NHL 11 Review – More of the Same or a New Experience?
I’ve been a fan of the EA Sports NHL series most of my life. I’ve played countless hours of the different versions of the game, from ’98 and onwards, across 7 different platforms. I’ve always been entertained by the prospect of playing as my favorite NHL players in the race for the Stanley Cup. The series has seen a large progression of additional features added to the game, from online capabilities to the thumbstick deke control. But in the last few years, EA has been a little skimpy on what they’re giving us for $70. Although they’ve added some new features like Be A Pro and a reinvigorated Shootout mode, it seems like they’ve been cheating us in other aspects. Some examples are their play on words, such as the transition from a ‘Dynasty Mode’ to ‘Franchise Mode’ to ‘Be A GM Mode’, all of which are essentially the same thing. They’ve also made minor changes that they’ve advertised as revolutionary with the addition of stick lifting, shot tips, and a remodeled fighting mode. Was NHL 11 subject to the same shortcomings of its predecessors?
The first thing I noticed when I played NHL 11 is the revamped physics engine that makes the game feel alot smoother. Players seem to skate, pass and shoot more fluently than in previous titles, which gives the game a better feel. Another noticeable change in the game was the much needed improvement of the goalie physics. Too many times in the past I’ve experienced goalies making ‘auto-saves’ or letting in goals that have no business going in. NHL 11 makes the goalies feel less like a program that randomly generates when the puck goes in, and more akin to a human being. In addition to the improved CPU functionality, there were some interesting new gameplay features added to the game as well. The highlight gameplay addition feature was the introduction of broken sticks. It adds an interesting element to the game, as you never know when a stick will break, and EA didn’t go overboard with how often sticks break. It was also impressive seeing how CPU’s would react after losing their stick. Some options involved passing the puck with their skate or glove, speeding back to the bench to get a new stick, or tying up an opposing player.
Another fun addition to the game was the addition of the hip check, where the player has the option of clicking in the right thumb-stick, delivering a fatal hip check to another player. And, along with NHL’s, FIFA and MADDEN affiliates, EA has finally included goal celebrations into NHL 11. There is nothing more satisfying than scoring in overtime then ‘Tiger Williams-ing’/fist pumping/pointing at the opposing goaltender’s face. Good times indeed. One final note I would like to make is that the infamous ‘cross-crease’ glitch has been vastly improved. It still daunts me from time to time when I play online, but it is much more difficult to pull off than before, making NHL 11 a more authentic experience.
Aside from the new gameplay mechanics, NHL 11 also features the new, online Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) mode. If you’ve ever been a fan of collecting hockey cards, or anything of collectible nature, the HUT will have you immediately hooked. You start by opening a pack of 24 cards, with players ranging from the NHL to the OHL to Swedish Elite teams. You can also collect various jersey’s, logo’s, contract cards, and player improvement cards to keep it interesting. Essentially, you start off with an awful team and work your way up by earning pucks by winning tournaments or playing against other players. You then use these pucks to buy hockey card packs where you get new hockey cards (and ultimately new players) which can be used on your team. You can also buy/sell cards in EA’s card trading zone, which is also very useful. Also, EA has added some replay value by forcing player’s contracts to expire after a given period of time, requiring you to either get a new card of that player, or moving on to someone different. This keeps you constantly on the look out for new players to update your ranks. Another feature that saw a facelift was the EASHL (EA Sports Hockey League) online play. The menu interface is much more user friendly and makes it less confusing when trying to enter a club or community game. If you’ve never played an EASHL game, it consists of you and your friends forming a club, and playing against other teams online. NHL 11 also has a more structured playoff mode for your EASHL club, as well as a practice mode where you and your friends can mess around on a full-sized rink. The EASHL has always been a favorite in NHL games, and it was welcoming to see it improve.
Although NHL 11 feels much smoother overall, there are definitely some major shortcomings in EA’s new title. There is still the occasional WTF moment where you watch hopelessly as a CPU player or goalie does something incredibly stupid. This is especially noticeable in the EASHL mode, where it is still frustrating to lose over a stupid mistake by one of your CPU players. Another problem that EA has yet to fully address is the abundance of ‘glitch goals’ you see when you play online. Although NHL 11 was better at addressing this problem than NHL 10, there are still enough goal exploits and people who use them to make online play difficult. Surprisingly, EA also added a new feature to this game that I saw as an unnecessary flaw in the game mechanics. When you are playing as your NHL pro and attempt to ask for a pass, instead of receiving it instantly, your player has to tap his stick on the ice, and wait an additional second or so. The delay that this causes can easily lead to you getting the puck and then immediately passing it away. Granted, tapping your stick on the ground is a more realistic feature, but a frustrating one at that.
Despite the rest of the problems with NHL 11, one aspect I can’t get over is EA’s negligence in updating the in-game commentating. They have constantly regurgitated the same phrases and expressions over the last 3 or 4 years, and they’ve only added short blips of commentary that relate to the new features. I’m bored to tears of hearing, “Finish, finish, finish, and I’m not talking about the country,” despite what you might think Gary Thorne, FINNISH IS NOT A COUNTRY!
All in all, NHL 11 has some improved features, and new ones that ultimately make it better than its predecessor. My only hope is that EA Sports can continue to significantly improve their NHL games, instead of making minor changes and poaching our money. Regardless, any fan of the NHL series would be more than satisfied with the purchase of this game, as long as they are wary of the aforementioned shortcomings within the game. Additionally, if you own an Xbox 360/Ps3 and were a fan of the late NHL 2K series, you’ll enjoy a nice change in pace and variety, as I’ve always seen the EA Sport’s version of NHL as a more complete title.
P.S. – Last week I promised all of you a surprise. Here it is. I managed to get my hands on an exclusive slipcover of NHL 11 featuring (and autographed by) the Sedins. There was a promotion at a mall near me last week, and to my knowledge, there are only 300 English copies outside of Sweden. I’m sure everyone loves having Blackhawks on back-to-back covers, but if you’re looking for a change, I will be including a picture of said cover in my next post, which you can print off and use to replace your current cover. Peace.