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NHL 11


Hit the glass, bounce off the goalie helmet and kick it into the goal!
The NHL series from Electronic Arts has varied in quality over the years, hopping from console to console and tweaking gameplay elements with each revision of the franchise. With the release of NHL 11 on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 this year, Electronic Arts is taking a break from the Nintendo Wii to exclusively focus on the two high-definition capable consoles. Interestingly, 2K only released NHL 2K11 on the Nintendo Wii this year and ignored the other two consoles. If you played the last two years of games in EAís NHL series, you wonít see any drastic changes in the presentation. Still holding to EAís in-you-face style of showcase, the presentation is highly polished and has the ability to draw any hockey fan into a slapshot-laden frenzy.



The physics engine in NHL 11 has taken large steps from last yearís version; positive steps. Itís vastly more realistic in that itís impossible to foresee whatís going to happen next. A defender can break his stick and stop an errant pass with his blades or the puck can bounce off the goalieís helmet and ricochet into the goal. Itís really a phenomenal step forward for the franchise, likely due to years of practice building in-game engines, and pretty amazing to see in motion. You could fire off 10 shots in a row and none of them would look similar to the previous one. Players crashing into each other seems more lifelike as well.

The artificial intelligence of the players has clearly been improved over last yearís version, perhaps to the changes in the physics engine. Opposing A.I. is faster to defend the goal and immediately takes advantage of mismatches. They are also more effective at defending the power play. Alternatively, I noticed that the A.I. controlled players on my team were much more intelligent in choosing their positions on the ice, specifically when attempting to score. Itís much easily to set-up and run a 4 pass scoring play than in years past.



Regarding game modes, you will find all the favorites in there as well as a new mode called Ultimate Hockey League, a strangely addicting cross between a fantasy hockey league and a card game like Pokemon. By earning in-game coins from winning hockey games, you can use those to purchase card packs. These packs have everything from new players, arenas, coaches as well as training cards to buff the players on your roster or contract extensions to keep certain players. Itís a fairly maddening game mode thatís incredibly intricate and designed for someone who will pore over the numbers for hours to field the best possible team. I canít imagine that a casual hockey fan will enjoy this mode, but itís ideal for the hardcore fanatics.

Other additions to the game include the playable Canadian Hockey League and some light tweaks to the career modes, nothing that really got my blood boiling. Though the handful of online matches I played, I never really had a problem finding players or games. I did have a couple dropped connections, but thatís something Iíve gotten used to after going up by a couple goals in the first period.



Graphics

  • The in-game visuals look great as usual. The player models & animations are sharp and action is smooth as silk. I didnít notice any clipping problems or animation effects cut short in the instant replays. One thing that EA didnít fix is the Be-A-Pro slowdown issues. You will notice a low framerate in that mode of play for some reason. Frankly, Iím surprised that EA didnít fix it based on the amount of work that went into the new physics engine.

Audio

  • Thereís nothing extremely revamped in the audio. The on-ice sound effects are still top notch and the commentary out of the booth is definitely welcome. Bill Clement and Gary Thorne do a great job with describing the action, but EA falters occasionally on syncing up their commentary and the action on the ice, likely due to the fast paced nature of the game. The in-game music is clearly the Top 10 Hits of all the songs you would hear in any Hockey arena in North America, lots of hard driving rock. You also have the ability to use custom soundtracks, very helpful if you donít care for the music or simply get pumped up listening to the smooth sound of Michael Buble. (Oh you know you want to now!)

Conclusion

Thereís little to nothing in NHL 11 to complain about. The quality of the presentation is fantastic and you can tell EA went to tremendous lengths to tweak the gameplay to improve the hockey experience. Word of warning to the renters out there, this is the first sports title that Electronic Arts is restricting online play via a first-use code that comes with each newly unwrapped game. People that rent that game can use a 7-day free pass to play online, but anything longer than that is subject to a fee. In EAís eyes, this is to fight the used game market, rather than renters. A disappointing tactic in my eyes, but if that means Gamestop is going to lower their prices for used titles, I might actually enjoy watching them tighten their belts.

Anyway, excluding the jerky online play tactic, NHL 11 is easily the best hockey title Iíve played on the Playstation 3. Donít hesitate to pick it up if you have any interest in the NHL. (One quick note, this title does not support the new Playstation Move controller; perhaps next year).

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