Sports games are sort of like the black sheep of the video gaming family, often appealing to a breed of 'gamer' that has almost no interest in any other genre. There are probably a number of reasons one could come up with to explain this phenomenon but the main reason is that modern sports titles strive for complete authenticity, to provide the player with an experience that directly mirrors what you're likely to see while watching a game for yourself, alienating those without a modest knowledge of the rules and tactics of the sport itself.
NHL 10 is one of these games, meaning that - if you don't already know you're clipping from your tripping from your icing - then you should look for a different game if you don't fancy spending your first few hours on the ice learning the basic rules needed to participate at all. Conversely however, if you're up to scratch on the NHL rulebook, and have a basic knowledge of the tactical side, then NHL 10 provides one of the most engaging and in-depth simulations of any sports game, packaging it all in a product that emits the usual flair and finesse we've come to expect from EA Sports in recent years.
The series' trademark fluidity returns in full force, every skating, shooting and tackling animation crafted in wonderfully crisp detail that you'd be forgiven for mistaking as the real thing. It makes every game a real joy to play as the silky animations help give the game the kind of flow that you'd expect from one played on ice, creating a sense of authenticity that its rivals haven't got close to matching.
New to this year's edition are first person fighting and the ability to 'battle on the boards' for possession of the puck. While fighting mechanics have been a staple feature of hockey games for as long as I can remember, the ability to knock some manners into your opponent in first-person is something completely new. Punching is handled with the right-stick and dogging from side to side with the left, but despite the novelty factor of being able to look your opponent in the eye before sending him crumpling to the ice it doesn't really add anything to the gameplay. In fact, it's probably less exciting than 'traditional' third-person fighting in that fights now dissolve into a frantic flicking of the right-stick until it's all over as opposed to the slightly more measured approach of years past.
Thankfully, the new battle on the boards feature is entirely more successful and a very welcome addition. Whereas being checked (otherwise known as a tackle) into the boards would previously - without fail - result in the victim falling straight to the ground, they now often become pinned up against the side with both tackler and 'tackle-e' fighting for control of the puck. If you can withstand the efforts of the aggressor long enough for a team-mate to get close enough you can kick the puck over to them and continue the attack. Conversely, if the tackler manages to knock the puck loose it often leads to a brief numerical advantage, allowing you to pull off a quick attack on goal as the disposed player tries desperately to get off the boards and back into the action as quickly as possible.
If you're a veteran of the series and wondering what other new features are included to justify you spending hard cash on NHL 10, then prepare to be disappointed because the answer is very few. Aside from the two features above, the gameplay is almost identical. Okay, so the CPU seems a little more aggressive - much more likely to start a fight than last year - and the crowd have had a mini-makeover that has resulted in less duplicate spectators, but other than that the on-ice experience is the same. It was always going to be difficult to improve all that much on the brilliant NHL 09, and the team seem to have decided not to mess around with a winning formula. The result is that, unless you're a hockey fanatic, there's little reason to pick up a copy if you already own the previous game.
The same mantra has been employed in terms of the game modes on offer too. While many of the options have been slightly expanded, Be A Pro mode allowing you to go through the draft and get snapped up by any number of teams, depending on your performance in a one-off match, for example, the core game types remain largely the same; only 'Battle for the Cup' and a new GM (general manager) mode are legitimately 'new'. Battle for the Cup gives you license to compete for the Stanley Cup without having to go through an entire season to qualify. It's a decent shortcut for those only interested in playing the biggest matches and the fact that storylines carry over from match to match (i.e. if two players fight each other they will likely fight each in every match until the series is over) adds a bit of extra drama.
GM mode is an attempt at a Football Manager-esque, text-based management sim challenging you to lead your team to the Stanley Cup finals by keeping players happy, bringing in new ones, improving your arena and rotating lines to keep everyone healthy. It's a largely second-rate feature, never going into enough depth to satisfy anyone who would be legitimately excited about taking it for a spin. There's also the age old issue of having to control such a style of game using a control pad, as opposed to a mouse/keyboard, which slows navigation down no end, resulting in the most basic tasks taking much too long to execute.
Due to the brilliance of the past couple of games in the series, NHL 10 was always going to struggle to stake its claim as a fully-fledged sequel. The new features make it a better game than its predecessors, but just not enough to warrant a sure-fire, full-priced purchase. Unless you just can't bring yourself to wait, the shrewd move is to keep playing NHL 09 until you can pick up a copy on the cheap - although by then we'll probably be starring at a fresh new copy of NHL 11. Damn these yearly release cycles!