Review: NHL 11 (PS3)

Title: NHL 11
Format: Blu-ray Disc
Release Date: September 7, 2010
Publisher: Electronic Arts, Inc.
Developer: EA Canada
Price: $59.99

Gameplay:
Another hockey season, another iteration of EA’s NHL franchise. So what makes this version so different from all that have come before it? One simple yet elegant reason, physics. EA Canada has overhauled the game engine this year to make the most realistic hockey video game ever created. Does that sound like the hyperbolic ravings of a hockey lunatic? Sure it does, but in this case, it’s absolutely true.

In NHL 11 you’ll finally feel like you’re actually in control of your players. Gone are the canned hits and weak AI. In this version, size and momentum are taken into account when lining up the big check, including the new hip check. If you try to take a run at Zdeno Chara with a player like Danny Briere, expect to fail miserably. Just like in real hockey, you’ll need to pick your spots and line up your checks taking size and momentum into account. If you don’t, you can quickly find yourself out of position leaving your goalie exposed to a 2 on 1 or worse. When you do land that big booming check however, the results are so satisfying, you’ll find yourself in the replay mode watching it over and over again, marveling at the way each player reacts with lifelike precision.

As in recent iterations, movement is handled by the left stick and control of your hockey stick is handled by the right stick. For players used to button presses for pass and shoot, this can be a bit bewildering at first, but after a few shifts, it’ll become second nature and you’ll quickly wonder how you ever got along without it. If you’re still uncomfortable with it, the classic NHL 94 controls are available in the controls menu. Puck handling, wristers, slap shots, dekeing, aiming shots, it’s all there in the sticks and it works beautifully. One of the other new features this year is more control in the faceoffs, again handled by the right stick. You can jostle for position, try to get a shot right off the faceoff, lift the other player’s stick, tie him up while one of your wingers swoops in and grabs the puck and more. It adds a whole new dimension to the game and really give you much more control over each and every faceoff. When you go through the included tutorials, you’ll be up to speed with all these improvements in no time.

The AI has also been improved and players tend to position themselves better on both sides of the puck. Wingers will try to take you hard into the boards, defensemen will make it difficult to get to the front of the net, players will reach out with the arms or legs to try to grab or block clearing attempts. There are a lot of subtle improvements to the game in this respect and you probably won’t notice a lot of them until you watch a replay or sit back and watch someone else play. There are so many little things going on around the ice and they all feel so much more authentic than ever before. If a defenseman breaks his stick, a forward will hand his over. If a forward breaks his stick and he’s close enough to the bench he’ll rush over and grab a new one. Pucks will deflect and change direction in a manner much more consistent with real hockey. It’s just awesome. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.

The Canadian Junior Leagues are also represented here for the first time in a hockey video game and EA has gone all out. All 60 teams are represented along with each and every player. If you create a new player in the Be a Pro mode, you’ll be thrown right into the Memorial Cup playoffs as you try to impress the scouts to secure a good position for yourself in the NHL draft. You can also use the teams in the Be a GM, Tournament, Season and Playoff modes. It’s a great beginning to the partnership between the league and EA and it’s one that can only get better in upcoming versions of the game.

Visuals:
At first glance, the game looks a lot like last years edition but don’t let that fool you, the players react and move in such a convincing manner, it’s easy to forget that you’re just playing a game. The pre-game introduction of the teams is shown with a the glitz and excitement of a real game. The crowds are lively and varied. You’ll see a crowd largely composed of home team jerseys, with a scattering of old school and even visiting team jerseys, just like in real life.

The ice starts off clean and degrades over the course of a period just as in previous versions of the game. Players celebrations, movements and reactions are varied and nuanced, You’ll no longer see a stoppage in play and all skaters on the ice bend over in unison with their sticks on their knees. Each player appears to have a mind of his own, it’s really something to behold.  All the screenshots used in this review, including the one for the banner, were taken using the in-game replay and picture feature so you can see just how good it looks.

Audio:
The commentary sees the return of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement which is a good thing. They’ve also recorded a lot on new lines so you’ll get less repetition this year, but it’ll still crop up while playing through more and more games. The arena announcer has also be re-recorded bringing much more life and excitement to goal, penalty and power play announcements. It’s another subtle thing, but it’s enough to make a difference in adding to the realism.

The music included on the disc is your standard EA Sports music fare but you do have the ability to customize things and if you want, you can really go crazy here. Beyond just changing the music you hear with in game menus, you can change everything from team intro music, home and away goal and penalty music/sounds, the goal horn, intermission music and much, much more. You can do it for every single team included in the game, the Canadian Junior teams, the International teams and all the NHL teams. I can’t tell you how cool it is to be playing as the Flyers at home when the visiting team takes a penalty and I hear “And the Flyers are going on the Peco Power Playyyyyy!!” Just the fact that I can load that clip in there blows me away.

Online/Multiplayer:
You’ll get your standard quick matches and leagues here, but this year EA has added an online practice mode. Having the ability to get all your players on the ice and get comfortable with each other is such a huge leap forward in sports games and something I hope all of them take to heart.

The other two big additions are the EA Sports Hockey League Dynasties giving you a deeper online league experience and the all new Ultimate Hockey Team. This comes across as fantasy league where you’re given a set of hockey cards with which you’ll build your team. You need to spend a lot of time in the line editor to get you chemistry right while deciding who to play and who to bench. You then take your team online and play against other people and their teams. It’s a neat idea in theory but one that needs a lot of work before it’ll really be worthwhile in my eyes.

For starters, the menu system is very clunky and it’s really a pain to get your team set up, add new cards, and move players in and out of the lineup and all. You’ll also quickly run into a problem with players retiring and what you’ll have to do to replace them. Most players are only available for a handful of games, then their contract is up and they’re gone. You’ll then have to buy a new set of cards with the ‘pucks’ (virtual currency) you’ve earned by playing games online. The problem is, you don’t earn many pucks per game and to stay competitive, you’ll have to spend real money on card packs as they’re available for a set amount of pucks or a real dollar amount ranging from 99 cents to $1.99 per pack. If you don’t want to spend the money, you’ll quickly find yourself outmatched by someone who clearly has. It can get really frustrating when you’ve got a team of 16-20 year olds playing against NHL caliber squads. It’s a mode that has a lot of potential but it’s going to need some work to really make an impact, especially with everything else the game has to offer.

Conclusion:
With all the additions and tweaks between last year and this year, along with the revamped physics engine, I can wholeheartedly recommend this game not just to hockey fans but really to any sports fan in general. If you had NHL 10, this is definitely worth the upgrade. If you haven’t picked up a hockey game in a while, there’s never been a better time to come back than now. If you’re a video game sports fan in general, give this one a try, the level of realism here puts Madden and other sports games to shame.

Score:
9.0

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook