Pucker up people the Hockey Kings are back.
So am I...
So, I was sent NHL 11 to review and I expected a typical EA build-upon but do nothing new kind of game, you know the way they tend to approach say: FIFA. But no, this time they seem to have actually made some kind of effort to push the boundary of the standard yawn-a-thon National Hockey League with their 2011 offering.
For a start there's Ultimate Hockey League, now before you get all hot and sweaty thinking about those buff men throwing down in some kind of Hexagon ring with their sticks - ladies and gents, this isn't that kind of game, sorry. What you do get with UHL is a random deck of player cards with which to build the ULTIMATE hockey team, sorry, had to get the caps in there for that ULTIMATE kind of vibe. Seriously though, you make what you can of those random cards and you can buy new ones, or earn them through play.
You play online leagues with this uber-team and that's basically it, there's a nice system that lets you maximise performance and tool things up a bit. I can see this mode appealing to a lot of hardcore stat obsessed gamers, but putting off the casual player since it is pretty complex, perhaps just a little too complex for Joe Hockey Average gamer.
Then you have things like Jersey creation, drafting real life prospects and so on. In fact a lot of the features that were there last year are here again with some minor tweaks and additions. There's AI adjustments to the main game and the be a General Manager style mode, with the inclusion of CHL for instance. You probably won't care though if you just want to dive in, so all the other modes are just like they were last year to reiterate for those who might just have skipped down to the CHL part.
NHL is pretty robust as a gaming franchise for the last few years, much better than FIFA and so on. So EA have not messed with this kind of mix, you can still skate, shoot and pass with a near-seamless control. With a few little things to shake the game up a little, or to wake you up if you got bored of the last one.
Your sticks can now break, you heard me: those lovely sticks can bust right up. Sure you might think that's all smoke and mirrors to the actual game but you try playing without one, getting caught with your defence pants down as the game progresses and you need to try and stop someone from scoring with just a broken stump. You need to get a new one from the bench but how can you, you're defending!
As a minor note, this breakage happens way too often and it can get bloody frustrating, a little less breaking would be a perfect tweak. Perhaps they can fix that in a patch or something.
Goal reviews are in too, but they suck frankly...they're not very accurate. The Board play still feels random and that isn't something I expected, they should have tweaked it somewhat, especially when they claim to have done some work on it too. Faceoffs are now pretty good, they're more tactical and have a lot more strategy to them, especially in terms of playing tricks with your opponent's noggin.
There are new control options as well, so gone are your old tactics from NHL 2010. You can deke to avoid checks, quite quickly too. You can also avoid prone players on the ice with some timing and it's nice to see a defence against the 'poke check' which was one of the most abused tactics we ever saw in the game last year. There's a caveat however, you need to push the right stick whilst holding the left shoulder button, not the best way to trigger these moves since you can end up with your fingers in a right tangle. You can also click in the left stick for a bit of a boost, this eats stamina and you need it, so be warned.
The physics system is now upgraded too, there's real time physics which means that no two goals, checks or anything that involves physics are going to be the same and that makes the game a serious joy to watch and play. Gone is the almost scripted checking that has been the bane of this damn series, it's more random, and you get some funny moments from time to time, funny and annoying when things don't go your way.
The AI is a mixed bag along with the game's actual difficulty levels, at the All Star difficulty it's like you're playing against a bunch of god damn Terminators and they've been sent from the future to the past to screw with your goal average. Put it on Pro and you feel like you're a Hockey Ninja with serious skills and nothing can stop you. There's no real middle ground and the CPU has all the advantage when you're on All Star, so again, you feel robbed of any skill that you might have since you result to cheap shots to score.
You can tweak with the various options and sliders to change things up and if you're like us and many of our peers, you'll spend a lot of time doing that just to get the best kind of difficulty that straddles the line between fun and frustration. That said this is the one game that has actually gotten better than last year. The AI is better regardless, the visuals are good and despite the lack of variety in the player's faces and so on, it's still pretty decent. They're not going to blow you away though.
I really liked the new physicality in the real time physics and that for me added more than a bucket of eyecandy ever could. The Play-By-Play commentary gets things wrong from time to time (a lot actually) and the sound is decent, the chanting is amusing
The soundtrack is pretty ok; with more songs it could have been better.
This game is going to appeal to a select bunch of gamers mostly, gone is a lot of the crud that marked the last few releases and it now feels like a more complete package - one of the better ones at that.
If you love NHL and you want a good solid game, get this one.