NHL 11 Review (Xbox 360)
To be completely honest, I don’t follow hockey as much as I used to. I was a big Flyers fan during the Legion of Doom era, and I have to admit that The Mighty Ducks movies are a big time guilty pleasure. But following the lockout of 2005, my waning interest finally disappeared.
I only mention this because, despite my strenuous relationship with the NHL, my interest in hockey games never faded. From middle-school marathons of NHLPA '93 to NHL Hitz 2000-03 to the revamp of the NHL franchise, ice hockey games have been a consistent source of enjoyment for me.
Which leads me to the review of NHL 11, which is ultimately a refined production of NHL 10. This is by no means a bad thing, as NHL 10 was a great game, and NHL 11 is even better. It’s just that the changes made can seem slight, especially if you, like me, are not an intense hockey fan. Does this mean NHL 11 doesn’t warrant a purchase? Not really...
It’s in the Small Stuff
First, the oft-touted physics engine is the perfect example of a small but meaningful tweak in NHL 11, yet it is one that really does not change things too much. Yes, hits are different and can be unexpected -- I miss as many hits as I deliver -- yet the overall skating and gameplay feel pretty familiar.
Gone are the repetitive animations. Instead, we get the occasional player "hiccup" that’s really only visible in instant replays. The engine drives most of the game, and it allows previously unknown freedom and flexibility in gameplay (weight is more important than ever). However, at its core, it all still seems pretty familiar. I would guess that nine out of 10 (six out of 10 OSers) players will not notice that huge a difference -- or upgrade.
Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. NHL 11 is still one of the more fluid handling sports game available, straddling a fine line between the freedom and controlled chaos of playing on ice. If you haven’t experienced the handling of the NHL series during the past few years, expect tight controls for both your skater and the puck. The dual-analog handling/shooting system is probably one of the best developments in sports gaming, and it returns here intact. Deking has been made more accessible with a tiered system not unlike that found in recent FIFA titles. While it works well, it could be explained a bit better in-game.
Face-offs have seen a significant upgrade, but, again, the degree to which it was needed depends on your familiarity with the finer aspects of hockey. The system is well explained through an in-game tutorial and is flexible enough to allow you to tailor your face-off style via the game situation.
Goalie play seems to have been improved, reducing the amount of stiff robotic goalie motions, eliminating most of the automatic saves and creating a more natural look between the pipes. They still come out of the crease a little too aggressively for my taste, but it’s usually not a huge issue.
Other gameplay additions will again appeal to those that know hockey inside and out, including broken sticks, slower game speed and counters for exploited defensive strategies (e.g., excessive sprawling on the ice), again all made possible because of the new physics engine. "Hustle" has been added this year, but it has been nicely balanced by a revamped fatigue system, keeping it from turning into a new turbo button. Using default settings, I did notice dynamically increasing fatigue, but rarely did I need to use my fourth line. New user celebrations are a nice touch and are fun to execute.
These refinements usually are not game changers, but they demonstrate the willingness of the NHL series to include details often overlooked by the average gamer, something often requested for all sports. One change certainly is a literal game changer: disallowed goals, which in my week of playing has only happened a few times.
I do have a couple complaints about the gameplay. Board play is sometimes suspect, with AI skaters seeming to invite you to press "Y" and initiate interaction by randomly stopping against the boards. Penalties, again on the default setting, are often too rare == most likely an issue with fixed with sliders.
Ice à la Mode
What is best about NHL 11 -- outside of its unsurprisingly quality gameplay -- is the amount of modes found on the disc. Beyond the standards items are slightly revamped versions of Be a GM, Be a Pro, EA Sports Hockey League, and the all new Ultimate Team.
Ultimate Team has gotten a lot of press and for good reason. It’s a fun mode that will appeal to both the casual and hardcore hockey fan, and those that play both online and off.
By now, you should probably be familiar with this mode, which has found its way into just about all of EA's annual sports titles (basketball not included). This is a card-based mode, where spending tokens on packs of cards offers new players, logos, staff, etc. for your created team. Tokens -- here, EA Pucks (groan...) -- can be earned through online and offline play. Packs are categorized by the value of cards inside, and just about everything is handled through cards. Even the abstract element of chemistry is represented on each line, and it is based on players’ real-life position, team and familiarity.
If you have played Ultimate Team modes before, expect a version more like FIFA’s than Madden’s -- a good thing, considering how empty Madden UT can feel. This mode features online and offline tournaments, and a monthly playoff system, all of which make playing with your team a little more fun than just a string of single games.
There are a lot of players to collect, buy, sell, trade and play, but each one has a limited career and potential. These limitations add a nice strategic element to the proceedings, and make this mode feel pretty deep.
Chemistry adds another layer, even if it’s awkwardly painted on -- only lines and defensive pairings are affected by chemistry, not special teams nor the relationship between lines and defense. I suppose newer versions might include this, but the constant substitutions make these secondary relationships a bit harder to model than the 11 constant players found on either type of football field. As it is, it is more of a reminder that it is a game system rather than an actual coaching decision.
Speaking of chemistry, I would also like to see the system tweaked so that the game does not encourage you to eventually just use real-life teams if you have the players to make them. I would think that more subjective characteristics, such as temperament and leadership skills, might make this entire system a bit more strategic, realistic and enjoyable.
Finally, Ultimate Team continues the theme of NHL 11: The more you know about hockey, the more you will get out of this game. While it’s a fun mode to play, you’ll no doubt find more enjoyment if you are versed in the rosters of minor and international teams, especially since these are the players you will be using from the outset.
The More Things Change...
Be a Pro is not too different, besides the initial playing of the Memorial Cup. You’re given specific goals as you play through the tournament, which affect your draft position and status. It’s not a huge addition, but one that hockey fans will enjoy.
If you like career modes, though, this one is as solid and as engaging as any. I would like the addition of some skill challenges or practice modes to break things up, but what is here is good.
The online career mode, EA Sports Hockey League, features some small UI upgrades and a "free agent" system that allows single players to get their feet wet before joining a team via a drop-in system. From there, you can be scouted by teams looking for players and show up on a free-agent leaderboard. Practice mode is also available for teams to use to improve skills and/or teamwork -- a much requested feature, at least according to EA and OSers. There are also three leagues in the game now, and the ability to create custom team jerseys.
Be a GM adds the much anticipated restricted/unrestricted free-agent mechanic, which helps give it a realistic push. It can be a daunting system to work through, especially since you can elect to start the season at the Draft, thereby making free agency one of the first things you encounter. (A nice touch with the Draft is that you can put it on "authentic" and have teams who traded their first-round picks in real life not have theirs in the game.) There is a lot of helpful in-game text though, so newcomers can find the guidance they need.
The CHL has been added to the mix, joining the European leagues and almost matching FIFA in terms of available teams. You also have an ability to trade picks multiple years in advance, which is something you don't see in many games.
Beyond those elements though, not too much has changed. Be a GM is still one of the more addicting franchise modes in sports gaming (assuming you can overlook a couple faults). If you are unfamiliar, you are given a list of tasks to complete (sort of like in-game achievements). For each completed item, you receive points that can be used to upgrade your staff and GM ranking. This system adds an RPG-like element to the mode, but it often seems like it is encouraging you to make moves that could seem rather unrealistic. Because so many of the tasks are based around roster moves, I found myself making more changes than what a GM might normally make.
This is something I can live with, but those interested in a very realistic approach might have a hard time acquiring points. Additionally, some other users have reported a roster glitch that hopefully can be fixed via patch -- basically good players are ending up in places they should not. And, like in most every other game, trade AI is still questionable.
Though the mode is fun, it could be argued that the interface is a little dry. Sure, it uses branded phones to act as PDAs, but much of what’s there is purely menu-based. I miss the flair of magazines, newspapers, and radio or TV shows that have been found in other franchise modes throughout the past decade.
Three Stars: Presentation, Music...Commentary?
Regardless, in game the presentation is outstanding, and huge hockey fans can make it even better. I got to see the Flyers raise the banner at the Wachovia -- I mean Wells Fargo -- Center at my first home game. Exciting replays of big hits or crucial shots occur at every stoppage in play. Reaction shots of players on the bench or entering the penalty box, while occasionally repetitive, certainly add to the realism and make it feel like you are watching a live game on TV. Frequent and informative stat overlays round out the visual presentation package. If anything, the mode is just a little light on pregame and postgame presentation variety.
The music is an interesting mix, but it is one that seems to fit the hockey genre. Featuring late '90s dance music and classic sports anthems, it’s much better than other games that seem intent on selling current singles through menu music. The fact that you can incorporate all types of custom music to authenticate each arena is still a huge plus as well.
The commentary is not too dissimilar from last year, and it can get very repetitive from game to game. I think I hear Gary Thorne saying "He’s got to move that..." in my sleep. That said, it is very fluid and contains a solid degree of manufactured moments of interesting dialogue between the broadcasters. It isn’t bad, it’s just not that different from years past.
NHL 10 on Ice?
So back to the question at hand. With all of the small, but important, improvements that push NHL 11 toward a more realistic hockey experience, is it worth taking the plunge again this year, especially if you are not a crazy puckhead?
I would argue, yes. For new users, Ultimate Team is a great addition, Be a Pro/GM is as fun as ever, and if you have not dabbled in the EASHL, you now have an easy way to start. Those of you who are more experienced will find much to like in terms of refinements to gameplay, which probably make this game one of the closest representations of a sport available.
As someone who places himself soundly between these two ends of the spectrum (new users/hockey experts), this game has and will monopolize my gaming time for the foreseeable future.
On the Ice: NHL 11 refines an already outstanding gameplay system, correcting past issues while keeping what made the game fun to play in the first place. While there may be too many hits (and misses), small additions, improved fatigue and improved goalies make this game a winner.
Graphics: A great looking game, but one that has not seen large upgrades in the visual department. Outstanding presentation elements and superb animations.
Sound Design: Good commentary that can get repetitive is surrounded by a fun mix of music that is appropriate for the game at hand. Custom music is a big plus still.
Entertainment Value: So many modes, so little time. I imagine you’ll be busy playing the various modes until this time next year.
Learning Curve: This game will be pretty familiar to those who have played NHL 09 or '10. For the uninitiated, a helpful tutorial introduces some, but not all, of the important concepts.
Online: A full suite of online modes, highlighted by the EASHL, which is probably the best online team mode in sports gaming.
Score: 9.0 (Exceptional)