While it isn't as big of a leap forward as last year's game, NHL 10 is still one fantastic hockey sim.
As appealing as it is to be able to custom-fit your player, it's a little disconcerting to see such a core part of the game so thoroughly integrated with pay-to-play downloadable content. Some of the goals needed to unlock the better booster packs are crazy, too. It's a lot easier to just buy them than play 40 games a season for three straight years and win the Selke Trophy along the way, for instance. And it's also a tad annoying that EA saw fit to add this feature while ignoring issues with player ratings and skill types that lead to some bizarre line combos. Too often, players are classified wrongly, so you'll see the likes of a shot-in-the-dark reclamation project like Rickard Wallin bizarrely rated as a sniper and slotted into the first-line-center role in Toronto. This can be frustrating in Be a Pro, because you can easily wind up playing with incompatible linemates.
At least you don't have to pay extra to create a hulking tough-guy type of player for use in Be a Pro and online. You can now unleash your inner Derek Boogard and play a guy who gets paid big bucks for pounding on people for three or four minutes of ice time a night. Fleshing this role out is a new first-person fighting feature where you pull sweaters and launch haymakers from a camera angle so close to the opposition that you can count his missing teeth. Being tossed into the trenches like this and throwing punches with the right stick has a real visceral impact, especially in games where you're controlling an entire team. It feels right to be able to pummel some visor-wearing pest annoying one of your star players, too. But this feature sounds like more fun than it is in practice. Although it's great to beat people up when you're playing an entire team, when you're locked to a position you pay for your 15 seconds of fisticuffs with at least five minutes of game time in the sin bin. At least this isn't the only way you can play physical. You can now get tough without dropping the gloves by working the boards. An all-new board physics system lets you throw the puck carrier up against the glass and hold him there to create a scrum. From there, you can maneuver up and down the boards and maybe even kick the puck to a teammate. This is very realistic, and it's more challenging than it seems since it can be very hard to angle those agile NHL players into the boards. About the only negative here might be the presence of scrums at all, since it does slow play down a bit, and this rugby-style battling has been deemed verboten by the NHL in the post-lockout era.
Multiplayer has been spruced up, too. All of the modes remain pretty much the same as they were last year, with Versus one-on-one play, team play with up to six players per side going head-to-head, a shootout, and EASHL leagues back for more. But the online performance is considerably improved over last year, when frequent lag was a problem. NHL 10 is as smooth as glass even in six-on-six online play with full squads of human players.
Lastly, the interface has been redone in a more user-friendly fashion. About the only thing that keeps you guessing is where to edit an existing player, because going into the new Hockey Shop isn't the first place you look when thinking about changing your power forward's hairstyle. In-game graphics seem to be mostly held over and are virtually identical on both the 360 and PS3. Player art might be a touch better than in last year's game, especially when it comes to facial detail, although you have to look awfully close to see any real improvement. Animations are definitely smoother, though, and there are no more slowdowns during after-whistle replays. Audio quality holds the line. The EA Sports Trax soundtrack once again consists of a mix of old and new rock-pig anthems ranging from the Scorpions' classic "Rock You Like a Hurricane" to a fresh new Nickelback atrocity. And commentators Gary Thorne and Bill Clement still seem to be in dire need of espresso. Both practically snooze their way through games. This is probably better than overcaffeinated screaming, although it would be nice if Thorne could raise his voice an octave or two when somebody rings a shot off the post, or at least come up with a more exciting catchphrase than "Scoring opportunity!" and say it only when someone actually has an opportunity to score. Thorne also mispronounces player names. And not just some of the crazier Finnish and Russian ones, either. Toronto's Matt Stajan, for instance, is frequently called "Stay-on."
The bottom line with NHL 10 is that if you have NHL 09, you don't absolutely, positively need it. But there are enough new features and little adjustments and fixes both online and off that any self-respecting hockey fan should probably still go for it. EA Sports has once again done an absolutely tremendous job of simulating shinny.
Editor's Note: This review was originally posted with a score of 8.0 because the online multiplayer was very laggy at that time. Hours later, in time for the game's launch, the multiplayer was much smoother and so the text and score were changed accordingly. GameSpot apologizes for any inconvenience caused. For more information, check out our reviews blog entry on the subject.