Electronic Arts returns to the skating rink with an impressive list of changes in NHL 11. The last two installments have been plagued with mechanical issues, inaccurate controls, and broken animation. The major overhaul this season resides in the gameplay department and the improvement is evident in the controls and checking systems. It feels as though EA has made this version a bit more simulation than arcade. The correction in physics has brought the action more closer to life. As a result, hitting your opponent into the board has never been so satisfying. Depending on the angle of your body check, some players get hurt, and others get thrown over the wall. We did not feel this effect last year as the checks were poorly designed and the collision detection was mostly out of place.
Each NHL version builds up a control scheme in which it tries to condition gamers to accept the right stick as being the tradition for all-in-one function – whether it’s related to offense or defense. This has been a mixed emotion for old-timers and next generation. If you are coming from 2K Sports’ arena, you might feel at lost with the right-stick. We had difficulty ourselves using the default control but after hours of tinkering, we’ve found our groove. It’s very easy to dismiss NHL 11’s controls as complicated, but you need to remember the gameplay has become a simulation – to a certain extent. If you want precision in your movements, learn to be patient. The controls are much forgiving this time around and it’s just a matter of finding the rhythm. In our case, once we found our niche, we were firing some amazing slapshots.
Of course, not every aspect of NHL 11’s gameplay is polished. Passing still needs considerable amount of tweaking as manual aiming is a struggle. Therefore, you can expect one-timers to be a pain in the neck. Fortunately, there is computer-assistance and adjustment of sliders that help connect your passing well with another member of your team. Shooting the puck from close range is about 70% success rate, which is significantly higher than last year’s average. But that’s not the good part. The good part is when you plant your fancy footwork across the ice and smother the goalie with a blind-sided wrist shot. The right stick is so responsive that you can improvise just about any freestyle tricks. All the opposing goalie can do is watch in admiration as you racket the puck with poise into his net.
NHL 11 offers a number of great features, which include Battle for the Cup, Be a GM, and Hockey Ultimate Team. On top of that, you have new leagues available (OHL, WHL, QMJHL) as well as newly added animation such as jumping over a defender, ability to kick the puck to another player, hockey sticks breaking into pieces, etc. Sorting through NHL 11’s offerings, what caught our attention the most is the new HUT (Hockey Ultimate Team). This feature provides a lot of entertainment because of the aspiration of having to design your own dream team. It is fun for the most part but somewhat lacking when compared to “Be a GM” mode. For instance, you don’t have the ability to edit a player’s equipment, change his jersey number, or set him as captain. Moreover, you have to constantly set the line strategies because the game does not save them for the next match. That’s a very annoying task!
Graphically, NHL 11 looks very impressive! Character models move incredibly realistic as you’ll notice during a celebration after scoring a goal, where players give each other high-fives and congratulatory hugs. The crowd looks somewhat plain upon closer inspection though; fortunately, the sharp details of each arena does a good job of coating the glitches behind the fiberglass walls. The sound component of NHL 11 is great throughout; it pretty much nails what you would hear in a real hockey game – from goal horns buzzing to the snapping of sticks. The commentaries by Gary Thorne and Bill Clement is excellent and they deliver their reaction nicely from the booth. However, the most of the commentaries are repetitious and need a bit of excitement. For instance, hearing Gary Thorne say “And he scores!” over and over again can get tiring, especially if he doesn’t put extra enthusiasm on the “wow” moments.
Despite a few loose ends, NHL 11 delivers what hockey should be: fun, realistic, and aspiring. In the last four iteration of NHL, this is by far EA’s finest. The default controls will feel awkward at first but learning to be patient can reap excellent benefits. The gameplay is good, giving players freedom to unleash some fancy footwork as they make their way to the goal. The best part of NHL 11 is the physics, a major improvement over last year’s terrible collision system. As usual, the presentation is great and so does the audio mechanics. NHL 11 seems less clutter this year despite having more features such as the addition of new leagues and the HUT. Make no mistake this is simulation hockey; so don’t expect brisk walk to the Stanley Cup. It looks like EA has won back a lot of fans to their franchise. NHL 11 is an experience you can’t pass up and a must-have for those looking into exciting cooperative play!