It’s that time of the year, and now that I’ve had ample time to get to grips with it, and with the regular hockey season just underway, it’s time to look at the latest iteration of what seems to be a sports game award-winning black hole: 22 Sports Game of the Year awards show how much oomph the EA Sports NHL franchise has. So much in fact, that it’s bodychecked 2K Sports’ latest hockey iteration into only releasing for the Wii this season. So with that said, let’s drop the puck and see how this thing goes then!
The first thing worth noting is obviously EA’s new Online Pass initiative – people buying new will get a redeem code for this on the back of their instruction manuals, where used buyers will have to fork out a few quid extra to play online (though they do get a 7-day trial to try out the features). Obviously, new game buyers like myself have nothing to worry about here as it’s just a matter of punching in a code, but if you usually buy your games second-hand you may want to take this into consideration before doing so.
As far as new modes of play go, there’s only one real new one in here, and that’s Hockey Ultimate Team. In NHL for the first time after successful outings on the FIFA and Madden series, I think it works somewhat better in NHL than the other two at trying to achieve the “Fantasy Football” style of approach than the others, due to the way the Salary Cap is implemented. For example, in FIFA, you can just tear it up and sign a plethora of 85+ rated players and dominate online, but with the salary cap, you can’t do that in NHL, and thus you really can only have star players on your first 2 lines, and fill the rest in with depth players and checkers, much like a real team. Much like Madden and FIFA, you can buy your HUT booster card packs with in-game currency, or through the PlayStation Store/Xbox Marketplace, so I highly recommend building your side up with CPU matches and tournaments before daring to challenge anyone, especially if you’re not willing to pour in a few bucks for star players right off the bat.
Be A Pro mode’s also seen a slight change of direction too. With the addition of the Canadian Hockey League’s minor teams, you can start off at that level now before entering the NHL Entry Draft. As opposed to having just one Prospects game last year, now teams will evaluate you over 4 matches, so if you struggle a bit early on, there’s still a good chance of being a first round pick if you play well in the later matches. You also now get to play pre-season with your NHL team after you get picked, and if you impress the coaches in it, you may even get to bypass playing in the AHL minors altogether, something which was unavoidable in last year’s game.
GM mode’s also been expanded a bit, and for an outsider like me, may have made things a little more complicated in the off-season than I may have liked. Contracts have been widely improved, and players can fall into either restricted or unrestricted free agents under the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. New screens for offer sheets, as well as keeping tabs on players that are in the system (be it at AHL or CHL level), as well as improved trading, make NHL’s GM mode one of the best that sports games have to offer.
In the game itself, the entire physics engine has been totally reworked over. The game certainly feels slower than its predecessor, and in turn that makes the new hits feel a lot more meatier when executed well. There’s nothing more satisfying than having a skater come towards your end, and meeting him halfway with a brutal thud. Except of course, when it’s a hit like Nicklas Hjalmarsson’s on Jason Pomminville yesterday, and leaves him having to be stretchered off (11/10/10, CHI 4-3 BUF). However, even with everything on default settings and the latest (as I type, I think it’s 1.03) tuner set downloaded, penalties seem to happen a lot more often than that’s necessary, tripping and elbowing in particular, and often breaks the game up a little too much. Oddly enough for the amount of penalties received, injuries themselves have somehow been a rare sight for me in the time I’ve played it, with the only one being as a result of a defender taking a slapshot square to the knee and being forced off.
On the whole, the game’s by-and-large a different beast to play than last year’s higher-tempo game. Goalies seem more responsive and are lot harder to score against, and going on the penalty kill will really hurt you a lot of the time if you have a habit of going all guns blazing, 100% offense all game. It’s certainly still fun to play, always end-to-end action, and most importantly, it’s what we’ve come to expect from a series that’s known for its sense of realism and accurate rendition of a sport that’s right on the developer’s doorstep in Canada.
Developer: EA Canada
Genre: Sports (Ice hockey in particular, but I think that much is pretty obvious)
Time: As a sports game, it really depends on your interest in the sport. It’s a game that can last all year if you want to, depending on whether or not you want to play all your matches in GM mode or not. Factor in Be A Pro, Ultimate Team, and then exhibition and online play, and there’s more than enough to keep you coming back for more.
Gripes: The only issues I have is with the penalties (there is a slider to adjust the frequency of calls) and the commentary. Yes, while most of it is recycled material from last year, it’s still pretty solid stuff from Gary Thorn and Bill Clement, and it never gets tiresome. After all, there’s only so few ways you can improve what’s already almost perfect, right?
Get it for the: For being a hockey fan. If you like hockey, own a console, and don’t own this game? For shame. If you’re an outsider that’s looking to get into another sport, at least try the demo on the online marketplaces and see how you like it, because it doesn’t get much better than this.