Games get sequels all the time these days. It seems like more and more, games are written not with the idea of producing a quality game, but rather with the start of a franchise in mind. A lot of this is based on the profitability of the sports franchise games that have annual releases. Sometimes these games have little more than new team rosters, while a few titles like EA
franchise are constantly innovating. NHL 11
is no exception, and to call it anything less than a home run wouldn’t do the game justice.
To begin with, it starts with what the game provided last year, which if you look back at my NHL 2010 review, you’ll see that it was the best console hockey game ever made to that point. While there’s no where go up from an A grade, there were plenty of places where changes to the game could have brought it down. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and the changes and additions only added to the depth and strength of the game.
One of the worst kept secrets of the summer was that EA was negotiating with the Canadian Hockey League for licensing of their team and player likenesses for inclusions in this years edition of the game. It was something I called for as one of the few holes in last years game, but it wasn’t enough of a knock to reduce the grade. Plus, I simply figured the CHL wouldn’t be willing to license their logos as a secondary piece of the game.
The addition of these teams and logos really adds to the feel of the game. The Be A Pro mode makes heavy use of the CHL as a developmental step along the ladder for your user-created player. As I said, it’s a realistic touch that was missing from last years game and allows you to really spend time with your character, developing your style of play, adding to your stats and getting better at the game before you step into the NHL.
On little fun thing that goes along with the CHL addition is a midget league that allows that allows you to start your player off as a teen learning the game. It gives a feeling of completing the arch of your player from his early travel hockey experiences to the completion of his road to the NHL. I wouldn’t have thought that it would work out as well as it does, as it could have been really cheesy.
While the addition of the CHL adds a lot to the game in terms of feel and depth, it’s not really new in terms of functionality. The key piece of new functionality off the ice comes from the new Hockey Ultimate Team mode. It seems a lot of games lately have been adding a collectible card game component in order to find an interesting way of adding depth without making fundamental changes to the primary game modes. It makes even more sense in sports game, because a lot of people who play sports games have also collected sports cards.
The premise of Hockey Ultimate Team is simple. You get some packs of virtual cards. These cards represent your potential players, jerseys, coaches, skill upgrades, and contracts for your team. You build a roster from your starter pack and booster packs of cards as in any other CCG, and use them to ice the best team you can through upgrades of various types. You then ice those teams, either in single player games against the AI or online against other players.
You earn points for playing, winning and other skill-based efforts, which allow you to in turn buy new packs. The more expensive the pack, the more likely it is to contain rare cards. Rare cards may be NHL level players, large skill or contract upgrades, unique jerseys, or other modifiers. The more you play, the more quickly you can get new packs.
A not so small detail I didn’t notice at first is that the various player cards all have a limit as to how long they can be kept on your roster. Eventually, the player’s contract expires, and you’ll need to replace the card, making earning new packs very important. Additionally, playing a roster of lesser players makes it harder to win, which makes the effort of gaining new packs all the more important.
After playing several of the online matches, I realized how hard it was to ice a team that was made up mostly of lower quality players. The games matching engine rates your team and tries to find you suitable competition. Unfortunately, if your opponent has an NHL goalie and you’re using mostly European or CHL players, you’re not going to have much luck, no matter how much better you are than your opponent when it comes to actual game play. Just as in the games primary mode, lower rated players can’t pull off one-timers, flub passes and generally make errors that will wind up in the back of your net.
Of course once you get your team, whether it’s a Hockey Ultimate Team or one of NHL 2011’s many CHL, European, or NHL teams, on the ice; it’s still about the realism of the game play experience that counts. One small change that can have huge impacts is the inclusion of broken sticks. As hockey sticks have moved away from wood and into graphite, carbon, and other technologies to reduce weight and add flex, they’ve also gotten flimsier in terms of resistance to breakage. Including broken sticks in the games adds a flavor of realism to shooting and slashing in particular. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a defenseman wind up to take a huge slapper, only to see his stick break and the puck caroms wildly away. It also makes a refs call pretty easy when you’re hold the remains of your shattered twig in your hand after being on the receiving end of a slash. Now both of these features of a real game are included in NHL 11.
Another key feature is an entirely new physics engine for the hits delivered in the game. Player’s bodies respond far more naturally to being hit, and it’s rare to see two collisions end in the same resulting animation of the hit. It adds additional depth because hard hits against unprotected players result in penalties more frequently now, matching a similar tendency in the NHL.
One of the biggest but probably most overlooked improvements comes in the form of a completely revamped faceoff engine. Offering the option of fore or backhanded grips, this new change gives the player a significant number of options to win the faceoff. You can follow the traditional route and just try to time the puck drop, drawing the puck back to one of your defensemen or supporting wings. You can also attempt to tie up the opposing player letting one of your support players come get the puck. There are even options for winning the puck forward rather than back for when you just want to get the puck out of your defensive zone. It’s a complex set of functionality, and as a hand-eye coordination skill, it takes a good bit of effort to get it down. After about 25 games, I’m still only winning at about a 45% clip.
There are tons of other minor new features as tweaks to the game play like quick dekes and the hit stick that add up to simply a remarkable game.
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* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
In the end, this is a game that’s hard not to recommend, especially in light of the fact that 2K Sports didn’t offer a competitor on the 360 or PS3 this year, so EA could have just stuck with last years game. Instead, they upped their offering to the point that taking this year off could be absolutely the worst thing that 2K could have done. EA NHL 2011 is for any hockey fan, anyone who likes sports, or even anyone who just really likes a well made game.