For a stretch of years, 2K Sports was king of the ice, and EA played second fiddle. Their hockey games were crisper and more realistic than EA’s arcade-type efforts. Last year’s game changed all of that, as NHL 2010 was a crisp, well-crafted, and enjoyable experience. The shift was so sudden, in fact, that 2K Sports is not even releasing an Xbox 360 or PS3 version this year (2K did turn out a cartoony, yet enjoyable experience on the Wii). Thus, in NHL 11, EA owns the only hockey offering this year. While they could have become complacent because of it, they have instead created a hockey experience that takes last year’s formula and adds new layers to it, making this the best hockey game to date.
For NHL 11, EA has implemented a brand new physics engine that introduces the concept of open animations to virtual hockey. Gone are the days of every check looking the same, every bump resulting in the same wipeout, and every player movement appearing scripted. Players now react to each other in realistic ways, as do the puck and even the sticks. Yes, the sticks – this year, EA has implemented something I’ve always wanted to do in a hockey game – break someone’s stick. Your stick might shatter from a brutal check, or you might drop it altogether and need to retrieve a new one from the bench. Sure, it’s mostly cosmetic, but extremely entertaining nonetheless.
Players also react based on the presence of other players, something I’ve never seen done correctly in a game until now. If you run a 175-pound winger into their 250-pound defensemen, he will be on the ground. But, if you hit him low and from behind, the big guy’s legs will buckle, just as they would in real life. It’s an impressive system, and it serves to draw you into the experience.
By far the biggest addition this year is the Ultimate Hockey Team mode that we’ve seen, in various forms, in other EA Sports titles. I do feel the need to say up front that this mode is not for the casual gamer. It is deep and huge, and it takes a significant amount of time and effort to reap the rewards. That said, for the hardcore fan willing to take the plunge, it is simply awesome. The mode revolves around a trading card system in which you start with an array of players of varied talent. The more you play (and win) with your ultimate team, the more “EA pucks” you will win, allowing you to buy new packs of cards. Your players have attitudes, chemistry factors, and even contracts. If one of your player’s contracts expires, you’ll have to decide whether to extend an offer to him or cut him loose. If you’re lucky, you might get a booster card that will allow you to “train” your players, boosting chosen attributes. The most rewarding aspect of Ultimate Team is the ability to take your team online and try your luck against the best the world has to offer. It’s simply a blast.
NHL 11 looks fantastic. This is one of the best-looking sports game to date, and certainly the best-looking hockey game to date. As I said, the animations are fresh and varied, player models are smooth and detailed, and the intermittent cut-scenes make the hockey experience come to life. Offline, I never once experienced a drop in the frame-rate, and only a few times did I experience a dip in online play. Everything from hits to puck handling looks great, and for you fight fans, the camera will even switch into a first-person view to let you swing away.
Thankfully, the game sounds as good as it looks. Play-by-play is done extremely well, with the commentary keeping up with the action beautifully. There is an impressively low amount of repeated material as well, which can ruin a gameplay experience. Sounds effects are brilliant; for the first time, I can honestly say that were I to hear this game without looking, I might mistake it for a real hockey game. Ice being carved up, sticks crashing together, boards shaking, and people cheering—it all sounds incredible.
Even without competition to drive them forward, EA has created an immersive and enjoyable hockey experience that any fan of the game will appreciate. The Ultimate Hockey Team mode is worth the price of admission in and of itself, so the added gameplay mechanics, physics improvements, and smooth animations are icing on the cake. This game is easy to recommend for hockey fans, and sports fans in general.