Here we are again, anxiously hitting another season of NHL hockey. Like clockwork, EA Sports has released their annual simulation of the sport, and the results are still spectacular, but not without some caveats.
Before I received my copy of NHL 11 for review, I was wondering how EA would go about improving upon the sublime NHL 10. Last year, the gameplay was tuned to a fine razor's edge, and the new Be a GM mode sucked many hours of my life. There are new features to get excited about this year, but this is the first NHL game I've played that I've truly felt overwhelmed by the number of features, gameplay modes, and mechanics that were introduced this year. Make no mistake, NHL 11 is a hardcore simulation of the sport, and the closest comparison I can make is not to other hockey titles like Blades of Steel or NHL Slapshot on the Wii, but rather hardcore simulations in other genres like Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport. Hardcore puckheads will be head over heels with the options here, but the casual fan who doesn't understand the difference between overload and crash the net strategies will be left feeling frustrated.
This is also the first year that I've picked up an NHL game and truly wondered if the new features actually added an element of fun to the game. The new features certainly add depth and attention to detail, but NHL 11 is not any more fundamentally fun to play than NHL 10, especially if you get your NHL fix in the single player side of things.
On the ice, there are three new significant additions. The first is broken sticks. While it may sound like a minor addition, having a player skate around without a stick really changes the way the game is played, and can create some pretty intense moments when you're killing a penalty and only have three players able to control the puck. Sticks can also be knocked out of players' hands. It probably happens a little too often, but it's a welcome addition to the game.
Also new this year is a much deeper faceoff engine that doesn't feel like the coin flip they were in previous seasons. This year, you can force the other centreman out of the dot and leave the puck for your wingers, or you can stake your claim for how to grip your stick and skates in attempt to win the draw. It doesn't take much to learn, and has made taking faceoffs much more interesting. On the flip side, I found the faceoffs to be a little too easy to win with regularity. In my Be a GM season, my worst faceoff man was at 50 per cent, and my best was above 70, which is a ridiculous percentage in real life.
The other noticeable addition this year is a brand new physics and animation engine. Players no longer clip through each other at all, and interact with each other and the boards in much more convincing fashion. This sounds like a small addition too, but it completely changes the hitting game, and finally encourages you to make plays like poke checks and lifting sticks. The new physics also extend to the goalies, whose animations are more spectacular than ever.
Pretty much everything else the same as it has been since NHL 09. The controls are still silky smooth and responsive, the skill stick is still as fun as ever to use for dekes and shots, and the game plays smoothly.
All these additions are all well and good, but NHL 11 has some severe balancing issues that take some time to sort out. The game is far too easy on Pro difficulty and below, and nearly impossible to win consistently on All-star and above. On the default settings on All-Star, the goalies are superhuman and the CPU will intercept 4 out of 5 passes, and stripping their players of the puck is like banging your head against the wall. CPU players will create tic-tac-toe plays that will have your defenders running around your zone chasing the puck like a cat chasing a laser pointer. Fortunately, there are gamplay sliders you can use to adjust the game to your liking. It took me about 20 games in my Be a GM season to find a good balance and a fair challenge that allowed me to win 2 out of 3 games, while having fun playing the game.
Also, the default speed for the game is far too slow for an NHL game, leaving the game feeling sluggish at the default settings. When I first booted up the game, it seemed to be running at the same speed as my Friday night beer league games, and that's not a good thing. First thing you'll want to do when you adjust your options is raise the speed up a notch or four.
There's also a few bugs, including a really annoying one that reset my options every time I played. I played a hotseat game with a friend, and he changed his controls to classic, while I played on default. Even though I never changed my controls, every time I booted up my Be a GM mode after that, my control scheme defaulted to "classic", and no matter what I did, the game would refuse to save my option to play the game at alternating ends of the rink instead of always up. I don't know how EA made this oversight, but it's really annoying to have to set my control configuration every time I play the game.
The big new addition this year is the EA Sports Ultimate League. This mode is an Massively Multiplayer Online version of last year's Be a GM mode. When you first start the mode, you're given a pack of hockey cards to populate your team with players. Other cards can be used to unlock potential perks for your players on your rosters. You gain more packs of cards by playing games online, and you gain points to spend on cards faster if you do well. The catch is, the more you play, the older your players get, and the more points you need to spend to keep your superstar players on your roster. Monthly championships and regular seasons keep players going.
To be honest, while the mode can be addictive if you're in the cross section of hockey fans that enjoy MMOs like Eve Online and World of Warcraft, but I personally found the mode to be too dense, progress is too slow, and worst of all, EA allows you to bypass levelling up the old fashioned way, and simply whip out your credit card to buy more points. If you have the cash to spend, you can cheat this mode, making it really frustrating when you're matched up against someone if you haven't bought your way through it.
Other online modes like the EA Sports hockey league return from last year, largely unchanged. The hockey league lets you take control of a single player on the ice, with as many as five other players to compete in tournaments and championships. The community in both online modes is incredibly active, and finding competition is always a breeze, although co-ordinating six people to play video games on a schedule can be a real pain in the ass for those who live in the real world with real obligations. Of course, you can simply bypass these modes and simply play matchmaking games with random competition, which I personally found to be the most compelling and fun way to experience the game online.
In a tremendous pain in the butt, even if you're playing single player, the game forces you to sign in to EA's servers when you boot the game up. This wouldn't be a big issue if EA's servers weren't down from time to time. I once had to restart the game three times because the game wouldn't get past the title screen. Eventually I unhooked the network connection to Xbox Live and was finally able to play Be a GM mode.
On the single player side of things, NHL 11 is just as big a time sink as on the online side. The only advice I can give here is to pick a mode, stick with it, and watch the hours of your life melt away with some very addictive hockey action. Any one of the modes could be packaged as full standalone release, and hold way more hours than gameplay than almost any other game you'd find on the shelves.
My favourite mode that took up most of my time is the Be a GM mode. Since the game now has the licensing rights to the CHL, even the players in the junior leagues are represented. If you can think of a player who plays professional hockey, I can assure you they're in this game.
Be a GM has a ton of depth and features that I loved. I started my season with a fantasy draft, and the sheer amount of options made me take over two hours to set up my team just the way I liked it. Armchair GMs can now poach restricted free agents from other teams at the expense of draft picks, and use their blackberries to make trade requests, put players on the trading block, and countless other options. The mode lasts for 25 seasons, and remains as compelling as it was last year.
Be a Pro mode returns as well, and since EA now has the CHL licence, you can start your career with the junior team of your choice. I liked the addition last year of being able to remain locked to a position instead of just your player, meaning that you're always playing instead of watching. The mode remains compelling and fun, and watching your player grow and improve throughout the years and various levels of pro hockey is addictive as ever. I personally prefer the play style of controlling the entire team however, but whichever mode you choose, you're assured a deep and addictive experience that can very well dominate your life.
Of course, the game also includes standard season, playoff, Stanley cup finals, and exhibition modes for those that need a quicker fix.
New animation and physics aside, NHL 11 looks essentially the same as last year's great looking game. Player models are a little sharper, there are a few more animations in the great looking crowds, and the jerseys don't have that weird stretching effect that has been the case in past seasons. Overall, the game looks great, but not hugely improved over last year's game, which is not a big problem.
Let me state this as simply as I can. The soundtrack to this game rocks. The NHL series has always had a direct line to my personal playlists and musical tastes, but this year is a little different. Instead of promoting the hottest bands of the day in an alternative and rock setting, this year focuses on sports anthems. Songs like 2Unlimited's "Twilight Zone", Europe's "Final Countdown", the "Ole" song that Montreal fans have run into the ground, and many more help complete the package of authenticity. The rest of the game sounds as good as it ever has, although I find the commentary from Bill Clement and Gary Thorne to be more repetitive than last year. Take it or leave it at this point.
NHL 11 is the ultimate hockey simulation, but does that really make it more fun than past instalments? Not really. The features added make the game more complex and satisfying for hardcore puckheads, but this is the first time I've played an NHL game and questioned whether I was having a better time with it than the previous seasons' game. Unless the online features really appeal to you, or you can't live without broken sticks and deeper faceoffs, you will probably be just as well served by your existing copy of NHL 10. With that said, NHL 11 is the best hockey game on the market to date, and every hockey fan with a penchant for gaming will likely have a blast with the mode of their choice. It's just probably not seventy dollars worth of an upgrade.