The National Hockey League dropped the puck on a new season Thursday night, turning sports fans' thoughts to ice - and to hard hitting, fast-paced one-timer-from-the-slot action, qualities that 2K's NHL title can certainly supply on a console.
NHL 2K10 sees the franchise at somewhat of a crossroads. It's in its 10th year overall, scrapping with a competitor afforded both cult status and best-in-class accolades. But 2K Sports' hockey offering is also in its second year on the Wii, where it remains wholly unopposed. Will NHL 2K10 on the core consoles veer more to a casual experience, or will it fight for the puck in a realistic league simulation?
Multifaceted Multiplayer:This is a game noticeably built for multiplayer, adding it into every mode of gameplay and then some. It's best deployed in season mode, where you are now able to play any in-season game against an online opponent. It's not a full online dynasty but it doesn't need to be, and it provides a great incentive to keep your season going even if you've grown bored beating down the computer AI. This innovation really should be imitated in other full-season games. A cooperative mode also has been added, allowing you to call in a wingman and combine forces against the CPU, with devastating results if you're both on your game. One feature touted in the manual that I didn't get much of a look at (for a lack of NHL-playing friends with the game) is a new persistent online team mode that allows you to staff a full side, and battle other user teams, supporting up to 12 players on separate consoles. Assuming everyone stays committed, it can be like a league night for video game hockey instead of bowling.
Do Wii Want Some Hockey?:The Wii Version: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version but I did get the chance to play the Wii version with a friend. Unfortunately, we did not have MotionPlus, which is where the most substantial improvements are said to have been made. But the game's presentation on the Wii gets a thorough upgrade, particularly in the graphics. And I know some might consider it trivial, but the Mii skills competitions - shot accuracy, skating speed, etc., as seen at the NHL's All Star Game - are an enjoyable way to play this game with others without having to commit to a full-blown match.
The Great Outdoors:Surprisingly, NHL 2K10 and not NHL 10 is the game with outdoor stadiums from the NHL's extremely popular Winter Classic series. This year it adds Wrigley Field, where the Blackhawks and Red Wings played last year, to Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the 2008 game. If this matters to you, and it does to some, keep that in mind. Also, diehards who hold a torch for the old Hartford Whalers will find their sweaters, home and road from 1993, in the Carolina Hurricanes' uniform options. These are two big ways in which the game's visuals are very enjoyable. Also, the playoff beards are one of many neat hey-look-at-that touches.
Sludgy Skating: The nimbleness of your players does not seem that much improved over previous versions, and the speed is still nothing to write home about. It left me sitting on the speed burst trigger any time I wanted to get anything going. By contrast, opposing players make tight turns and immediate stops, get back on defense in a flash and always break first to a loose puck. Some of this is attributable to the fact that when your player begins an animation he's in it until it's over, so if you blow out someone with a check, you're still finishing that up unless you can jump to a free man. Remember that tuning up the speed in the sliders affects all players, so while you boost your own performance, the defense is still there with you, meaning it's still largely a game of taking the puck to the wings and flipping out a hot centering pass for an unbeatable one timer. I felt the speed issues hindered my attempts at other forms of offense, such as dump-and-chase hockey, making me almost one-dimensional in my attack.
Bland Season-ing: It felt like little attention was paid to improving or deepening the season mode, and it's where NHL 2K10 is most vulnerable to criticism that it's last year's game with an updated roster. Yes, it has added in a dynamic player progression mode, but this is a background feature and won't be fully realized until the NHL season begins and the game starts incorporating player performances. Trade AI is kind of shrimpy and you'll get the better of most deals, which suits a game with heavy offense and a have-it-your-way tone. Again, season mode's biggest selling point is the multiplayer capability as opposed to anything in a simulation or singleplayer mode.
Them's the Dekes: In hockey, I am still a crude enough player and button-spammer that an extra control set is like pearls before swine. While last year's mindboggling two-analog setup for your fakery gets a welcome streamline to a shoulder/face button combo (or shoulder/right analog, similar to NHL 09), they never seemed to respond fast enough to mean much in what is definitely a bang-bang style of hockey play. Then again, as I said, I'm probably not the guy most able to take advantage of this. But while the dekes and their cousins, the stumbleshots, are pretty to look at, functionally they seem a little removed and triggered mostly by chance. When I bore down to score goals I focused more on spacing and passing, not whether I could beat my man or a goalie 1-on-1 or huck garbage into the net from my ass.
Singleminded Intelligence: The opposing AI is not hated per se, because even a rank amateur like me could blow out Detroit 6-3 in its own building shortly after picking it up. It's not formidable as much as it feels singleminded. With some teams, even in a power play you're getting pressed hard, making it difficult to square off your men and work the puck around like you see in the real-life game's set pieces. It can drive you back to run-and-gun arcade hockey even with a man advantage, and can also lead to cheap shorthanded goals against you. The box says they completely rewrote the AI, and maybe I didn't play last year's close enough, but you still seem to be faced with a singleminded opposition that doesn't incorporate a lot of variables in hockey strategy. I only really noticed it late in the third period, with the CPU up by two goals, and then the opposing team finally started playing a puck-control, clear-out-the-zone game to frustrate a comeback.
Even for all its shortcomings - which are rightly viewed in light of Electronic Arts' uncommon excellence in its NHL title, and 2K Sports' conspicuous focus on its Wii presence and multiplayer strengths - NHL 2K10 is not a bad or unworthy title. But nor is it particularly compelling if you are principally playing it in singleplayer modes.
It can, however, be a blast when you're winning and racking up the goals, pushing over your man, taking the puck and top-shelfing it to turn the Pepsi Center into a morgue. These kinds of things just don't feel that hard-earned. But if playing arcade hockey on a core console is a disappointment to fans wanting a deeper game, flip the coin: 2K10 offers the only core hockey on a casual console, and after last year's shoulder-shrugging debut on the Wii, is significantly upgraded there. For those on the 360 or PS3, who want to relive dorm-room hockey nights with next-gen presentation, or those who are just new to hockey and its finer points would be lost on them anyway, NHL 2K10 can still be a comfortable and fun experience.
NHL 2K10 was developed by Visual Concepts and published by 2K on the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii on on Sept. 15. Retails for $59.99 USD on Xbox 360 and PS3, $49.99 on Wii. Rated E10+ on all three platforms. Reviewed on Xbox 360. Played on all singleplayer and multiplayer modes except for "My Team."