

Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are back but their commentary is much of the same. Hearing Thorne get over-excited during a scoring chance brings back many memories from hockey's time on ESPN. The crowd has a new feel in NHL 10, so expect boo's if you're Sidney Crosby(notes) carrying a puck while playing against the Flyers in Philadelphia.

Replay Value 10/10

With the numerous gameplay modes as well the EA Sports Hockey League and regular online matches, there's a 100% chance you'll be playing NHL 10 well into next season, filling time until NHL 11 releases.

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