The Drop of the Puck
The NHL franchise from EA Sports has never been surpassed as the best game for hockey fans. That’s not to say each version has been a momentous success. We have seen some very weak NHL games over the years, but even in the lean years the franchise has never been beaten by its competition. This year won’t be any different. For the 2010 – 2011 season, EA focused on gameplay changes that have triggered some drastic but welcome improvements.
You can’t play a minute of NHL 11 without noticing its first major improvement: the all-new faceoff controls. Just like the pros, you can swim around the opponent to get a jump on the defense or simply shoot the puck off the draw. The result is that winning a faceoff has never felt so good. You will work for each and every victory and strategy becomes increasingly important on the higher difficulties. Unless your player has a faceoff rating of 99 you will need to use cunning and precision. You will also need to constantly evolve your style of play. Using the forehand to sweep the puck back to your left defender time and again will eventually fail you. The AI in NHL 11 is smart and learns from every decision that you make on the ice. This means doing the same thing over and over again – whether it’s in face-offs or when you attack the net – will make the AI’s job much easier. Change your tactics often and study the strategy of your opponent just like you would if you were playing against a human player.
In NHL 10 simply bumping a guy off the puck was essentially a blunder. In NHL 11 separating skater and puck is a lot tougher and much more rewarding due to the newly added real-time physics engine. The ‘checking’ is so realistic that you might find yourself cringing at big hits. Gone are the pre-set animations and directions for checking. Every single hit is different, and momentum and the size of a player have a huge role in taking the opponent down. Every motion on the ice feels more authentic than ever before too, putting you in different situations with every meter you glide across the ice.
In older versions the puck seemed to have 2 phases: the first is when it’s on a player’s stick or being moved from one skater to another, and the other is when the puck is moving freely on the ice like as a player would dump it into the offensive zone. At these two times the puck would react very differently. The puck would often travel very unnaturally around sticks. In NHL 11, the puck moves like it would on real ice with life-like momentum and – even better – no longer just attaches itself to the nearest skater.
That does make things a little harder though. Passes must be precise and given the right amount of power. The longer you hold down the pass button, the harder the attempt will be. Be careful, though, putting too much power on a pass can easily cause it to whip past a teammate and into the hands of your rival. This feature was in NHL 10 but for this season because of the new engine it is a default setting and one that I feel is essential to gameplay. For players that fear this may be too difficult, the game sports an auto-pass feature that can be switched on or off at leisure.
Day at the Rink
With so many improvements to the gameplay, it is odd to see how EA recycled so many of last year’s animations. Nearly every single event – from winning a playoff series to going to an intermission – uses the exact same animations as last year’s iteration. Hardcore fans like myself will sigh when they see that hardly any new animations have been added. An exception is the introduction movie shown before each game which uses a TV style presentation that I am sure you will love.
The most authentic gameplay I have ever seen in a sports-sim.
A few minor issues, overall no major downsides.