The NHL season opens again and of course this also means another round of new hockey games on console, PC and mobile devices. No pun intended but this year 2K's chief competitor Electronic Arts has the lion's share of the console arena to itself. 2K is taking a break and other than NHL 2K11 for Wii, NHL 11 is the only game in town for 360 and PS3. But wait, what about the iPhone? Here NHL 2K11 stands alone without its rival. I'd like to think maybe there was a gentleman's agreement somewhere. After all, eBay pulled out of Japan to let Yahoo's auction site take over while Yahoo pulled out of nearly everywhere else as a nod to eBay. But I'm sure the truth lies somewhere in between dollars and cents and resources.
Back to NHL 2K11, does it have what it takes to restore 2K to sporting prominence? Not really. In fact, NHL 2K11 for iPhone is rather a basic game. All of the advances in the past few years with direct stick control are nowhere to be found. No, this isn't so simplistic it's like Nintendo's Ice Hockey for NES but given what's on the market the last few years it is disappointing the control scheme can be boiled down to a directional pad and three buttons. On offense, you have shoot, change players and turbo. On defense, you have one button that vaguely does poke check and body checks, and again change players and turbo. I thought the defensive controls were lacking. When you're on the boards trying to get possession of the puck, you sometimes have momentary control of it and because the defense action button is the same as the offensive button to shoot, sometimes you needlessly give the puck away. Passing is also a little bit suspect. When passing from the wing towards the center, the player might accidentally pass to the opposite wing as there's no way to pinpoint who you want to pass it to.
Minor annoyances aside, NHL 2K11 does play fairly well. Your fellow players will wait for you before crossing the line to avoid offside. They'll turn on the speed to save you from icing calls and know when to get in front of the net to create some traffic. If a defenseman moves up and is stuck coming back to defend a breakaway, your forwards will make the attempt to cover for the missing defenseman. So all in all, the game does know about hockey.
What it does not know, though, is the new NHL roster. When did games start being tagged 2K11 or 2011 and ship with the 2010 roster? Georges Laraque is still available for selection, even though he's retired. There is a season mode where you can trade to assemble your team and the game comes with some limited franchise logic, although this shouldn't be mistaken for a pro sports management simulation. I'm under the impression an update will be forthcoming but I didn't find an update function in the game and so I surmise an App Store update will cover it but what about people's ongoing season save games?
NHL 2K11 looks impressive as long as it does not zoom in during replays. The zoomed in view is so bad it looks like cardboard cutouts moving around on the ice. From the gameplay view, though, the game works very well. Animation is smooth and the game is able to convey the sense of pace from hockey. From an audio standpoint, I liked NHL 2K11. The crowd will cheer the home team when you go on the offense. You'll hear some heckling, shouts and the occasional chant. The only inconsistency is the enthusiasm of the crowd even when the home team is hopelessly behind in the match. Crowd graphics are of course all sprites. There is no play by play which I think for some gamers out there is a blessing. The only caveat emptor is the game will not work on first generation iPod Touch and other older generations of the iPhone. But during my play, I never encountered any performance problems.
I did encounter, however, some problems with the realism of the gameplay. At times I feel like some random number generator stopped working or some kind of modifier kicked in to start tilting the game towards or against my side. For example, I had a string of 5 or 6 broken uncontested passes. It's as if my whole team suddenly stopped knowing how to make a pass. Another thing that can be done from time to time is bait a goalie to make an errant pass instead of covering it up. At certain junctures but not all the time, you can stand just outside the ring of "concern" by the computer controlled goalie and like clockwork, the goalie will keep passing it to the same defenseman. You can, in these instances, do it for a good part of the period before it breaks down. These types of incidents drag down the quality of the game.
NHL 2K11 might be the only big publisher in town for iPhone but it has a lot of rough edges. Those looking for deeper console like gameplay will likely be turned off. There is a Lite version available at the App Store for people to try. The only problem is a commercial for Geico which is built into the game. Geico is also a sponsor in the paid version of the game but luckily you don't have to watch a commercial of a gecko, caveman or paper clip full of money before the game launches every time.