Prepare to hate again.
NHL 11 is my first NHL game in about two years and I have to say that it's very refreshing. The game entertains thoroughly, but to get the best out of it you have to start out the right way.
When I first began playing the game I started with the typical season mode. It wasn't anything particularly special, other than looking gorgeous and playing the same way. Before we get into the different modes, let's talk about controls a bit. I always like to inform people on how good or bad it can get before I tell them what their options are on the good and bad modes.
I found it wonderful that EA Sports continued its tradition of putting more focus on the analog sticks of the PS3 then on button mashing. They did this with Madden, NCAA and FIFA, so why not NHL 11. Out of all the games that could use these two ancient (in video game terms) ways to control a sports figure, I think that FIFA and NHL 11 probably benefited the most from the control scheme. Using your left analog stick you control the movements of your hockey player with ease. It's a natural feel to the movement on ice that it translates well from your eyes to the screen. I found myself prior to cut scenes continually skating figure 8s in the ice. Childish? Maybe. Could I do it with ease? You bet your ass. With that easiness behind us, the left analog stick is the tougher of the two sticks when it comes to its secondary purpose. Aside from skater movement, the left analog stick also act as your aiming device. As you will find out in the very short, but informative, control training session, you will be able to aim upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right of the goal with the left analog stick. What's tricky about aiming is that you're moving with the left analog stick and you have to simultaneously pick the spot where you want the puck as you're using the right analog stick to fire off the puck. It's tough to do if you're not use to it, but once you get use to it (after a few games) then it becomes a bit more natural and strategic.
Shooting the puck is completely controlled by your right stick. When you're bringing your player up the ice when you're threatening to score you simply pull down on the right analog stick to set your player up for a slapshot and you pull up on it quickly to get a powerful swing going. Of course, you don't have to pull down on the stick to get a powerful shot off; you can also just press up quickly to perform a wrist shot. Regardless, excellent use of the analog stick and something that feels extremely natural when you're using it.
On the defensive side of things for NHL 11 you won't have a problem getting use to things. I won't go into detail (as the instructions will do that for you), but defense is equally as fun. Let's just say you've got a boatload of options to choose from when you're looking to make your opponent's life hell and a half. I don't recommend getting into fights (I was like 1-10 in them), but I do recommend slamming your opponent the boards on every possible occasion. It's easy and fun, plus it's legal.
I know all of the information above was possibly overly detailed, but quite frankly I'm happy that EA Sports has decided to use the analog sticks more like they should be used. They focused hard on implementing these two devices into every sports game they've released this year and I have to give them props for the bold move. One thing that upset Madden NFL 11 folk about this move is that it evened the playing field of the game for a broader audience. So that kid down the street that has been bragging for years that he can beat you badly in this hockey series now has to eat his words. A bigger audience is always good for any video game title and the move to make the controls simple and natural just widened EA's audience ten fold.
Anyway, let me get off my high horse here. Let's shift gears and talk modes.
The newest mode that NHL 11 features is the Ultimate Team mode. This mode allows players to put together their 'ultimate' hockey team and go head-to-head in monthly tournaments against other players and CPU teams. You earn EA Pucks in the process of playing (the better you do, the more you earn) and you get use those to purchase hockey cards that upgrade your team. It's like a very organized point system that you can spend to make your team that much better. It's ideal for the hardcore hockey enthusiast and it adds depth and value to the game; not that the game needs more value. It's kind of like a Magic the Gathering version of hockey, except without the smell of people who haven't showered in some time and the addition of girlfriends.
Having the ability to collect cards from the CHL (and other leagues) you have the ability to truly manage your teams and make them the way you want them. It's just simply amazing how deep this portion of the game is and it's a great addition to a 20th anniversary edition to the franchise.
Other modes to look out for in NHL 11 some you have seen before, some you haven't tried but should, include Battle for the Cup Now Mode, Playoff Mode, Season Mode, GM Mode (blah! Enjoy this euros) and Be a Pro Mode. The Be a Pro Mode was of particular interest to me, and one mode you shouldn't pass up on at all. In the mode you basically create your own player and you start out in the CHL. I was on the Spitfires (badass team name) and was thrown into the fringe of the playoffs in the CHL. Once there, you interact with the team's GM, coach and your agent (bloodsuckers). They tell you what you need to do in the next 5-6 games to prepare yourself to be drafted by an NHL team. You are given certain goals and you have to meet them in order to get drafted and live the dream of being a top tier professional. What I particularly liked about this mode is that it gave me a chance to not only get use to the controls and reacquaint myself with positioning on the ice, but it also gave me plenty of motivation to keep going. If you give me a storyline and give me goals then you can expect great interest to bloom from me. Be a Pro Mode gave me all of that and more. At this very second I'm contemplating leaving this review and continuing to play that mode....
(30 minutes later)
Okay, okay I'll finish this up.
The presentation has gotten better with this year's version. The players are far more detailed then they were two years ago and even more when compared to last year's game. I'm not sure if EA Sports is just getting the most out of the technology or what, but the expressions, the textures and especially the arenas look unbelievably good. Hell, even the sound effects (the goal horn scared the kitty litter out of my cat) is authentic and loud. One praise in particular needs to be given to the commentary, which is smooth as butter. Another praise, and something that is small, but worth mentioning, is the stick breaking. I broke more than a fair share of sticks in the game and seeing a stick just slide across the ice and the player instantly make their way over to the bench to pick one up is nothing short of brilliant. I know what you're thinking, "Stick breaking? Really?" Yeah, really. It's cool and you'll secretly give a shy smile when you see it happen. Details always make things better, people! Appreciate them, even the tiny ones.
So are there any bad points to the game? Well, once in a blue moon I will get my passing controls mixed up with my shooting controls and I end up shooting the puck instead of passing. No big deal, right? Well, you're penalized in the Be a Pro Mode for not being a team player. If you see someone open on a breakaway then you should pass it; if you don't then you lose some points on the grading system. All of this gets rectified with time and the more time I'm going to put into this game will be huge (even after this review; hell, after the holiday season).
In short, this game has everything you want and little that you don't. It's worth the $60 this year and it's something you can be proud to say you spent your hard earned money on. Much like Madden NFL 11, there are plenty of improvements and much more to do then just the typical sporting season. Online or offline, you will be impressed with what EA Sports cooked up for you in NHL 11.
Pucking great time.
I fully understand why 2K cannot touch EA Sports' NHL franchise. Simply put, EA Sports has perfected how they do things when it comes to hockey. They only added a few major things, made a bunch of adjustments here and there. What they have produced with NHL 11 is probably the best hockey game to date. Granted, it didn't really need a lot of overhaul, as it was damn good last year, but it did need something extra to keep you purchasing another edition; even after 20 years. Ultimate Team provides that one big spark and takes a 20-year old franchise and makes it even better. Is there more work to do with NHL? Sure there is, but for now I can't think of anything else they could do to make the experience more fun, and more real, than it already is currently.