During E3 I got a chance to sit down and play an unfinished version of NHL 10. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to write about the upcoming hockey title until today because of an embargo. But now that the embargo has been lifted, I can finally talk about NHL 10.
After my initial session with NHL 10, it’s safe to say that the NHL 10 team didn’t do anything crazy to ruin an already amazing gameplay experience. Instead the developers are taking the necessary steps to refine and tweak what’s in place. That refining and tweaking applies to things like goalie and passing controls, additional animations for goalies, additional moves for skaters, modified artificial intelligence and the overall modification of the core engine to create a more realistic hockey simulation. But enough with this overall outlook nonsense, let’s get specific.
Stick-to-Stick Passing? What’s That?
I must start off by talking about the new passing controls, because they are what I noticed first when I picked up the controller. Essentially, the new controls add more user control to the equation and remove the automated nature of the current passing system—a system that has more or less been in place since the beginning of the NHL series.
The new passing system gives the user more control because now you will be able to aim a pass to any spot on the ice. You will be able to do that because the developers have added a 360-degree passing mechanic that allows you to use the left analog stick to aim to a spot on the ice. This means you can lead a player with a pass, pass a puck off the boards to a teammate, or you can simply throw a pass towards the crease when nothing else seems open. There is a little leeway in terms of aiming the pass towards a teammate, so you shouldn’t be severely penalized if your aim is off by a couple of degrees.
The automated nature of the current passing system will clearly be affected by the 360-degree passing mechanic, but it will be shattered by the other element of the new passing system: touch. In other words, the trigger you use to pass the puck will now be pressure sensitive. If you want to hit a streaking player that is far away, you’ll need to push down the passing trigger far enough to get enough power behind the pass. If you want to do a little finesse pass, then you will have to tap the trigger more gently.
However, if that sounds too intimidating, there will be three passing levels to choose from: casual, normal and hardcore. The casual level is similar to the way passing works in NHL 09. The normal level will allow you to aim your passes, but the game will control the speed of the pass. And the hardcore level will leave you in complete control of your own destiny.
I chose to play on the hardcore level because it gave me the best chance to be creative. Since there is also a new drop-pass mechanic (hold left trigger and right bumper on Xbox 360), the amount of control I had while passing the puck was incredible. Of course I made a lot of errant passes with these new controls at my disposal, but that’s the way it should be. For every beautiful high-risk pass I make, there should be many more that are off target or intercepted. Essentially the new passing system makes those cross-crease ho-hum bullet passes in NHL 09 seem rewarding in NHL 10. But the new passing system really could do so much more than that.
Assuming the passing system is hard to master, it will slow down the end-to-end action present in NHL 09. Assuming the new passing system is hard to master, it will make users think twice about making risky cross-ice passes, instead playing it safe by dumping the puck or making a pass along the boards. I write “assume” because while neutral-zone play was a bigger deal during the one hour I had time to play the game, I don’t know how the system will hold up after a 100 hours on the sticks. Plus, users could simply scoff at this new level of control, deciding instead to use the old controls so they can continue to make pinpoint pass after pinpoint pass.
Regardless of the final outcome, the new passing system should help make great passers and the “playmaker” player style stand out on the ice. For the unaware, the “playmaker” class is one of the core player styles that were implemented last year.
Beware the Enforcer
In addition to the player styles that were implemented last year, there will be one new player style introduced this year: the enforcer.
But that news tidbit should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the early coverage for NHL 10. After all, the development team has already talked about first-person fighting, after-whistle scrums and intimidation tactics. I don’t have much to say about first-person fighting or intimidation tactics as of yet, simply because I did not have enough time to get a feel for them. I got into a few fights, but I really didn’t know the controls yet so I just flailed about. Intimidation tactics were even harder to gauge because that mechanic will be all about balance over a long period of time. After-whistle scrums, however, I can talk about a bit.
Now I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I took a ton of dumb penalties during these after-whistle scrums. I also would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I was as giddy as Ray Emery when I performed my first face wash on Sidney Crosby. But the point is that I really enjoyed myself during these scrums. While the scrum situations are certainly not completely realistic, and I didn’t really see all 10 players gather en masse in front of a goalie after a dead puck—more one-on-one scrums than anything else, which is disappointing—I get excited thinking about the possibilities of having 10 user-controlled players on the ice just getting in each other’s faces after the whistle.
Of course during the first few weeks NHL 10 is out, there will no doubt be epic amounts of penalties. Fights will be breaking out all over the ice, and some gamers will be slashing each other while others cross check each other at full speed. However, assuming online gamers get tired of sitting in the box, the after-whistle showdowns should become more subtle and nuanced over time. This means a user might slash an opponent to try and draw a retaliation penalty. This also means that a user might try to draw a penalty after the whistle to avoid a looming power play. And this also means you will have to play some mind games and have a little talent when it comes to mastering the after-whistle scrums.
It’s sad to say, but I can’t wait to be a Sean Avery type of player online. Seriously, I can’t believe I just wrote that.
Board Play Finally Means Something
All this talk about scrums and enforcers also leads nicely into talking about the new board-play system. When near the boards, you initiate board play by pressing a single button (Y on 360, triangle on PS3). You then get glued to the boards and battle for the puck with a member of the other team—only two players can be involved in a board-play scrum. The third-party that comes in will take the puck. This leads to a two-fold mechanic of sorts. The third player that joins in the scrum will be able to grab the puck, which means you will have to support your teammates when they are in these scrums. This also means that you need to support your teammates by being ready to receive a pass along the boards, because if your teammate has control of the puck along the boards, he can pass it with his skate by pressing the standard passing trigger.
The board play can also be initiated by either player. So while you will see a defender push the puck carrier into the boards a lot of the time, the puck carrier can press up against the glass when in trouble. During one instance, I carried the puck, and then quickly pressed “Y” to initiate board play and avoid the looming defender. Then once I was against the boards, I was able to press “Y” again to leave the boards with the puck still on my stick, leaving the defender to chase me once more.
The crowd is also noticeable when two players are grinding it out along the boards, because you will see members of the crowd banging against the glass, which is a nice touch. Unfortunately, a lot of the other presentational elements are just ho-hum.
Presentation Still Needs Work
I think it’s great that there are 20,000 fans waving towels around their heads. I also like that the crowd is smart enough to boo star players on opposing teams. (Also, here’s a cool little aside about the crowds. Within the franchise mode, if an opposing player injures someone on your team, he will be booed by your crowd when he touches the puck.)
But as nice as those touches are, I was underwhelmed by the presentation in the demo. The crowd did seem dynamic, but it does not seem like much else has changed on the presentation front. The same pregame intro still occurs before the game, the postgame seems to be unchanged, there still is not much going on after the end of a period, and celebrations after goals still look like basic canned cut scenes. Simply put, there wasn’t much there that wowed me from a visuals standpoint, at least in terms of presentational touches.
Can’t Forget the Goalies
The goalies were iffy in NHL 09. They were sometimes super-human and all-knowing, yet other times they were flailing disasters between the pipes. While some of the goalie issues cropped up because of artificial intelligence (AI) deficiencies, other problems occurred because of faulty goalie animations.
Thankfully the NHL development team has added a bunch of new goalie animations to this year’s title. I saw all types of new goalie animations, but the ones that caught my eye the most were the blocker and kick saves. These stood out because I watched the goalies make some kick saves where they redirected the puck towards the corner—the same goes for the blocker saves. Those types of saves are significant because the goalies in NHL 09 almost always covered up the puck or left a big juicy rebound in front of the net—there was very little divergence from those two scenarios.
In addition to the new animations, the developers are also promising that each AI goalie will behave differently in terms of aggressiveness and style, but I can’t really comment on that yet since I didn’t have enough time to really dig into that element of the game. I did, however, notice that there are still some leftover goalie animations that worry me a bit, namely the cover-up-the-puck animations. I hope the developers continue to iron out those animations because I would hate to see goalies still lunging to cover a puck, only to miss it entirely and then be caught out in no-man’s land.
Either way, I’m not too concerned about specific animations because the goalies are no longer frozen objects when they begin to make a save. A classic frustrating situation in NHL 09 occurred when your goalie would go post to post to make a desperation save on a one-timer, only to sit there frozen in the split position as another player came in to put in an easy rebound. But now goalies will be able to go into new animations from previously unenviable positions. So when your goalie goes post to post to make a save, he will still be able to stop rebounds from the seat of his goalie short-shorts.
As a final note about goalies—and really this is just a tease more than anything else—I just want to mention that gamers who love to play the goalie position will have to get used to some new controls this year. I don’t have all the specifics yet, but I just thought I should let the goalies out there know that more control will be in your hands this year.
NHL 10 Will Be Just Fine
I think it says a lot about a game when I feel like I could write another article on just the stuff I didn’t mention within this one. I barely talked about some of the new stuff you can do with the puck (fake shots by pressing in the R3 button), as well as the fact that your players will now automatically grab floating pucks out of the air. I also didn’t talk about the modified puck physics, or the fact that the puck can now be batted out of the air during rebounds—the puck doesn’t need to be glued to the stick to initiate a shot anymore.
If anything, I think that proves that even if refinements and tweaks are the name of the game this year, there still will be plenty to talk about.