For years EA Sports had lagged behind its rival 2K’s NHL series, but last year was a game changer. NHL 09 became the superior hockey game for consoles, giving fans the quality hockey game they deserved. It also presented EA Canada with a bit of a challenge for the future, how could they possibly top what was perhaps the best hockey game to ever come out? Revolutionary improvements made the on-ice action and controls a gamers dream, topping it would be difficult. Thankfully all EA had to do was make a few gameplay tweaks, throw in a new fighting styles and a new Be the GM mode and they’d easily retain their title as Best Hockey Game.

NHL 10’s core gameplay and game modes have remained largely unchanged, and that’s a good thing. For anyone who has played NHL 09, the controls will be instantly recognizable, but it’s a few new tweaks that will set the game apart and raise the bar. One of the newest features that enhances the gameplay is the new ability of board play. If you’re not a hockey fan, board play is when one player sandwiches another player into the board, most of the time it’s a defender holding up the attacker against the board in order to stifle their offense and jostle for the puck. This new feature really bring in more realism into the gameplay, and is a welcomed addition. Players can also hit pucks out of the air now, creating for exciting highlight reel goals. There’s also post whistle play that allows for players to rustle each other up a bit for a few seconds, and sometimes the rustling will lead to a full on brawl.

Speaking of brawling, NHL 10 introduces us to a new style of fighting, first person fighting. Now you get the punches up close as you try to dodge incoming fists. Using the left stick, pushing up lets you take quick jabs at the player while pulling down then up will deliver a mighty hard punch. A couple of those and you’ll take out the opposing player, giving your team a temporary boost and sending the player to the sin bin.

The games AI is decent for the most part, but there are a few minor quirks that could be addressed either in an update or in future releases. Goalies tend to venture a little too far away from goal at times, putting themselves in precarious situations. I’ve also come across one too many own goals, where a defender would make a pass to another player across ice only to have it hit the goalie and go in off his skate. While they may not be major problems, it would be nice address the issue in future updates.

The various modes of play are very similar to last year’s, but we’re treated to a few new options. Joining the holdover Playoff and Be a Pro modes, the Battle for the Cup drops you into the Stanley Cup Finals where you take on an opponent of your choice in either a 3, 5 or 7 game series. The Season Mode has received an update as well, allowing you to play with up to 30 total players. Perhaps the biggest and actually fun mode is the Be a GM, which turns the game into one big management sim.

In the Be a GM mode you’ll hire staff, control player trades, and even scout for new talent. You even have control of your teams AHL affiliate, deciding which prospects you’ll trade in order to help the parent club. Be a GM has some managerial elements that will help create a sense of realism as you look to put together a team that can make it all the way to Lord Stanley’s prize trophy. The trade system is designed to stop you from trying to abuse other teams with unfair trade offers. As you progress, goals must be completed through your career, allowing you to earn new hockey cards that benefit you.

NHL 10’s multiplayer has also received a bit of a boost. The modes from last year have remained pretty much the same, with Versus, Team play, Shootout and the EA Sports Hockey League all returning, it’s the fixes to the modes that has made all the difference. The lag problem is practically gone while playing a game with six-on-six has no noticeable problem either.

Visually the game looks fantastic. The detail in the player models and animations really stands out. Animations are smoother and more refined and the addition of several new moves really adds to the realism. Watching a goalie flail around, make a kick save and slapping away pucks brings life to one of the most lifeless characters in the game. It’s also great seeing the various player reactions to a foul, with a slashing causing the victim to take his glove off and shake his wrist and sooth it. It’s the little animations that really bring the characters to life, and just add to the games realism

The games audio is solid as well, commentary from Gary Thorne and Bill Clement continues to excel and give an authentic feel to the game. Occasionally they’ll fall behind when trying to keep up with the action, but for the most part it’s very solid. The on ice effects are solid as well with in game action delivering the appropriate crunches and pings. Even the crowds reaction to the action seems more realistic. The EA Sports Trax soundtrack consists of a mix of old and new rock, with songs like Megadeath’s “Peace Sells to CKY’s “Hellions on Parade”, it’s a rather wide variety . You can also make your own soundtrack.

For all the positives there is one real negative that bothers me the most, EA’s micro-transaction system. Going into more and more of their games, the micro-transactions give you the “option” of purchasing equipment and other power ups instead of earning them by playing the game. For example, in the Be a Pro mode you an create your player and have him start in the minors and work his way up. All along the way you can equip him with different skates, sticks, helmets and more. Many of which you earn in the game by completing various challenges and achievements. If you don’t want to play the game as long as it’s required to unlock some of the challenges you have the ability to purchase the items for a fee. As appealing as it may be to customize your player, it’s disappointing to see it integrated with pay-to-play downloadable content. Unfortunately this seems to be a trend though, especially with EA games.

Still, despite my one big gripe, NHL 10 is a great game. There are plenty of new features that differentiate it from NHL 09. Hockey fans will love the most realistic game yet and fans of sports games will love all of the game modes that will keep you entertained for months. EA Sports took over the reigns as Best Hockey Game of 2009, 2010 looks to be a shoe in.