A truly exceptional sports title
Last year, I reviewed NHL 10 and would have said it wasn't a necessary purchase for owners of 09 who weren't hardcore hockey fans. That isn't the case with this year's entry in EA's hockey franchise, though. It's a really impressive game that all hockey fans should buy (new, if you have any interest in some of the games most exciting features), but it's certainly not perfect.
A lot was said about NHL 11's real-time physics engine in the months leading up to its release. Maybe it's my fault, but I'm not sure the physics engine totally lives up to the hype that the game's producers were building. At the same time, it fundamentally changes the game and definitely for the better.
The most obvious consequence of the physics engine is that now hitting is much more organic and nuanced. In NHL 10, there were basically three levels of hits: ineffectual, solid, and bone-crushing. The game also didn't handle angles perfectly and you had to learn how to communicate with the hitting engine. In 11, this isn't the case. If you're set on a collision course with a player, you'll hit him. You don't have to figure out what works in the game versus what works in real life. The hits are also much less predictable, particularly in the animations. Again, maybe my expectations were unreasonable, but the way the producers were talking about the game, I was expecting Backbreaker-on-ice. It's not quite that and the game mostly feels the same as 10 (which is a good thing), but now you can finish your checks and have it be meaningful.
One noticeable difference from 10 in terms of how the game feels on the ice is the new passing system. Now you “charge” passes by holding the right trigger, rather than have the pass velocity determined by how far in you pressed the trigger. Some people seem to hate it, but I think it's a good model. One thing I like about it is that if you decide to pass and then quickly change your mind (which has happened to me in previous games), you can cancel the pass (with L1/LB) and skate the puck. I also think it's a better analog to real-life passing, but that's totally a matter of opinion.
Passing has been changed in another way, too. Passing through the crease/slot in the offensive zone isn't so easy anymore. The defensive AI is much better at intercepting cross-crease passes in this year's game and, of course, the AI seems to be better all-around. It's to be expected, though. I still think defenders are a little too apathetic about an empty net behind them, however. AI goalies seem much less exploitable than in years past, but also less like brick walls that you absolutely need to get way out of position to have any chance of scoring on.
On a slight aside: I don't totally understand the algorithm behind the 'switch player' mechanic. It seems like a lot of the time the game doesn't switch me to the player closest to the puck, which I really don't understand. It can be really frustrating when the puck's loose in the offensive zone and you know you could have gotten a scoring chance if pressing the right trigger would've switched you to your center and not one of your defensemen.
Two other big features added to the on-ice gameplay are broken/dropped sticks and video reviews. Whether or not you think sticks break and/or are dropped too frequently is going to be up to you, but I think it happens just often enough. Once a player loses his stick, he can either get one from a teammate (handled automatically once you're close enough to the other player), get a new one by skating by the bench, get off the ice entirely, or just play without a stick. Playing without a stick isn't easy and it shouldn't be. However, it'd be nice if they improved the feel of playing without a stick. I don't get a great sense of being able to kick/glove the puck the way I want to and it seems like body checking gets nerfed in a huge way when you don't have a stick.
Video reviews are now in the game and seem to be well-implemented, for the most part. I was extremely impressed at first with the way the game didn't simply disallow every goal that went off a skate, but the other day I had a head-scratcher of a disallowed goal. I shot from the point and a crashing forward who was facing the net had the puck get slightly redirected off the side of his skate blade (definitely no kicking motion), and then an opposing defenseman had the puck bounce off his skate and into the net. No goal. I don't get it. Here's the video of it.
Also added to the on-ice action is a much deeper face-off system. Winning a face-off is a much more meaningful experience in NHL 11, as it's not simply a test of your timing (and internet connection, if you're online) like it has been in previous games. There are a number of ways to win the face-off and an added element of strategy, but it seems like the old method of using a backhand grip and winning it clean to your defenseman is still the best course of action.
One last note about the on-ice action: pinning human-controlled players to the boards is pointless. The board-pinning mechanic was definitely overpowered when it was first released, but now it serves virtually no purpose unless you're playing against the AI. Human players can kick the puck away immediately and with no difficulty.
NHL 11 is a big step up in terms of presentation. The graphical overlays are new and look good, the soundtrack is much more appropriate than in the past with songs that are often actually played at pro hockey games, and the graphics seem noticeably improved. There are seemingly dozens of new animations (particularly for goalies) that lend themselves well to making the gameplay feel more organic. Goalies can now use their glove hand to trap the puck against their body, which is a very welcome addition. Players calling for passes will tap their stick on the ice, which is another nice touch. Everything looks a little crisper, and the framerate seems a lot better. You still have a big drop in frames-per-second in the corners with the Be a Pro camera, but other than that and the arguably stale commentary, NHL 11 is kind to players' senses.
So NHL 11 is a mostly pleasant experience on the ice, but that doesn't say anything about the pure enormity of game modes available. This is why I have to recommend the game to anybody who likes hockey even a little bit. There is so much to do in NHL 11.
New this year is the Ultimate Hockey League. It's an idea that's been implemented in Madden and FIFA already, but it works very well in NHL and is arguably the best fit of the three franchises. If you're not familiar: in Ultimate Hockey League, you build your team with trading cards that you can buy with in-game currency (which you earn by playing games with your UHL team) or real money. There are player cards, as well as jersey cards, training cards, contract cards, and more. If team management is where your interests lie, UHL will likely absolutely absorb your attention. It seems like you can build a reasonably competitive team without using real money if you're patient, but the real-money prices for card packs seem fair. It's $2 for the best pack and it seems like a reasonable value if you like the game mode. However, it's obvious that EA would prefer you to spend real money. There's a $1 card pack that you can buy for 2,500 Pucks (EA's in-game currency), but the aforementioned $2 pack is 7,500 Pucks. Another pack full of consumables (training and contract cards) is $1 but 5,000 Pucks.
Be a GM and Be a Pro return, but neither is rocked to its foundation. Both modes now implement more realistic free agency and the trade system in Be a GM is more robust, but it's still mostly the same experience. Both modes now feature a few pre-season games so managers can take a look at young prospects. Be a Pro has you prove your worth in the NHL Entry Draft by playing as part of a team in the CHL Memorial Cup tournament (as the CHL, as well as the Swiss National League, are now in the game). It really seems like Be a Pro has so much untapped potential and the fact that the CHL has such a limited role in BAP and BAGM is kind of disappointing.
The popular EA Sports Hockey League returns with some really smart improvements. Now you can demand that your team be matched with another team with either the exact same number of players or the same kind of goalie (human/AI). The latter is something that I thought was absolutely essential for EASHL to matter, as AI goaltenders tend to be exploitable in ways that make the game less fun. There's also a practice mode (where you can scrimmage versus AI or just practice 2-on-1s or whatever) and customizable jerseys. The jersey customization is nothing like editing graphics for Forza or the skate franchise, but it's a welcome improvement for what it is.
The game shipped with a few bugs, but I'm optimistic that EA is on the case. They've been good about post-release support in the past. However, I've played UHL online matches against a team that, at times, had two goalies in net. Also, the line change overlay is invisible sometimes. Of course, players already seem to have found ways to unfairly exploit AI goaltenders as well. I haven't encountered any exploitative goals that are utterly impossible to defend against, though.
It's not a perfect game and may not even totally live up to its potential (or my expectations), but there's so much to do in NHL 11 and so much of it is implemented so well that it's a hard game not to recommend to anybody who thinks the idea of putting a puck in a net with a stick is neat.