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NHL 11


Probably the best, deepest sports game you've ever played
Hockey has been the basis for some of the most-beloved sports games in video-game history, be it the original Hockey (otherwise known as Pong), Ice Hockey and Blades of Steel for the NES or the legendary NHL 94 for the Genesis. There's something about the speed and structure of ice hockey that lends itself brilliantly to gaming, some would say better than any other professional sport. At this point in time, the NHL series from EA has to be considered the standard for video-game hockey, fending off a challenge from the NHL2K franchise in the early 2000s. A blend of off-ice management and on-ice play has turned the series into an all-encompassing experience for fans of hockey or simply fans of fun sports games, and the latest entry, NHL 11, takes that experience to new heights by adding to the overall depth.

Gameplay:

If you can think of a way you want to play video-game hockey, there's a good chance it's available in NHL 11 (with the exception of arcade-style 3-on-3 hockey (which is available elsewhere from EA.)) Back a few years, there was a good chance that after playing a few seasons of NHL hockey, I would retire the game to a shelf until the next year's version arrived, with updated rosters and some gameplay tweaks I'd need to master. Now, with NHL 11, I can't see myself losing interest in this game until NHL 12 hits stores and gives me a good reason to move on. There are simply too many distinctly different ways to play hockey here for anyone to ever handily "complete" or grow tired of. You can literally play a different way every day for a solid week. That's an impressive level of gameplay depth you just don't frequently see in any genre, no less sports, where traditionally, updated rosters were as big a reason as one received for picking up the controls again.



Though I never ever use it, you can just go with the "Play Now" mode, where you just pick up and go, choosing teams and playing a game of hockey. It's a fine representation of the game of hockey, and can also be done in a shoot-out mode, hitting a sweet spot between simulation and arcade-like action. You get access to a wide range of moves and controls, giving players the chance to feel like they are fully involved in the play. An array of adjustable sliders let you adjust the game to your liking (a must in this realm) along with a new physics engine that takes the series a few steps closer to hockey perfection. The fact that broken sticks (which happen as randomly as they do in the real NHL) and stickless play (including skating back to the bench to grab a new twig) are now a part of this game is proof enough that this is the reigning king of hockey simulation. This straight-up mode only allows you to enjoy the on-the-ice play though, which while fun, isn't the reason to pick up this title. Nay, you have to dig a bit deeper to find the true value of NHL 11, and see what an NHL experience is really about.

If you're looking for a solo in-season experience, there are a bunch of options, the top two being the Be A Pro and Be A GM mode. They are pretty self-explanatory, letting you focus on either your on-ice play or team management (though as a GM you can also control your team during games, if so desired.) Building up your professional via experience points is a touch deeper this year, with the addition of the Canadian junior league CHL, as you can start in the CHL championship tournament, and your performance will determine your draft position (you can still just throw yourself onto your favorite team as well.) It's a limited enhancement, with just a handful of games, but having the CHL teams and players in the franchise adds authenticity across the board, as the rookies and prospects you previously had to create are actually included now. There have been some improvements to this mode, as you no longer have to slog your way through the minors, using pre-season games to earn a spot on the pro team, but there are no guarantees. That's because one of the bugs that remains from last year is the fickle nature of the coaches. In one season, my pro had 12 goals in three games, but when I only scored a goal and two assists in the fourth game, I was demoted to the second line. That the game also doesn't understand improvement in your player is frustrating as well, as you are permanently labeled with the playing style you start with, and when it comes contract time, even if you lead the league in scoring, you're not getting a big offer.



Be A GM mode is a personal favorite, as I enjoy the contract negotiations and drafting elements (yes, I'm a nerd) and there are enhancements here as well, with the inclusion of restricted free agency and expanded draft picks, so you can trade picks from multiple years. The inclusion of the CHL also makes it more enjoyable, as you have to to follow the rules regarding sending young players to juniors if you want to demote them from the NHL. They even made a tweak to the trading system, making it harder to match up players to get a near-guaranteed trade. These are somewhat minor points, but they make the mode more realistic, which is just what you want if you're playing as a GM. It seems like almost everything EA did with NHL 11 was with an eye toward realism.

There are several shorter options to choose from if you want something longer than a single game, but less than the next 12 months of your life, including playing the final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, or the entire four rounds, a solo season, and a pair of tournament modes, one focused on international play, featuring Olympic teams, while the other takes advantage of the presence of the CHL, letting you fight your way through the Mastercard Memorial Cup tournament. Of course, if scoring and saving are all you care about, the Shootout mode, as close to casual hockey as this game gets, is waiting for you, along with a practice mode to allow you to sharpen your skills in several game scenarios.

The addition of the Hockey Ultimate Team concept, which had been in previous Madden and FIFA releases, is easily the biggest update to the franchise in a long time, and what makes it truly valuable is the way it changes online play. Building your team from random packs of cards you buy using earned in-game points, you have to manage contracts and training (also found in the packs) to create a squad that can compete against the computer and online, in pick-up games and tournaments (with tourneys offering bonus points for winners.) It's a great way to get added value out of the game, but it also makes online match-ups far more fun, reducing the amount of rage-quitting by the simple act of awarding participation points to be used to improve your team. Yes, some people still give up, and yes, it happens quicker, as quitters don't want to spend too much time and then lose their points, but overall, there's far less of the childish tantrums, and when they do happen, you don't mind, since you get rewarded as if you won.

Online Play

Since they found a way to make online play stable with the newest generation of consoles, facing off against other human players has been a key element of the NHL series, and that's no different here. You have a number of options for online play, including your standard match-ups, online shoot-outs and team play, and the Ultimate Team battles, but the EA Sports Hockey League takes it a step further, as you can play as yourself in online play, taking part in club practice and play with other players (or just drop into a game if none of your teammates are around.) There's something very satisfying about representing yourself on the ice in team play, but also equally annoying when your teammates refuse to pass or can't stop going offsides. But that's hockey in reality as well. I find myself turning to this mode more often than the others because it's just a lot of fun to build my player and stack him up against everyone else.



Controls

Though the controls haven't changed dramatically since NHL 10, using the left analog stick for skating and the right stick for stick handling, and everything is rather responsive, with no noticeable issues. There are enough updates to your button presses though to enhance gameplay in important ways, starting with the new face-off controls. Now, you're far more in control of what happens when the puck drops, as you need to prep your positioning, choose a plan of attack and use your body to win draws. It's a vast improvement over the timing exercises of the past. There are also advancements in the deking and hitting, adding a number of options to enhance your game, though few things are as fun as dropping into a well-timed hip-check along the boards, sending your opponent tumbling. There's also a handful of user celebrations to utilize following a goal in order to show up your foes.

One of the underrated changes is in the passing, which now uses the length of your button presses to determine the speed of your pass. This adds further realism, as you can't just whip cleanly connecting passes without trying to do so. It takes a bit of getting used to, so there will be plenty of times where you fire a bullet pass to a teammate too close to you, and watch the puck bounce off their stick and out of control. It's more welcome than the change to the spin-o-rama move, which is no longer smooth enough to easily skate around defensemen and in on net. But with a bit of time invested, you can quickly find better moves that will open up space and set up scoring opportunities.

For those who enjoy playing goalie (and for those who never did) the controls feel a touch more user-friendly than they have in the past, though that's purely anecdotal on my part. I've never enjoyed stepping between the pipes, but this time around it feels more like a fun challenge than a chore, with an arsenal of saves to pick from as you fight the puck. The fighting controls though remain pretty much the same as last time, which isn't a complaint really. It's just not the most enjoyable part of the game.

Of course, if you're old-school, or simply want a simpler way to play, you can revert to the NHL 94 controls that offer just a few buttons for controlling your team.

Achievements

There are 40 achievements to complete in this game, which can earn you a total of 1000 points. These achievements are spread throughout the game's many modes of play, including solo play, both Be A... modes and online play, with a mix of accomplishments and simple participation. As a result, it will take a genuine effort to capture a majority of the points, like one that requires you to play 250 online games.



Graphics

The game simply looks fantastic in basically every aspect, from the excellent presentation, which looks better than it has in years, including the excellent opening animation and pre-game displays, to the on-ice action, which is similarly awesome, with new and improved player animations that look terrific, especially in net, and arenas that shine like a lightbulb. Just keep an eye on the ice while you're playing, and notice how it goes from slick and clean to scraped-up as a game progresses. It's just one example of the little things that make this such a fun game. The only time there are any framerate issues with the game is when you're playing online, which is more of a lag issue than anything. Though not all the settings are perfectly authentic (the Islanders' Coliseum (seen here as the so-called Long Island Arena) is particularly off-model) they do a nice job with the jerseys, gear and logos, and most of the players (with exceptions here and there.)

Sound

The video is well-matched by the audio, which offers plenty of little nuances, along with the bombast of the soundtrack, which features a number of memorable arena anthems and rock and dance songs well-known from their presence at hockey games over the years. After a while though, you'll want to replace them with your own custom line-up, as you can only listen to 2 Unlimited's "Twilight Zone" so many times. The sound effects are the real star of the show though, as every puck off a crossbar, every hit into the boards and every broken stick sounds as good as they do on TV or in person. The attention to detail is actually a touch distracting at times, especially when taunts from the crowd catch your ear, but it's a good kind of distracting.

As good as the audio is, it's really quite time to remove play-by-play announcer Gary Thorne from this game (analyst Bill Clement is welcome to stay if he updates his material.) Sure, Thorne's got his proponents, who recall the excitement of his calls on ESPN's NHL coverage back in the late 1940s, but the man has a brutal agenda against proper pronunciation of players' names. You'll hear the in-arena announcer correctly say a name, only to hear Thorne say the name seconds later in a way that would require a legitimate effort to screw up. Take Davide Laliberte. Anyone around hockey and its French elements for any amount of time would know it's pronounced La-lib-er-tay. But Thorne comes up with the magic of Lall-a-bert-eee, which makes me attempt to choke myself with my wireless controller. It's just awful. Add to that repetition of Thorne and Clement's lines from previous versions that ignore reality. How do you discuss the Islanders' four stripe patch that no longer exists on the jersey, even in the game? Or talking about the oft-injured Rick DiPietro and his impressive physicality, with no mention of his many surgeries and missed games? Next time, get Bill Jaffe in the studio and do this the right way.

And in the End...

This is easily the best NHL hockey has ever been on a console, and it sets the bar incredibly high for EA's next release. In fact, it delivers such a fun brand of game play and such a depth of enjoyment that many fans might only be forced to buy NHL 12 when the servers go offline for this one, and you can be sure there will be players putting cards into their line-ups until the plug is pulled. There's not much you could point to as missing and what's there works extremely well. Simply put, this is one of the all-time best sports games.