NHL 11 review
NHL 10 bedazzled us last year with its unmatched realism and genuinely fun gameplay, proving that EA Sports had finally accomplished the unthinkable, topping 2K Sports in a field that it had once dominated. Now, with NHL 2K11 out of the way on the Wii (and lacking), the company is set for full dominance with its latest hockey romp, NHL 11. Does it shoot and score? You bet it does, although some mild imperfections keep it from being the stuff of legend.
Like last year, gameplay is handled through a dual analog system. When you've got control of the puck, you can control player movement with the left stick, while setting up quick shot or slapshot shooting with the right. You can also use the stick for powerful checks, while occasionally tapping a button for a quick poke check. Most importantly, right analog stick play proves useful with winning face-offs. You’re no longer regulated to tapping a button wildly to win the draw, simply set your stick up in the right place and either pass it to an open teammate or lightly shove the guy in front of you to retrieve it in a possible fast break run.
The controls are outstanding, just as they were last year, and the implementation of a new physics engine helps the checks and shots come off even more natural than ever before. We’re also big fans of the face-off system, as it adds a degree of being in control of your player, rather than leaving something to chance. Fighting on the boards and duking it out in a first-person perspective are great as well, though some players are more aggressive than others. We also like the broken sticks, which add a bit of challenge to keeping a puck in play until a foul is called.
If you’re somehow lost on NHL 11’s controls, there are options. You can revert back to the simplistic NHL 94 control scheme (shoot and pass with buttons) or test your skills in Practice Mode, which is the best way to go. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can tackle the many modes in NHL 11, including exhibition, Playoff Mode (where you go right into the Stanley Cup chase), Tournament mode, Be a Pro and Be a GM. Most of these modes were introduced in previous games, and, for the most part, remain unchanged. That’s good and bad, mind you. Good as in you’ll be able to cover familiar territory, mastering the angles on the ice and off as you manage your team to glory and/or make something of yourself on a team. As for the bad, there are framerate issues in Be a Pro (especially with shooting) and Be a GM has logic issues during drafting, which could net you a lame duck player. Play your cards carefully here and you’ll be fine.
Speaking of cards, NHL 11 introduces a wonderful new EA Sports Ultimate Hockey League (EAUHL), which involves playing around with Ultimate Team options. Here, you’ll be dealt cards that you can use over the course of a management or playing season, including pros from the NHL and rookie leagues, such as the AHL and CHL. It's deep and quite time-taking, so make sure you've got room on your schedule if you dare to tackle it. If you're a hockey nut, you won’t be sorry.
And, of course, you can take on other players online through both Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Aside from those Be a Pro hang-ups, we found the online experience to be stable; hooking up with other players was quite easy, as was setting up matches. Hockey fans will no doubt spend a lot of time here until the puck officially drops on the season in a few weeks.
As for presentation, EA Sports answers the call valiantly, bumping NHL 11 to championship levels. The visuals are even more appealing than last year, thanks to improved player models, excited crowds (something you couldn’t find in NHL 2K11), clever ice spraying effects, and a fast, steady framerate (save for Be a Pro, mind you). Watching someone take a check is painfully enjoyable…and yes, it is possible to painfully enjoy yourself like having an examination with a cute female dentist. As for audio, there's great on-ice sound effects (including scraping skates and slapped pucks), along with a well-reacting crowd and running commentary from Gary Thorne and Bill Clement. Some of the comments tend to repeat, but never enough to annoy.
What else can we say? Thanks, EA Sports, for delivering another solid year of on-ice action with NHL 11. Sure, the hang-ups from last year could’ve used some improvement, and a few tweaks to the other modes (outside of Ultimate Team) would’ve really pushed this into perfect score territory. That said, it’s still a hockey-fest you shouldn’t miss. Despite some repeat performance in certain modes, NHL 11 scores a win with ease. Hockey fans will absolutely adore it.