The battle for videogame hockey supremacy wasn’t much of a battle last year, as EA seemed to pull ahead with NHL 09. But a lot can change in a year. Previous developer Kush was disbanded in 2008, months after the development cycle of NHL 2K9 was already in full swing, which put the new developers (Visual Concepts) in a tough spot. (If that development studio sounds familiar, that's because it's the studio that's responsible for the critically acclaimed NBA 2K series.)
And the shortened development cycle certainly did hurt NHL 2K9, but it also seems to have benefited NHL 2K10. Visual Concepts took the criticism of 2K9 to heart and is now trying to build the best possible NHL game this year to make up for it. From what I saw, it won’t take long for gamers to notice the improvements.
On the Ice
Lots of work has been done in an effort to make the gameplay more simulation-oriented. The artificial intelligence (AI) has been largely rewritten to reflect these changes. Players will be rewarded for moving the puck and playing the way you would see on television or in a NHL arena. The strategies system has also been reworked.
There are many details you will notice as you play the game, such as improved animations, more realistic player likenesses and even more minor details like a player's hair. Alex Ovechkin’s gold laces will also make an appearance. In addition, the animation for backwards skating has been improved, which should allow you to play much better defense than you were able to in 2K9.
In the past when your shot was interrupted, your player would simply stop while the game continued around you. In 2K10 there are new stumble shots. The shot may get disrupted, but it can still continue now. The success of the shot essentially comes down to the player's stumble-shot rating (one of many new ratings and sliders), and it makes for a much more fluid and realistic game.
There are also stick lifts, which allow you to take the puck back without checking. Again, the success of this maneuver mostly depends on the player's ratings -- undisciplined players are more likely to be called for high sticking. There certainly appears to be a risk-reward factor involved in this process, so hopefully it will be hard to abuse this maneuver.
Incidental contact is also new to NHL 2K10. Basically it’s similar to a running back contorting his body to squeeze through a hole in ESPN NFL 2K5, or one player running into another player on the court in NBA 2K9. When speed is not the only factor that is determining who will get to a loose puck, it makes those races to the puck that much more interesting.
Off the Ice
While the gameplay has improved, everything else has as well. The new and improved franchise mode gives the user much more roster freedom, including uneven trades, a new team-budget system, GM personalities and team identities. The GM personalities and team identities will make computer-controlled squads behave as they would in real life. That means Lou Lamoriello will build a defense-oriented team in New Jersey, while the GM of the Islanders, Garth Snow, will be a seller at the trade deadline. As teams improve or regress over the years, these GM identities can and will change.
Another new feature is franchise blogging. After each game you can upload your franchise to its own Web site through 2K Sports. You can also attach news stories and upload replays and screenshots. Did you blank the Red Wings in Detroit? If you did, you can tweet to your heart’s delight -- just make sure it’s under 140 characters.
But The biggest improvement to franchise mode is a separate online aspect. If you’ve ever played a full season of NHL hockey, you would know that the CPU gets old after a while. Now you can play an online opponent and have the result included in your franchise. Your friend (or enemy) wants to play you in your Stanley Cup? He can do that, along with any other game on the schedule. He can even join your team for cooperative play.
You can also jump into a game from any menu with either a friend or random opponent. This counts for any mode, which means the aforementioned franchise mode, as well as the quick game or playoff modes.
NHL 2K10 also allows you to use created teams in online modes. You can customize them as much as you want, but the template for every real NHL team is available for you to tinker with as well. Want to use pink and black as the colors for the Calgary Flames? Want to bring your high-school team to the NHL? Go for it. You can use these teams in online leagues where every team is fictional, and it also makes Team-Up games a tad bit more interesting.
Roster editing has been made easier with the inclusion of 2K Share. If you have played NBA or MLB 2K9, you know what to expect. You can upload and download rosters, created players, sliders and draft classes. When you pop in the game on September 15, there will be a current roster available for download, along with updates throughout the season.
The downloading of draft classes comes into play when the draft rolls around in your franchise. These classes can be auto-generated, current or something retro like a created 1995 draft class. The possibilities are limitless and can provide respite next summer when the rosters become somewhat outdated.
Randy Hahn, commentator for the San Jose Sharks, returns to call the action this year. In addition, the overhead camera angle has returned, and there are also new picture-in-picture (PIP) updates for line changes and the penalty box. These PIP updates are comparable to the views that you might get of a baserunner in one of the MLB games.
Wii owners who are fans of sports games have been getting the shaft for the most part since the system’s inception, though, things have improved considerably during the last few months. Either way, the Wii version of NHL 2K10 will feature everything in the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game, including support for Wii MotionPlus, online play, voice chat, 2K Share -- plus another Wii-exclusive feature that’s still under wraps. It's also worth mentioning that NHL 2K10 will be the only simulation hockey game that is released this season for the Wii console.
2K Sports wants the world to know that the developers are creating a game that is based on fun and simulation hockey. It looks like the developers are on target, which means the hockey showdown of 2009-10 could be much tighter this year.
NHL 2K10 will be released on September 15.