For the past few years, EA’s NHL hockey series has been one of the most consistently outstanding annual titles in all of gaming. It’s gotten so good, in fact, that this year its chief opponent, 2K Sports, has chosen to forego an Xbox 360/PS3 release of NHL 2K11, and focus exclusively on the Wii version. With no opposition left on the table, will NHL 11’s virtual monopoly of the hockey gaming world cause the series to stagnate, or will EA continue to raise the bar despite a lack of competitive motivation?
Last year’s NHL title was nothing short of spectacular, offering one of the most realistic and thrilling sports gaming experiences of this or any other console generation. It improved upon NHL 09 in many aspects, taking an already fantastic game and elevating it to a level previously unseen in hockey titles. While some developers might see this as an excuse to play it safe and offer a slightly tweaked version of last year’s game with new rosters, EA Canada has done the exact opposite, and essentially built NHL 11 from the ground up. Instead of the canned animations that existed in the last few NHL titles, NHL 11 uses a brand new dynamic animation system that makes each check, deke, and shot unique. The new engine is most apparent during body checks, where opposing players will be lifted off their skates, flip overhead, lose their footing, or simply crumple to the ground realistically, depending on how the check is delivered. This new body physics system not only gives NHL 11 a visual flair that’s never been seen before in a hockey game, it also makes games play out more realistically. Other gameplay tweaks, like a new passing system that requires players to be in a solid passing position, increase realism even more, forcing players to play the game more like a real NHL game. In fact, those who have NHL 10 burned into their muscle memories will likely have a bit of trouble adjusting to the new, tougher passing system, which waits until the player actually releases the R2 buttont to pass, but when all is said and done, it’s a vastly superior way to move the puck around.
Players’ sticks can now be knocked out of their hands or even snapped in two, forcing players to skate without sticks until they can retrieve or replace them. When this happens, it can result in surprise odd-man rushes, but downed sticks themselves can also affect play, as pucks will often bounce off of them at odd angles. Perhaps the least realistic aspect of last year’s NHL game was its lack of variety in penalty calling. This time, refs act more like their real-world counterparts, calling for power plays on all manner of infractions, instead of just roughing, slashing and hooking. The faceoff system has been changed, as well, and now allows centermen more options in the circle. In addition to kicking the puck back to a defenseman, players can now try to lift their opponent’s stick or tie him up with their own body while teammates dig the puck out. It’s not a huge change, but it gives players more options, which is always a good thing.
NHL 11 retains all of the game modes from last year’s game (exhibition, Be A GM, Be A Pro, Tournament, Playoffs, Season, Battle for the Cup, EA Sports Hockey League, and online play), and adds Hockey Ultimate Team, an online mode that uses packs of virtual hockey cards to fill a team roster. Players use their randomly built team in online games and against the computer to earn EA Pucks, which allow players to supplement their team by buying more packs of cards. It’s a lot like the card systems in both Madden and FIFA, and while the menu system is a bit daunting, and it takes a while to build a team up from a bunch of European league backups to an NHL-level powerhouse, it’s extremely addictive, and possibly the game’s best source of replay value. While most of the modes carried over from NHL 10 remained largely unchanged, Be a Pro and Be a GM modes have been improved. Restricted and unrestricted free agents make an appearance in both modes, and virtual General Managers now have even more off-season options, like qualifying offers and compensation draft picks, which now span a six year period instead of just one.
NHL 11 marks the first appearance of the Canadian Hockey League, which is comprised of the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League, and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The addition of this development league increases the number of playable teams by sixty, and offers a new challenge for Season mode players, who can now battle for the Memorial Cup. The CHL also makes a limited appearance in Be a Pro mode, but only as the first game of a player’s career.
Simply put, NHL 11 is a gorgeous hockey game. Character models don’t look too different from last year’s iteration, but the new animation system makes everything those models do look more realistic. After three years, it’s a shame that we’re still seeing frame rate drops during close-up cinematic scenes, but the problem doesn’t ever make its way onto the ice, and games run as smoothly as ever. Crowds look better than ever, and pre-game player introductions are beautifully presented, immersing players into the world of the NHL. The color commentary team of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement has returned, and while they’re probably still the best announcing team in sports video games, some of their recycled commentary is beginning to get old. They’re still better than pretty much any other commentators out there, though, and the on-ice action sounds terrific.
For the third year in a row, EA Canada has crafted a hockey experience that is seemingly flawless. As great as last year’s offering was, NHL 11 marks an evolution for the series. The use of dynamic animations adds a sense of weight and presence to every skater on the ice, and little touches, like disallowed goals and the ability to jump over downed players, bring players even further into the hockey world. My only quibble is with the game’s player creation suite, which still doesn’t support EA’s successful GameFace system. This is, obviously, a pretty minor complaint when compared to everything that EA has done right, and there’s no reason that anyone with even a passing interest in hockey or hockey video games shouldn’t own NHL 11. Of course, if that’s not enough to convince you, perhaps this will do the trick; during the post-season, players can grow playoff beards.