NHL 2K10 (Xbox360)

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I honestly don’t “get” ice hockey at all. I don’t understand the rules, and I don’t understand why there are three periods instead of two halves or four quarters. I also don’t see why there is such an emphasis on fighting (apart from the obvious draw factor this brings for a certain subculture of fans of the sport). A friend told me that some guys are actually contracted to play in the leagues just to fight. This sounded like silly sensationalism to me, so I did some research, and it actually turns out that it’s true! Referred to as “enforcers,” or “goons,” they are often better at fighting than at playing actual professional hockey! Weird but true… so I’m not at all surprised that I struggle to “get” this sport called ice hockey.

Faceoff of the giants…

Nowadays to bring a popular sporting experience to the gaming market takes plenty of planning and precision on the part of software developers. They must ensure that the final product is faithful to all the nuances of the real-life sport in order for it to be accepted by diehard fans. There are really only two major players in the NHL gaming scene: NHL10 (EA Sports), and NHL 2K10 (2K Sports). Given the royal lineage of EA Sports’ simulation games, you know 2K Sports is in for a good fight if they are to be pretenders to the sports simulation throne. To 2K Sports’ credit, however, they’ve pulled out a few impressive titles recently, such as Top Spin 3, and all their lively competition must come as a slap-in-the-face for EA, who recently failed in their two billion dollar acquisition bid of Take-Two Interactive (2K Sports).

NHL 2K10 Screenshot 1

My experience with NHL dates back to a PC relic called FACEOFF. For its time it was enjoyable, but didn’t offer much variety apart from an option to play with a buddy and get into fist-fights (this is NHL, remember?). Were FACEOFF to undergo a standard facelift today, its flat gameplay would not last long in the modern sports gaming arena. Accordingly, NHL 2K10 would likewise need to provide something extra to stay ahead of its major rival and secure as many fans as possible from the much contested sports gaming fanbase (and for the record, this review is not a comparison with NHL10, since I have not had any exposure to it).

Get the party started!

On the cover of NHL 2K10, there’s Alex Ovechkin (I don’t know who he is either) posturing in some semi-toothless barbaric yawp. Apparently this guy is quite a legend of the sport so he’d be an instant drawcard for those in the know, and 2K Sports scored a major coup over rivals EA Sports by securing him on the cover. The back of NHL 2K10 says “IS PAЯTY NOW” and I suppose this means NHL 2K10 is a big-time party, and everyone’s invited, although I have no idea why the Я is back-to-front (if you do, then you probably understand the secret code of NHL and will automatically qualify to love this game).

NHL 2K10 Screenshot 2

The moment you load up NHL2K10, you gain the impression that this is a very well-designed title. The first thing you are presented with is a default quickplay game ready to go, great for anyone wanting to jump straight into NHL action. If you want to change the settings just hit the quick-nav controls and you’re presented with a nesting menu with stacks of options. When playing in a match you have the option of controlling the viewpoint (such as distance, height, camera views) and the audio (TV broadcast, noise from the stands or on the ice), all of which can be selected from a set of default options (which are fully customisable).

According to the Xbox 360 blurb, “true hockey fans will respect the enhanced graphics, new animations and the improved A.I. Everyone will enjoy the pick-up-and-shoot controls,” but you don’t need to be a true hockey fan to appreciate the graphics or the animations in this game: they are superb. I did my best to eye out clones amongst the spectators, but no obvious ones stood out. Considering the level of detail apportioned to almost every aspect of this game and that it never seems to struggle with frame rate issues, it is indeed very impressive. From the reflections off the ice, to the small ice trails left behind by players, NHL 2K10 doesn’t seem to miss anything – in fact, I played a match on 30 October, and the game had a few Halloween touches here and there to spruce things up!

NHL 2K10 Screenshot 3

Puck playoffs on a pond? How pondersome!

The match modes are essentially limited to 2-on-2 mini rink games, pond hockey or the normal arena matches, but there’s also the option to do shoot-outs, practices (tutorials), and even zamboni races (the machine that polishes and cleans the ice).

I must confess that the manual is very intimidating for first-timers, with the control scheme taking up six pages in the manual, and if it weren’t for the practice runs, I would still have no idea how to do anything. I strongly recommend the practice runs (primarily as defender, and attacker) to get a feel for what’s going on before you dive into a proper match.

A major pitfall in previous NHL games has been the inability at times to identify where the puck is, but NHL 2K10 remedies this by having either a grey circle or an arrow always highlighting the puck location.

NHL 2K10 Screenshot 4

White Christmas!

If I haven’t adequately emphasised it yet, this game is completely loaded with features and options. For the aspiring NHL fans out there, Christmas has come early! You can immerse yourself into the NHL leagues – having your own play-off competition, running a season, managing a franchise, and so much more. You can create your own players, modify the leagues, and if you’d prefer the management approach, you have the option to simulate any or all of your matches and just focus on the nitty gritty strategies and player contracts. The sheer depth of options coupled with my shameful lack of knowledge of the NHL left my head reeling, but nonetheless it was still enthralling to run a franchise through a season of the NHL. What’s more, your players can get injured and they’ll be unavailable for matches because of ailments ranging from a strained knee to a viral infection! This definitely brings a new element to the game where you now have to watch how you control your star player on the ice, because one too many body checks could lead to him being out for weeks with a shoulder injury.

The added non-game features range from a media player for controlling the original artist tracks included with NHL 2K10, to options for uploading and downloading player DNA and difficulty sliders to or from Xbox LIVE.

NHL 2K10 Screenshot 5

The coolest game on ice

NHL 2K10 has been a really inspiring surprise, and one doesn’t have to be an NHL fan to appreciate the quality of this game. When it’s so clearly evident that the developers have put their time and energy into releasing a polished and finished product, it’s very hard to not enjoy the experience. Although it is just essentially ice hockey, there is still so much to explore that cannot be done justice in one short review; the graphics, gameplay, controls and audio are all superlative, and the added potential for up to four players on one console or twelve across Xbox LIVE sets this game up to be an awesome party game. I have to agree with Ovechkin on this one – NHL2K10 IS PAЯTY NOW.

The Good: Lots of nice touches; quality product; loads of depth for NHL fans; feeling like you’re actually at the real thing

The Bad: Daunting controls for beginners; never figuring out how to win a faceoff