This year unfortunately there are not many updates to franchise mode which is always my favourite mode of play in sports games. The franchise mode still offers more depth than Madden as you can fiddle with things such as ticket and concession stand prices as well as spend money to upgrade such things as parking facilities in order to keep the owner happy. Once you hit the ice in a game I have noticed that the player responsiveness has been tweaked over previous years versions and the game does tend to play a lot more like real life this year, the hits feel meaty and the action feels a lot more fluid than in previous incarnations of the game.
One thing that really holds franchise mode back is the lacklustre presentation of the game, sure the game has all the NBC branding that goes with a live broadcast of hockey, but it brings none of the excitement that goes along with it. Eddie Olczyk and Mike Emerick once again pick up commentary action in the booth and they sound about as tired of saying their lines as I am of hearing them year after year, they do not do justice to the exciting action that is taking place on the rink, it might be time to get Jim Hughson back in the booth as he did a fantastic job in past versions of the game of commentating in past versions of the game.
The commentary isn't the only area that feels a bit stale however, during breaks in play we get treated to replays of various shots on goal or hits that have taken place, this has gotten very repetitive over the past few years and I can't help but think EA really need to up the presentation in these quiet moments of the game, they need to be cutting away to different players and displaying stat overlays that relate to the current season just as they do in the real-life version of the sport. The graphics are spectacular as always it's just a shame they don't make use of this by upping the presentation standards. Franchise mode is by no means a disaster though as it is a lot of fun to take control of your favourite NHL team (GO PENS!) and take them through the season and hopefully the playoffs and Stanley Cup final.
One of the biggest additions to the game this year is NHL Threes, this mode is a blast especially when you have a couple of friends around and want to play some quick fast paced hockey. NHL Threes is basically what happens when hockey meets NBA Jam, the play takes place on a much smaller rink and each side has only three players each (plus their goalie) instead of the usual five on the ice at once. The gameplay is much more action orientated with crazy hits and goal scoring opportunities presenting themselves every second of play, the commentary is suitably over the top as well as the fact that teams can even sub their mascot into play. As you play and beat various teams you can also unlock new stadiums, players and mascots. NHL Threes is a sterling example of what sports games need more of, over the top fun!
Hockey Ultimate Team once again makes an appearance and just as in Madden Ultimate team it sees you trying to construct the best hockey team you can by collecting cards gained from completing challenges and defeating various CPU and online opponents. This year EA have added new challenges such as going after specific teams and also co-op challenges. While the ultimate team challenges are a fun diversion from playing franchise mode EA does have a long way to go to meet the lofty heights of MLB The Shows Diamond Dynasty Mode. Be A Pro Mode, where you can create your own superstar and take him through the ranks of minor league hockey all the way through to the NHL has only had one minor change this year and it is the ability to ask for a trade from your current team. This mode is severely lacking in depth compared to the same modes in the NBA 2K and MLB The Show games and I really think its time for EA to do something to deepen the experience.
While the upgrades this year are few and far between, the overall gameplay is much smoother this year and does a much better job at representing the fast and furious pace of the NHL, that and the addition of the excellent NHL Threes mode just pushes this across the line as an essential purchase this year if you are a hockey fan, EA has spent too long resting on its laurels with this series though and I am expecting major improvements in all facets of the game in order for NHL to continue to rate well.
Thanks to Electronic Arts Australia for supplying the game for review