October 27, 2009
Once again we venture into annual update season, when last year's sports titles are quickly traded in while they are worth something and the latest additions to the series are wheeled out in all of their glory. Here we have the newest, shiniest and iciest NHL game from EA Sports in all of its glory. Is it just a rehash of last year's award winning title or has it gone one step beyond and produced the ultimate master class of high octane action?
The previous NHL titles have always had a fairly high level of quality and often surpass the more high profile titles in the EA Sports line up such as FIFA or Madden. Certainly the last few 360 titles have gone above and beyond the call of duty, offering an in-depth offline experience, as well as all of the online matches, shootouts, clubs and leagues that you could wish for. With such a polished article it would be hard to see exactly what EA could do to expand the franchise and justify yet another yearly update. This year's iteration offers a couple of new ideas but nothing earth shattering, which leads me to wonder whether the series may have peaked.
As ever the presentation is spot on, with any number of options from the get go. You can dip in and out of exhibition matches, shootouts, leagues, season mode or the ubiquitous Be A Pro option - which lets you design your own star, slap him in a team and then take him on the path to glory. New for this year is the "Battle for the Cup" mode which is basically a one off cup event that you can tinker with as you see fit, by altering the prize on offer, the number of games, its rules and the teams involved. It is a nice touch but really just boils down to a bog standard cup competition. If you tire of the offline lifestyle then you can hop online and take part in the same array of games or even form your own club should you so desire. The rosters are all spot on and you can tinker with stats or even create your own players and teams from scratch, not to mention the fact that a number of foreign leagues are included for those of you with a deep desire to play with teams from the Swiss or Swedish league, for example.
Last time out the brave new thing was the inclusion of online clubs, which could support a big roster of players that could then hop in and out of games together. Thankfully that idea has been retained and polished up a bit more, as you can have teams of up to fifty players (though only six can play in each match of course) and set your parameters how you see fit. Searching for other matches has become less of a chore too as you can just look for quick games or team up against clubs that your friends belong to. The club system also accommodates your Be a Pro player so you can use your likeness online to lead you team to glory or, like me, the ignominy of defeat – whichever floats your boat.
The standard gameplay is much the same and can seem confusing at first to newcomers. With the right stick handling - in conjunction with other buttons for certain moves - newcomers may struggle at first to get to grips with some of the more subtle manoeuvres at their disposal. Basic controls can be used so that you just have to press a button to pass and shoot for example, but this means you lose access to deke moves, puck dumps, goalie control and the new board play – so ease of control does not really mean better results. The new board play is fun but only a minor distraction, as now you can pin opposing players to the sides of the rink and try to jostle the puck free of their control. It feels more like a fun mini game than a game changing addition. You also have the joy of some first person fighting which you can attempt to instigate at any time. The sticks allow you to block and dish out varying degrees of damage and whilst it is a fun distraction , it is over all too quickly and happens far too infrequently to be much more than a gimmick. Still, on the whole the game plays fluidly and you can adjust the in game sliders to make things as easy or complicated as you see fit, ensuring the game can remain challenging even for hardcore players.
The graphics are as polished as ever, with the players and ice looking suitably awesome. My main grievance comes with the watching crowd though, which at times looks frankly appalling. The game does also suffer from a bit of lag at times when you are playing online, though thankfully such moments are quite rare, as are a few strange glitches with the camera – one of which caused me to miss my victorious highlight reel because my view was stuck up in the stadium rafters. Odd. With the usual team of announcers calling the action and an inoffensive soundtrack of rock and indie themed songs, there is little to complain about on the vocal side of things, although it hardly does much to impress you that much either.
Could it be that EA has finally gotten their head around not making achievements too outrageous? After the 08 debacle of beating a top 50 player and last year's grindfest involving legend cards, it seems that this year's list is looking a lot rosier. Appearances can be deceptive at first, as you need to acquire all trophies and gold medals with a club for the full thousand, however, you can work around this issue by just joining a club that has already won these trophies and will automatically be recognised as achieving them yourself. Score one for common sense. There are still a number of online tasks but they can all easily be gotten through regular play or by just playing with a few friends. Offline; you are given points for dabbling in GM mode, playing Be a Pro, and using a certain team in the Battle for the Cup. All in all, the achievements seem designed to encourage you to experience everything on offer which can only be a good thing.
To be honest the game does not offer a lot more than last year's title did and the few new tweaks are merely subtle additions rather than game altering changes that really up the ante. That being said, it still offers a superb sporting experience with a suitable challenge for beginners and experts alike. The online modes have been made more welcoming to new players too and it is easy to dip your toe in and see if you like the experience. This is certainly a must buy for anyone that has been on the fence about an ice hockey game or people that missed out on last year's version. This is a great game – just one that does pretty much the same thing as last year.
Chirpy commentators that happily describe every hit, shot and save though with varying degrees of accuracy. At least the in game chants are amusing. The usual rock themed EA soundtrack is decent but not stellar.
Lush rinks and fluid player animations make for a superb experience, sadly it is ruined the second you see the awful looking crowd. Guess you cannot have it all.
Still a superbly enjoyable experience, though you may struggle at first to pick up some of the more subtle controls and switching to the classic system results in you losing out on some of the more advanced moves.
The best ice hockey game out there thanks to an almost limitless set of options that cover every eventuality. A superb online set up certainly seals the deal.
Probably EA’s best (and easiest) list for some time. Still relies heavily on online tasks, but at least they have been made attainable and fun this time around rather than the frustrating tasks of years gone by.
This is still the best NHL game on the market, but one that seems to be running out of ideas. It is still a hell of a lot of fun, especially if you can get a full club of people up and running online. For those that have yet to sample an NHL title or skipped last year's, then this should be an essential purchase. For the rest of us it may well be a rental at best.