Twenty years is a long time but it is the length of time that Electronic Arts NHL series has been around. Dating back to the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis days the series has gone through many, many changes and like any series, it has had its fair share of ups and downs. Over the last three years EA has left its closest competitor NHL 2K in the dust and the latest game in the series, NHL 11 is no different as it continues the strong pedigree set forth by it predecessors.
At first glance NHL 11 may seem to be very similar to NHL 10 in nearly every respect and honestly who could blame EA for resting on their laurels when NHL 10 was such a strong simulation of the sport. But if one takes the time to explore NHL 11 more intimately they will find numerous gameplay additions that help to enhance the game and deliver the best and most genuine hockey experience ever released.
Right off the bat one will notice that the face-off system has been overhauled. It is now a much deeper system that gives players the most authentic face-offs in a video game to date. It allows the player to control if the center takes the face-off on his backhand or forehand, use the body to block out the opposing center or push forward to open up room for another player to come in and get the puck and most importantly adds a layer of strategy not seen in that aspect of the game before.
While the new face-off system is the most evident of the gameplay changes, NHL 11 also has a handful of moderate changes that help to enhance the game as whole. For one, the speed of the game has been adjusted a bit, yes the game plays about a half-click slower than NHL 10 but it helps to accentuate the strategic aspects of the game. Some are going to complain about this change but it really does serve a purpose as it now seems like marquee players have a better jump on the puck than others and if it is really that bothersome, the game speed is easily changed via the options menu.
Checking has also seen a major overhaul and due to the new physics engine in place body checks carry the weight that they should. A defenseman can now line up a winger with a brutal hip check and it plays out exactly as you would expect it to. But more impressive than the new checking system is the fact that NHL 11 has included broken and dropped sticks into the game. Anyone who has ever played or watched a hockey game knows that broken sticks happen quite frequently and losing a stick puts the opposing team at an immediate advantage. Much like the checking system, it is just a small change but it adds so much to the overall experience that I can’t believe it has taken this long for EA to get it in the game.
Fans of last year’s game will be happy to see all the old modes return as well as one big new one. NHL 11′s Be a GM evolves nicely adding Restricted Free Agents into the mix. It is just another layer for the already hardcore management mode but one that much like everything else added into the game this year, enhances the authenticity of the gameplay. Be a Pro on the other hand only gets a small makeover with the inclusion of Memorial Cup into the pre-draft scenario. Playing the handful of games in the Memorial Cup helps to better determine your placement in the draft and while it is a fun little addition the rest of the mode is generally the same as last year’s. The game also has the familiar online modes, with the EA Sports Hockey League once again making an appearance. To play online though players will have to activate their EA Sports Online Pass, which comes with all new copies of the game or can be purchased for those that get the game on the second hand market.
The big addition in NHL 11 to the army of game modes though is Hockey Ultimate Team (or HUT). HUT takes players back to the time when they collected hockey cards and would compare them against their friends cards arguing over who had the better team. Teams are assembled by opening packs of cards and assembling a roster of minor, international and NHL players to take to the ice. Packs are opened by using EA Pucks, acquired by playing the game, or by actually purchasing them from the Online Card Store. Unfortunately by being able to flat out purchase packs of cards using real money, players can stack their team with marquee players outclassing those that choose to just play and unlock, making the balance of the mode in multiplayer highly suspect and potentially a turn off for some players (like me).
From a technical standpoint EA has once again delivered a great looking game. The new in game animations are fantastic and close up shots of players do not have that waxy look that they have had in recent years. The game plays fantastically smooth and the television presentation is in full force, to the point that once again it fooled someone into thinking I was watching an actual hockey game at first glance. If there is a complaint with the visuals though it is that some of the end of period animations and celebrations are recycled from last year. Most notably the Stanley Cup celebration is identical to last year’s edition and while its not a big deal, it would have been nice to get something new with the biggest and most important cut scene in the game.
Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return to announce the game again and once again do a wonderful job but like all announcers in games, they begin to repeat themselves over the course of a long season. EA Trax provides the soundtrack and once again it is a solid mix of new music and arena classics. Additionally the game soundtrack can be completely custom built with the user’s own music collection. Want to hear Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” when your team hits the ice, program it in. Now if I could just get MP3s of the Flyers organ my set-up would be complete.
NHL 11 is another fine edition in the long running series and an improvement over NHL 10. Personally though I was hoping for something more with this iteration. The 20th anniversary of Madden saw the inclusion of a classic Madden game. I was kind of hoping for a chance to get my Super Fan #99 on with the best NHL game in the series NHL ’94 but alas it was not to be. I suppose we will all just have to make due with the great game that is NHL 11.
4 out of 5.