STAFF REVIEW of NHL 11 (Xbox 360)

Monday, September 13, 2010.
by Jake Reardon

NHL 11 Box art Dear Hockey,

I?ve been meaning to tell you something for awhile now. I?ve waited almost twenty years and feel it?s time to let you know how I really feel. I can?t hold my true feelings in any longer so I?ll just go ahead and say it. * Hockey, I think I love you *. I love the way you make me feel when I?m out on the ice, I love the tingle I get when I score the big goal, and I love the unparalleled excitement I get every time I hoist Lord Stanley?s legendary cup.

EA Canada?s NHL 11 marks the 20th Anniversary of the storied NHL Franchise, and I can say without a doubt that a new high watermark has been set (NHL 94 purists be damned). This is the closest a game has ever come to recreating the feeling of playing real life hockey. The combination of a real time physics engine, broken sticks, new quick dekes, a brilliant face-off system, the insanely addictive Hockey Ultimate Team mode, as well as a returning list of features too long to list in one review, will secure NHL 11 a future spot in the video game hockey hall of fame. With any sports game, you could probably write a novel detailing each new feature as well as the myriad of options and menus that have been added over the years. Let?s touch on a few of the major features that make NHL 11 so fantastic.

The big addition to the game mechanics is the implementation of a real time physics engine. Hockey by its very nature is a sport heavily influenced by crashing bodies in motion, bullet fast pucks sliding across slick ice, and having one dramatic shift in momentum be the key turning point in the outcome of a game. What the physics really allow is the game of hockey to be played out as intended. Unlike past games in the series, every hit is different and unscripted. The animations happen on the fly based on several factors including the size of the players, their speed, and where they make contact. I often found myself getting bumped off the puck by an opposing defender but still was able to remain in the play. You still get big hits when appropriate, but the overall result is a more realistic game of hockey. Pucks and sticks are also affected by the physics which plays into rebounds, stick lifts, and the new face-off mini game. Goal line scrambles and big rebounds off a goalie?s pads look and feel spot on.

Also new this year is Hockey Ultimate team, which merges fantasy hockey with an addictive league that will keep you playing all year. The premise is that you are given a starter pack of cards, and are then tasked to build your dream team. There are over 4000 player cards to acquire, cards for training and leveling up your players, logo and jersey cards, arena cards, head coach cards, and contract cards. Each player has a set career limit on how many games he can play as well as a contract number, which determines how many games he can play for your team before they need to be re-signed. Top level players cost more ?EA pucks? to sign, so I found a good strategy was to lock young prospects into long term deals before leveling them up. With a salary cap in place, as well as having to worry about players retiring and contracts expiring, each game becomes a micro game within itself. Careful planning is needed to ensure your team has a future in the league. I almost played myself out of the game by running out of contracts for my players, but was able to pick some up on the cheap in the auction house. You can even trade cards with friends, and bid on other cards and contracts available.

There wouldn?t be much point in creating an Ultimate team if you couldn?t take it out into the world and battle vs. friends and strangers. Thankfully, the EA Ultimate Hockey League has been introduced. The goal each month is to make the playoffs in one of three divisions (Amateur, Pro, and Elite), and then win the championship. Monthly champions will even have a banner raising ceremony before each game as well as a championship logo on the ice. Now you?ll know when you are matched up against a former league champion which should add to the intimidation factor. You can chose to play in a single EAUHL online game, in a single player match vs. the CPU, or in a variety or online and offline tournaments. In all of these games you earn EA pucks, which you then use to invest in your team, buy new card packs, or bid on some desired superstars. I?m really looking forward to seeing the various strategies people are going to use to build their teams. If you have ever wanted to be a GM or put your hockey money where your hockey mouth is, then Hockey Ultimate Team is your chance.

Be a Pro and Be a GM return this year with a few notable improvements, the biggest being full Canadian Hockey League (CHL) integration. In Be a GM, you can now draft real life prospects from the CHL as well as other European leagues. Authentic draft picks ensure you feel just as shamed as Brian Burke does when Boston has your first round picks for the next two years. The GM mode also takes into account the full set of rules in the CBA. This means rules nerds are going to have a blast playing around with restricted and unrestricted free agents and all the finagling that comes with the job of a real life GM.

The successful EA Sports hockey league makes another appearance and is even more robust than before. You can join a team with friends, or if you?re lacking in that department, can become an EASHL free agent. This allows you to jump into pick-up games with other free agents, while at the same time leveling up your player. A practice mode has been added so clubs can play up to full 6 on 6 scrimmages and work on their game strategies. Even human goalies can get in on the practice action which should benefit GAA?s across the league.

Out on the ice, it?s the subtle touches that really make NHL 11 shine. The new passing system is now pressure sensitive, allowing you to gently feather a pass to a teammate, or zipping the puck across the ice by holding and releasing the left trigger a bit longer. The board play has also seen significant updates the biggest being not allowing opponents to use it as an offensive exploit. An all new hustle system has been added and allows you to click in the left stick to gain a bit of speed in key situations. Over using hustle will tire your player out much quicker so its best used in moderation.

Continuing on, disallowed goals have been added which includes video review. Kick a puck in the net or hit it with a high stick and there?s a good chance the booth upstairs will need to take a look. These sequences even show the goal from multiple angles and can cause some nerve racking moments, especially near the end of a close game. When you do score goals, the variety of ways in which the puck finds its way into the net has never been seen before in a hockey game. The motto this year was ?Every moment can be a WOW moment?, and I wasn?t disappointed. I scored some simply artful goals, but also picked up my share of hard working, coal miner from Sudbury type goals as well.

To conclude my love letter to the game, let me just say this. If you love hockey, you need to play NHL 11. The lords of the burnt biscuit demand it be so.

Yours Truly,

Overall: 9.5 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 9.5 / 10


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