Review: NHL 11

0

Just this week, a new season of NHL hockey has started, meaning it’s also time to get playing the latest edition in EA Sports’ ice hockey series, NHL 11. Good timing too, as I’m getting a bit sick of multiplayer in Halo: Reach.

NHL 11 is the twentieth edition of the ever-popular ice hockey series, with this year’s versions of the game being released for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (though, if you’ve got a Wii, go grab NHL Slapshot). The series has proved so popular that competitor 2K Sports didn’t even bother to release a hockey game for consoles this year (see you next year for NHL 2K12!).

Like with most annual sports games, if you’ve played NHL 10 you’re not going to find too many surprises in NHL 11 apart from some cosmetic updates and gameplay improvements. Are those tweaks enough to warrant a purchase of this game? Read on to find out.

The hot: There’s a reason 2K Sports didn’t bother with a hockey game this year; EA’s NHL series is the definitive gaming hockey experience. The ‘skill stick,’ a method of controlling skaters and goalies introduced in NHL 07, is better than ever, with some modifications made to passing. This year, the puck is passed at the release of the pass button, not the touch of it. Mastering the new pass system means you’ll make strong, fast, and most importantly, controlled passes. On tougher modes, goalies are like brick walls — you’ll need to produce excellent passes to create effective goal-scoring chances.

Though it’s called NHL 11, there are now more hockey leagues than ever in this year’s version of the game; my personal favourite inclusion is the Canadian Hockey League and all the teams in its QMJHL, OHL, and WHL leagues. In the game’s Be a Pro mode, I always do my best to model a player after myself; in the past, Steve Wright was from Regina, Saskatchewan, and had to play straight off the bat for a professional Canadian NHL team like Vancouver or Toronto. While that was okay, I cannot begin to describe my elation at being Steve Wright, number 17, a starting player on the Saskatoon Blades looking to impress scouts and make it into the NHL. The one, slight problem with that new scenario? I can play for my real hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, but I can’t actually list my player’s hometown as Saskatoon (so Regina it remains). Weird.

NHL 11 features a new physics engine, which is used to make each body-check in the game unique. Rather than relying upon the same canned animations, the engine works in real-time to produce a different result each time a hit is made; the only problem with this is that at times, the engine seems to take a noticeable second to return a bone-crunching result. Still, it’s worth the teensy wait to see some really cool hits.

The meh: The game’s play modes remain largely unchanged – Be a Pro (the single-player player mode) and Be a GM (the single-player franchise mode) are old staples of the franchise and remain big winners. I’m less enthusiastic about the new Ultimate Hockey mode, which has potential to be amazing, but just proves to be such an overwhelmingly complex system that I just feel I’ll never fully master.

The Ultimate mode features trading cards, with each card representing a player you can have on your own Ultimate team. You gain points to acquire new cards through winning games online or offline, or via in-game purchases with Microsoft Points or the PlayStation Network. There are also cards for team logos, jersey colours, and some attributes. Cards can also be acquired (or disposed of) via trading with other gamers. To me, it’s too much of a hassle trying to master the system when I know I can jump into Be a Pro and just start playing.

I am not a big fan of EA’s decision to nickel-and-dime customers with a variety of different microtransactions in the game; from Ultimate cards to Be a Pro and online player attributes, you can end up spending a ton of cash if you’re not careful. Those who do decide to shell out more money can also end up with a huge advantage over others, especially in online play. Additionally, if you plan on playing NHL 11 online, be aware that this game does utilise EA’s Online Pass functionality; you’ll get a free code to enable online play with a newly purchased game, but if you’ve got a used or rental copy, be prepared to shell out around $10 (in MS Points or via the PlayStation Network) if want to play over Xbox Live or the PSN.

The cold: I’ll admit that I’m a bit biased towards this game because of my love of hockey. Still, there are some things that really bug me about this game. The first is tied to the new physics engine; while allowing cool hit physics, it goes a bit overboard when it comes to the new feature of broken hockey sticks. Yes, over the course of a real NHL game, a player may snap their hockey stick in half attempting a slap shot or because of a mid-ice collision. This might happen once, or maybe twice in a hockey game. In NHL 11, the developers are so keen to show off this new feature that you’ll see a broken stick at least twice a period. The frequency of broken sticks absolutely removes the realism from an otherwise true-to-life game.

After-play shenanigans remain a staple in the series as well, meaning once the whistle is blown, a fairly lengthy bit of time passes before the puck is dropped again; players can choose to rough-up opposing players and try to instigate a fight. This gets old really quick, and really pads out the game; it’s almost like NFL football…you spend more time watching players set up for the next play rather than actually playing. Don’t get me started on the first-person fight mode either.

It should be noted that those last two gripes aren’t new features to the series; that’s essentially what this all boils down to. The game is new, but not. Fans of hockey and of the EA NHL series will find enough diversity to warrant a purchase. Newcomers or casual fans may have a better time picking up any of the current-generation games – NHL 07, NHL 08, NHL 09, or NHL 10 – they can be grabbed for very little cash and provide the same type of experience; who knows, maybe after buying the older titles in the series, you’ll become such a fan that NHL 11 becomes your next must-have. As a purchase or as a rental, NHL 11 is a sound investment!