STAFF REVIEW of NHL 11 (Xbox 360)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010.
by Matt Paligaru

NHL 11 Box art Nineteen years ago, Electronic Arts set out to create the perfect hockey franchise. Back then, the most popular hockey games had no NHL sponsorship, no yearly cover ritual, and no affiliation with the NHLPA. Released in 1991, the first EA Sports hockey for the Sega Genesis began the annual traditional of fall hockey games accompanying the NHL season. EA did not have an NHLPA license, and were left to refer to in-game players by their numbers. Nearly 18 months later, NHLPA Hockey ?93 came out and this time the roles were reversed. EA had an NHLPA license, but not an NHL one. This time, the players were referred to by name, with no logos in sight. They got both for NHL 94 (still referred to as the best in the entire franchise,) and have not looked back since. Occasional glitch aside (the exclusion of fights in 94 and 95, Dany Heatley?s replacement with Joe Sakic in NHL 2004, and pretty much all of NHL 2003,) the franchise has remained solid and at the top of its class, despite early decade pressure from 2K sports.

September 7th marked the latest installment of the franchise, featuring cover boy Jonathan Toews (who had barely passed his third birthday when the original was released,) marking the first time teammates were cover stars in back to back years, after Patrick Kane?s appearance last year. The disc behind the shrink wrap this year promised to deliver more than past year over year additions in comparison, boasting new gameplay modes, graphic enhancements, and a vast difference in the overall presentation and flow of the game. 200 changes in all were the calling card beckoning veteran gamers to put last year on the shelf and get with the game.

As in past years, EA wants you to play their pre-game training session before letting you into the main menus (though you are free to opt out at any time.) The first thing the game asks you to do, however, is create your pro for the Be a Pro mode, generating a random name in the process. Suit up Viacheslav Vikingstad ? make your Russian mother and Norwegian father proud!

If you?ve been through the tutorials before, you know that in many cases, the game will not let you go past a drill unless you have completed it successfully. A couple of stick handling drills during this tutorial are touch and go in what the game will and will not accept as a successful attempt, so if you?ve learned to play your own way, this may take you a LONG time to complete. This ends up being a rewarding experience for new players, but frustrating for familiar gamers. Skip this step and head straight to the menu, and play a game.

When you do, be ready to be treated to an amazing experience of realism. Pressure sensitive controls await you, along with a new checking system that reacts to the angle, distance and time you begin the check, and customize the outcome based on your input. No longer will your checks look like a randomized animation sequence, and no longer should they disrupt the overall flow of your gameplay. Of all of the gameplay enhancements this year, these were my favorites.

Sketchier goals have come and gone in past years. You could kick pucks in, you could have pucks bat off your hands in the net, and you could get away with things that you could not in the real league. This year, EA looks to close that gap by introducing disallowed goals and video replay, though it seems to come up very infrequently, and something that as of review time, had yet to be experienced at all. Still, this is a very welcome inclusion for the sake of realism. Vancouver Canucks fans will be free to re-live legitimate playoff goals being disallowed during a third period comeback all over again.

A small, but noticed difference is the soundtrack. In past years, Electronic Arts tried to go with a modern vibe, using current artists and current music. This year, they looked deep into the annals of successful hockey music tracks and brought a soundtrack of old and new music. 2 Unlimited's Twilight Zone is suddenly relevant again, and adds to the fun of the game.

You can continue to slap, snap and wrist shots using the right stick while using the triggers to do anything from dish pass to pressure pass and jar the puck loose from battles on the boards. Players move about with relative grace as smooth animation guides you from one end of the ice to the other. How you get from one end of the other and get the puck in the net, however, is harder than it sounds.

A big problem in picking up this game every year and trying to involve others is the controls. There is too much to take in from one gaming session, and too many nuances for the novice gamer to begin with. The NHL 94 (2 button) controls are too simple to play with, while the standard controls are almost enough to need a mail order how-to DVD encyclopedia. Gone are the days of telling your friends that ?A is shoot, B is pass and switch player and R is turbo? and in are the days of ?flicking the right stick at a fairly perpendicular angle will result in a snapshot.? One can argue it provides the depth a hockey game needs to survive in today?s sports gaming market, however, on the other side, it may be too hard to suck a new gamer into the gaming side of this from the getgo. Luckily, easing them in is possible with the amount of off-ice fun the game provides.

Be a Pro and Be a GM mode have returned as well with little change, so if you have played it before, you will know what you are up against. Be a GM Mode pits you in the driver?s seat of your franchise, where you are tasked with building it into a successful Stanley Cup champion while building yourself a positive reputation around the rest of the league. Doing so will make other GMs more amiable to deal with, and will give you more opportunities to make trades and improve your team rather than having to build from within. Whether you choose to be the next Brian Burke, or the next Dean Lombardi is ultimately up to the way you interact throughout. Or, you could strap on the skates of young Viacheslav Vikingstad and carve up the ice in the third edition of Be a Pro mode, and this time, you can take him to unrestricted free agency.

The biggest addition to the game this year is the Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) mode where you start a fantasy team from packs of cards and earn in-game EA Pucks to buy more packs to upgrade your team and build a powerhouse to play with online or offline. Those who played the demo earned up to 3 special packs for the full version based on actions taken (like inviting other friends to play the demo) to give them a bit of an edge right away. Impatient gamers can also choose to spend Xbox points to buy packs if they do not wish to wait to earn pucks, and get their players and option cards that way. At around $2 per pack, the price is much less than your standard pack of real hockey cards, and you will probably end up with better pulls as well, with less clutter resulting. The system itself is not complicated to anybody familiar with collectible card games, as you can use power up cards to make your players better, while utilizing contract cards to lock the players up and make them happy campers. Juggle your players and lines often to find which combinations have the best chemistry (known in hockey circles as Alain Vigneault mode,) and you can then take your teams online and compete in leagues for monthly championships, bragging rights and pucks, with the right to display your league?s championship logo on home ice for everybody to see.

What would the HUT mode be without player depth? Despite being called NHL 11, the game boasts leagues from around the world, with this year?s notable addition being the CHL and all its subsidiaries. All of last year's leagues such as the AHL and Sweden's Elitserien are back too, including Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund in the mix playing for Modo. In all, we are looking into the thousands for players available, making it such a boisterous and bountiful experience that almost no two teams can ever be alike. This Snowflake-like effect will result in countless opportunities online, and you will probably never play the same roster in a new league over again. HUT be what NHL 11 is remembered for introducing us to, and will likely make or break its fond remembrance in the annals of hockey gamedom. Online gamers will ultimately decide whether this mode will be a success, though the online marketplace has turned into a zoo and will continue to be an overpriced wheel and deal as budding merchants try to sell their best players to the highest bidder.

One thing remains for certain, however. NHL 12 will be hard pressed to pay as many dividends to hockey fans as NHL 11 has. The game is come a Frosted Malt, a scented candle of fresh ice smell and a tape of the guy sitting near you jeering the opposition away from the most realistic hockey experience possible. A hockey game has never been this intuitive, deep or large before. From Ron Barr?s stretched out digitized face 17 years ago to Jeff Carter?s stretched out digitized face in 2010, Electronic Arts has rarely strayed from creating the best hockey game possible, and when we look back on the greatest editions of the franchise, this will be up on the shelf with the likes of NHL 94 and NHL 2004.

In Summary...

EA Sports games can have the most beautiful, or most awful graphics. NHL 11?s are somewhere in the middle. Winning the Stanley Cup, for example, brings up a well attempted on-ice presentation of the cup, however, try to focus on the celebration when your eyes end up fixated on the entire crowd waving their towels in complete sync with wrists that move impossibly per the human skeletal structure. Once you get past the fact that Gumby and his entire family have somehow bought up all the tickets to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals and believe in towel power, make sure to collect your Conn Smythe trophy from cringing Gary Bettman and take a victory lap on the gray ice. Once every few years, EA gets ice tone and ice textures perfect, and then it goes back to being too cartoonish. This I will never understand.

Year after year, the biggest gripe I have with the soundtracks is that they aren?t hockey enough. This year, EA took a step back and gathered music that has enticed crowds to clap their hands, stomp their feet and be forced to remember the fact that we pushed 2 Unlimited to the top of music charts in 1992. It works. I would rather watch my players skate and warm up to songs that pump crowds up like Twilight Zone than a slow jam from Theory of a Deadman or Templar. Play by Play continues to be as good as it can, but I continue to be disappointed that Jim Hughson is no longer a part of the game.

For those who have played the game in the past that are used to the controls, there is little to no learning curve for the new things. I admit the controls always make me wonder how EA looks at the novice gamer coming in fresh to this game, or how the novice gamer would handle the controls. The Madden Games have always had simple enough control schemes to pick up, as have the FIFA and World Cup games. NHL 11?s? Not so much. The default controls makes WWF Attitude?s (video gaming?s previous king of ridiculous controls) look like Arkanoid?s in comparison. Something I?ve found, however, is that the right stick continues to be a tad unresponsive to stick related actions. Though the deke system isn?t as outlandish and unrealistic as say, NHL 07, it?s a bit too tight at times. I will also continue to mourn the loss of the turbo button too, which I much preferred over the new hustle option.

For every bad thing I?ve said about the game, the unending depth and continuous possibilities in every mode of the game will continue to entertain and fascinate for hours on end. This game has appeal to everyone ? The two friends looking to play a Saturday afternoon exhibition game. The armchair General Manager looking to build a franchise. The budding and imaginative gamer wanting to step into the shoes of a pro. The collectible card gaming entrepreneur with a passion for hockey and a touch of marketing and sales smarts. It?s always questionable every September whether or not its going to be worth paying $60 for what in the past has been updated rosters with a few gameplay tweaks. This year, it?s definitely worth sacrificing the price of a ticket to a live game to enjoy this year?s edition of the best hockey franchise in gaming history.

A control system that's somewhere in between the NHL 94 and NHL 11 controls would be great. I would like to see it turn into a game that intermediate gamers could pick up, and there, to me, doesn't feel like there is enough of an intermediate control.

The graphics don't make or break the game, but could be tweaked slightly. The international jerseys, for example, don't look all that great, and I know that some of that comes part and parcel with the IOC's restrictions on advertisement and their affected revenues. The hypnotic synchronized towel waving is honestly a huge distraction as well.

I would also love to see a simpler mode of HUT available that is much like the Madden NFL Superstars game on Facebook -- something that doesn't require a lot of extraneous effort, but can be picked up easily, and can be played by strategists too -- not just a hockey fan. I'm not much into the NFL, but I'm enjoying the Facebook game.

Outside of that, this is a masterpiece of a hockey game.

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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