I give 2K Sports a lot of credit for sitting out this year on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 when it comes to hockey. They're stepping back to develop NHL 2K12 after getting their ass kicked by EA's series last season and are instead focusing their efforts on Wii, a system just waiting to have its technology put to proper use in the icy world of hockey. Sadly the system will have to wait for its day in the sun as NHL 2K11 has some annoying aspects to its core hockey, despite putting Wii MotionPlus to decent use in-game.
If you're lucky enough to own Nintendo's Wii MotionPlus attachment, then you probably know that there's a significant difference between that and the Wii Remote that shipped with the system. NHL 2K11's relies heavily on this technology to deliver some of its new features, so I'd recommend picking up the attachment before stepping onto the ice. Either that, or have a Classic Controller handy because even with MotionPlus, there are plenty of annoyances to be found.
The game touts its one-to-one dekeing abilities and that's one area where NHL 2K11 shines. Holding down on the d-pad allows you to deke from side to side by making the requisite movements with the Remote. Not only that, but you can also carry the puck on your stick and juggle it in the air if you've got the skill, all with the help of the MotionPlus technology. It's strange to think that MotionPlus can perform intricate moves like dekeing and juggling the puck with ease, yet it struggles with standard things like shooting.
For whatever reason there were far too many instances when I'd have a man standing right in front of an open net with a rebounded shot at his feet yet no shot attempt was made despite me frantically making the shot motion with my arm. Sometimes my frantic motions worked, other times they didn't with no rhyme or reason to either result. Nothing is more frustrating than missing a wide open net because of lacking control mechanics.
Annoyances also creep their way into defense, sadly, where I found the transition from skating backwards to chasing the puck to take a bit too long in some cases. Too often my defensemen would remain in their backwards skating position as the opposing offense streaked by, only turning to pursue them once it was too late. Other flaws in the AI occur when you realize that skating around the opponent's net in circles is actually the best strategy for scoring. One-timers work too, but I found the most success by running circles around the goalie. It's a strategy that was only reinforced when I headed online and found that just about every opponent used the same gameplan.
Speaking of online play, NHL 2K11 enjoys a nice suite of features and options that includes support for the WiiSpeak peripheral, Team Up (every player on the ice is controlled by a different user), Online Leagues and general head-to-head play. Sadly all of those features are reliant on an online infrastructure that doesn't perform very well even on the high-speed connection afforded by the IGN office. Gameplay slowed to a slideshow at some points, making the whole experience not worth the effort.
If you do have a Classic Controller handy, there's a good bit more fun to be had within NHL 2K11. For starters, the mechanics are much more responsive with the dual analog sticks and face button layout. There are still AI flaws, but a few layers of frustration will melt away and you should be able to enjoy the sizeable offering of game modes.
There's the standard franchise mode with all the accoutrements you'd expect. You get the typical 2K hub page with all the requisite information and features like CPU trading and trade offers. There's also a mini-rink mode, there's pond hockey, there's a single-season offering as well as a playoff mode. I like that there's the ability to play the Winter Classic, but it's a bummer that you're tied to the Bruins and Flyers. I understand that they're the two teams from the real life Winter Classic, but this is a videogame and I should be able to play with the Panthers if I want.
New to the list of modes this year is something called Road to the Cup where players get to engage in a series of mini-games that's selected using a large Wheel of Fortune-style dial. It's obviously geared towards the more casual hockey fans of the world and in that regard it performs well. Mini-games include a snake-style game, an activity where you need to avoid roving barrels on the ice, a one-on-one shootout with a netminder, and a few more. The mode is certainly kid-friendly and simple as it takes only about a half-hour to complete, but as the one substantive new mode for this year's game, it's not exactly something for the title to hang its hat on. Still, if you're playing with a group of friends, you'll find some fun here.
One area where 2K Sports did a solid job is in the presentation of both the flair of each NHL team's introduction and player likenesses. While not every face looks the way it should, I found myself being impressed by few of the models. Animation work is also pretty solid, especially on some of the cooler checks. Try chucking the opposition into the bench for a truly satisfying sight. The framerate is also solid outside of the online mode. Those expecting anything comparable to NHL 11 will be let down, but NHL 2K11 is certainly a solid looking Wii game.