It may not have the prestige of Major League Baseball, the television ratings of the NFL, or stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. What the NHL does have is twenty years of great videogames. And EA Sports NHL 11 continues the trend.
You could argue that Canadians love their hockey more then New Zealanders love rugby, and from the amount of detail that has been poured into NHL 11 by developers EA Canada, you can believe it. The amount of teams and players are staggering. The number of worldwide competitions and the different number of gameplay modes, from careers to tournaments to shootouts, are amazing. It looks fantastic and has more than 200 gameplay tweaks to make it even more accurate and realistic then it’s ever been before.
But, unfortunately, that’s pretty much what we said about NHL 10. And to be honest, all the things that are great in NHL 11 have been great in the NHL games for years. Last year we saw young Blackhawks sensation Patrick Kane on the cover. This year there’s the just-as-young Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. And that may be a pretty good representation of how different this year’s version is compared to last year. With NHL 11, significant changes are pretty thin on the ice.
The biggest addition, and the only change that gets tagged as ‘new’ in the game’s main menu is the Ultimate Team mode. Here NHL 11 takes on the card based online team building feature that has become a part of other EA Sports sims. When you enter the mode, and generate your online team, you are dealt a pack of cards. Cards represent your players, various stat and contract modifiers, as well jerseys and stadiums. From the pack you set your line-ups to play online or against the CPU. Playing will earn you pucks, which will buy you more cards from the online store. If you don’t have a place for a player on your roster you can put them up for auction, or if you are weak in a particular position you can search other user auctions for that big power forward your first line is missing. It all works well, but if you don’t feel like putting in all the hard work earning those pucks to buy the good veteran players, you can use real money. Don’t worry, if you’re having trouble finding something to spend your money on, EA Games is there to help.
The game’s second most notable difference is the new face-off mechanic. This is a great example of how the developers have got the gameplay as close to the real thing as possible. While you can still sweep the puck back to your defensemen as it’s dropped, now there are a number of different techniques and options. By pushing the right analog stick either left or right, your centre can take a forehand or backhand stance. From your backhand, pulling the puck back to your defensemen has a much better chance of success. While taking a quick snap shot works better from the forehand. You also get the option to lift the opponent’s stick or just tie him up, and let your team mates hustle in to get the puck. It adds some great layers of learnable technique and subtlety to the gameplay.
Also adding to the gameplay is the new physics engine. Moving away from the familiar animation based graphics, the new engine adds nicely to the gameplay’s fluidity. Now you don’t have to cut to a predetermined animation of a big hit every time one player runs into another. Because of this, the hits seem to be back bigger and better then ever. It has been a criticism of recent NHL games that there has been something lost in the move to more realism. Most notably this has meant making those board rattling, bone breaking, big hits had become almost impossible. In NHL 11 it is much easier. While they are not overly arcade-y or cartoon-y, keeping with the realism the game strives for, the hits are certainly more plentiful than they have been in years.
Also added to these bigger changes are all the little things that on their own don’t really mean much, but accumulatively add nicely to the experience. Now your stick can break. While it’s cool sometimes, it’s often frustrating, especially when you are trying to hit that game winning slapshot in a game’s last few seconds. Also, the old speed burst button is back, but now it’s called the hustle button. The Canadian Hockey League is included too, complete with sixty affiliate teams none of us have heard of. But, and here’s something that has been bothering me for years, there’s still no way to play as the mighty Hartford Whalers. Maybe that’s next year’s big addition.
Everything else is pretty much just as fantastic, detailed and deep as it was before. Online it’s as amazingly well served as ever. With tournaments, leagues and twelve player teams. If jumping into tournaments is a bit daunting, you and your team mates can practice against CPU opposition before testing your skills against the world. The very deep BE A GM is back if you want to build your franchise from the ground up, complete with all the trades, drafts, salary caps, and pushy player agents that you’d expect to see in the world of professional sports. You can again play with the analog sticks or the old 94 set up, either way, it feels smooth and instinctive, but with plenty of room to practice and get good. You can still create your player and take him through his entire career, from his apprenticeship in the Iron Leagues to the fight for the Stanley Cup. It’s all still there, the only problem is that it’s been there for years.
Every year EA Sports give us new games. Sometimes there are big differences, sometimes there are significant differences, and sometimes there is someone different on the box. This might be a ‘someone different on the box’ year. Ultimately, if you have NHL 10 there is no real reason to get this.
Hockey and video games go great together. So much so, it seems like hockey was invented to be played on a console. At its heart it’s so simple. On offence you either pass or shoot, while on defence you poke check or lay on a big hit. All the rest is just icing. After twenty years of fantastic games nothing has changed. Well, nothing much has changed this year for sure, and I expect nothing much will change next year either.