Hockey doesn't get a lot of love in the United States. I have no idea why, but that's the way it's been for ages. Still, that hasn't stopped EA Sports from churning out one of the most consistently great sports franchises around with its NHL line of games. If you're a hockey nut, rest assured that NHL 11 is no slouch. It packs a cool, super-deep dynasty mode in the form of Ultimate Team, it adds some great gameplay tweaks and refinements and delivers all of this with a layer of polish that has been missing from past games.
For those unfamiliar with the NHL series, the franchise has hinged on delivering a true-to-life hockey experience for the past few years. It was one of the first games to develop a control scheme that used the right analog for stick controls like dekeing and shooting, it pioneered Be A Pro where you command a single player throughout his entire career, and its online hockey leagues were some of the first of their kind.
For hardcore gamers, there's the new EA Sports Ultimate Hockey League (EAUHL) which uses the Ultimate Team trading card system (each player card is a player on the ice) to deliver its team building mechanic. Players are dealt a pack of starter cards and are sent to build up their fledgling team of all-stars from there by either earning in-game currency through their play on the ice or by purchasing them with real world money. The setup is pretty dense and shouldn't be traversed by those not willing to delve into some seriously minute details, but hardcore hockey fans are going to get a kick out of it.
The depth of Ultimate Team and EAUHL is exhaustive. If the community catches on, it could actually be the largest and most expansive dynasty mode ever seen in a game. Player cards are taken from the list of leagues (there are more than 10 total) that have been added to this year's game, and you'll also have to contend with managing coaching cards, training cards and contract cards (which govern how many games a given player can be used), not to mention making sure your team's chemistry is kept at a high level. It's probably a little too dense for its own good, but those who can get their heads around it could have a long, fun experience, especially when taking the game online and competing for supremacy against the masses in the EAUHL.
Of course, there's also the standard Be A GM (single-player franchise mode), Be A Pro (single-player career mode), Playoff Mode, Tournament Mode, and Practice Mode which haven't been touched up all that much. That doesn't mean that they don't still deliver their content at a very high level (they do), but they clearly haven't seen the attention that I expect. Be A Pro still has those annoying framerate hitches that pop up whenever the puck is fed into the corners, and Be A GM still has that strange cell phone system during the draft that rewards or takes away your phones (which translates into the number of trade offers you'll receive) depending on your reputation.
It's a disappointment that so much attention went to Ultimate Team, a game mode that has been seen in FIFA and Madden over the last few years, when hallmark modes such as Be A Pro and Be A GM went relatively untouched. Thankfully EA Sports also invested in some great gameplay tweaks that push the package in the right direction.
EA claims that the most requested feature coming off of last year's game was the inclusion of broken sticks, and it's a big part of NHL 11. They might happen just a bit too often, but the result is cool. Seeing a guy snap his stick mid-shot and then make a perfect pass with his skate is very cool--and pulling it off is just as hard as it should be. Likewise, skating around stick-less just looking for someone's face to wreck with a bone crushing hit is also great fun. Sort of like being a hockey mercenary.
Speaking of checks, EA Sports has installed a new realtime physics engine that does a nice job of emulating real world physical interactions. It isn't perfect as sometimes player models are a little slow to react to hits, but when it works properly the results can be awesome with both vicious hits and the little ones that are just enough to dislodge players from the puck.
There have also been some smaller, more under-the-hood, changes made to NHL 11. First, the speed has been ratcheted back a few notches from last year. I think it's a little unrealistic and could deter some true hockey aficionados, but it does a lot in the way of allowing players to have the time to pull off cool looking dekes and precision passes.
Making those tough passes requires a bit more strategy in NHL 11 than it has in past games. This year, in order to whip a pass at the feet of your target with any kind of speed, you're going to have to hold the pass button for a half-second longer than normal. The result is a passing system that demands a bit of foresight to make fast, accurate passes. It definitely takes getting used to, but the end result is a system that feels more authentic than in past NHL games. I just wish that they had delivered a new passing tutorial to teach you the new system instead of hiding the instructions in the settings menu.
All-in-all the gameplay in NHL 11 is the most fun I've experienced from the series. Strategy and planning play a larger role in this year's game which makes for a different experience than has been afforded in the past. Some might be perturbed by the lack of speed and new passing system, but I think both lend themselves to delivering the NHL experience to a wider audience of fans.
As always, one area where NHL excels is the presentation of the sport. The atmosphere in the different arenas in the game is great and making it to the playoffs only accentuates the excitement level. It's also cool to watch how the electricity in the arena dissipates when you venture down to one of the many lesser (non-NHL) leagues in the game. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement deliver another great performance, even if a few of their lines were heard in last year's game. It's great to hear a sports game with actual interaction between the commentators, something that is missing in other EA Sports titles. Their excitement really comes through when you score an impressive goal. And while I appreciate the notion of user-controlled celebrations after a score, they were clearly an after-thought in NHL 11 and don't add much to the experience.
Visually this year's installment performs better than NHL 10 on the ice with great player details that don't take a knock despite the improved physics. In fact, the entire package actually runs better than it has in recent years with a framerate that doesn't falter during simple cutscenes as they did in NHL 10. Still, it's a shame to see framerate issues pop up inexplicably in Be A Pro mode.
The amount of gameplay in NHL 11 is staggering when looked at as a full package. There are essentially two franchise modes – Be A GM and Ultimate Team – and a single-player career mode in the form of Be A Pro. Most of the modes are pulled from NHL games of the past, and that's a real bummer, but that doesn't mean that the content isn't still fun. When you factor in the huge amount of depth offered by the EA Sports Ultimate Hockey League and the other online features, like Online Team Play, NHL 11 becomes an even more attractive package.