EA Sports knows how to make a great hockey game. Simply look at the sheer number of awards EA Canada seems to land every year for its NHL games, and you’ll get an idea of just how well the game is received. Every year fans ask for something new and improved, and this year EA has finally given fans what they really want: broken sticks. That says an awful lot about how solid NHL games have been over the years. Sure, EA added a new physics system and a fantasy hockey league, but when all fans really wanted was a feature that adds broken sticks to the game, you know NHL is one of the most solid sports games on the market.
NHL 11 is the latest offering from EA Sports’ popular hockey simulator. It’s a shame the sport isn’t popular across the world, including the US, because it’s fast, fit for only the tough-headed, and usually gets pretty physical and violent. These are all qualities that translate well to a video game, and NHL 11 does a terrific job of capturing all those aspects we love about hockey.
The biggest changes this year rest in the addition of a new physics system, the EA Sports Ultimate Hockey League (EAUHL) and Hockey Ultimate Team, and the coveted broken sticks feature. For devote NHL fans, the Ultimate League offers a comprehensive and meaty experience to really sink your teeth into. You set up a team in the EAUHL using the Ultimate Team playing cards. There are some 4,000 players in 10 different leagues to collect and use. You can use cards to personalize your team, pick a head coach, train your players, and choose your rink. Player Cards include those from the Canadian Hockey League, American Hockey League and across Europe, among others. You’ll start with two decks to build your team, but you can continue to enhance your team by earning in-game currency or by using your hard-earned income (real money).
There is potential for the EAUHL to really take off, but that will depend on how players utilize the system, and if they’ll be able to navigate the often-confusing card system. We’ve had similar thoughts on other sports games, including the recent Madden NFL 11, that this fantasy-style feature is great for the hardcore fans of said sport, but daunting for casual followers. The actual implementation of the card-based system in NHL 11’s EAUHL is more complex than in needs to be, and we found it weighing down what was meant to be a terrific interactive fantasy feature. Of course, people who love building up teams through trading cards will take the time to learn how it actually works; everyone else will likely try it out, and then forget about it.
If EAUHL doesn’t tickle your fancy, you’ll still have plenty to do outside of a basic quick game. NHL 11 brings back classic modes like Be a Pro, Be a GM, Playoff, Tournament, and Season modes, to name a few. We tried them all out for size, and found our favorites were Be a Pro and Season modes. Be a Pro is essentially a single-player campaign for hockey. You create a player and take him up through the ranks, hopefully landing a top draft pick, before settling in with a team and having a nice long career. You use experience points to upgrade your player’s abilities. As in similar modes from other sports games, Be a Pro literally puts you in the skates of your player. When he’s benched you’ll watch the game through the glass.
Sitting on the bench is a real drag because the gameplay is quite exhilarating. For as long as there have been hockey games, we’ve looked for those big hits against the boards, leading to opposing titans tossing off their gloves for a quick swing or two. Sadly, fighting is a drag in NHL 11. Nothing has really been improved on this front. In fact, some of the very early hockey games had more interesting fighting—then again, this is a hockey game, not a fighter.
After you get out of the box for fighting you’ll be rewarded with an exciting and fast pace gameplay experience. The new physics engine runs beautifully on the PlayStation 3. You’ll really notice the new system when checking. If you just barely catch someone pushing the puck forward, they may stutter, but they won’t fall. The hit reactions are terrific and quite believable as they are not tied to specific animations.
NHL 11 has a learning curve for those new to hockey games. You can swap out the preset controls with classic two-button controls, but the greatest depth and control comes in the default setting. EA tweaked the deke system, claiming it is enhanced and simpler. We did not master the deke system (it works by holding down L1 and tapping the right analog stick), and while we are sure some people will get some sick plays out of it, we never really found it necessary. That’s because shooting is extremely precise. You’ll aim with the left analog stick and take a quick shot by tapping up on the right stick (or a slap shot by pulling it back then pushing it forward). As accurate as the shooting was, we found passing to be hit or miss. Passing is tough in NHL 11. Let us rephrase that, learning to pass when first playing NHL 11 is tough, but once you catch the hang of it, it can be quite satisfying. We did find a few times when our player passed it in the complete opposite direction we were trying to have him pass it. You are forced to make careful passes because the AI will steal the puck if you try to slide it too close.
As expected, NHL 11 offers the best-looking hockey game to date. The visuals are sharp and highly detailed; even the crowd (a size that pales in comparison to a game like Madden) is authentically presented and clear. Of course, the experience is made ever more realistic by the addition of the broken stick feature. EA says this is the feature fans have asked for the most, and this year they deliver. Sticks break, they fall to the ice; the player will either skate without a stick and defend, or quickly grab a new stick from the bench. This feature may seem small, especially if you are new to EA’s NHL series, but it’s extremely rewarding. We will say that it seems to happen way too much, but at least the feature is executed well. Elsewhere, Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return as the commentators, though sadly the pair provides a mediocre performance at the best of times. Even if they draw a bit away from the hockey experience, the overall presentation quickly brings us back to the rink.
We loved the feeling of scoring or getting that huge hit against an opponent during a home game. It’s wonderful to hear the crowd go crazy for you, and likewise, it’s satisfying to shut the crowd up playing away from home. There are tons of teams and their arenas to play in, but we are sure NHL fans will look for their home team, or favorite team, and play through a season or two. At the very least, it’s extremely easy to jump in and go after the cup in the tournament mode. This is what a good sports game does; it provides a little something for everyone. If you want to play online, you can do that, if you want a fantasy league feeling, you can do that. Or, if you simply want to play some friends locally, you can jump into a quick game at the drop of a hat. Indeed, every year it seems EA makes an NHL game that will be hard to top, and this year’s stellar effort is no different.
-The Final Word-
In NHL 11, EA scores off a slap shot built on a strong physics system, a realistic presentation, and a deep hockey experience. Every year it seems EA makes an NHL game that will be hard to top, and this year is no different.
|Platforms reviewed : PlayStation 3|