Review – NHL 11

NHL 10 was a huge step up from NHL 09 and NHL 08, and along those same lines, the NHL series continues to thrive with the latest game in the series, NHL 11, which was released last week.

NHL 11 introduces a huge list of innovations to the series, more so than basically any year in the past, and they all make a great difference in how the game plays and create an incredible gaming environment. NHL 11 isn’t just good, it’s a great game, one of the best sports games of the decade.

NHL 11 introduces players to the CHL, the league for players aged 16-20 in Canada and in the U.S. that features 60 teams spread through 3 leagues. The teams play a 66 game schedule and the winners of the three leagues compete for the Memorial Cup (along with a host team) in the spring. The addition of the CHL is huge because it offers a premier development league in which over 50% of current players in the NHL participated at one point or another.

The CHL is implemented into Be A Pro mode as well as Be A GM mode. Its inclusion allows for drafting of players from the league in Be A GM, which is excellent. It adds a huge layer of the NHL draft process to the game.

It could have been implemented  better into Be A Pro mode, though. Players can only compete in a handful of games in the CHL’s Memorial Cup tournament before being drafted into the NHL. It would have been nice to be able to play a full season to build up skill points and truly earn a number 1 draft position.

Another improvement to NHL 11 is the addition of an all-new physics engine. The players in NHL 11 are no longer restricted to a host of canned animations when hit. Instead, they flop realistically to the ice, dodge hits, and crumple injured after a big hit. Every hit in NHL 11 is unique, based upon physics rather than a select choice of animations, and it not only affects the way the game looks, but also the way the game is played.

The addition of a physics engine means that players can no longer simply smash opposing teams into oblivion. Rather, they can lay a big hit, but only with practice, precision, or luck. It makes for a more open game experience, which is good.

The physics engine also allows, for the first time, the ability to break and lose sticks on the ice. This adds a huge aspect of the real game into NHL 11.

When a stick breaks in the middle of a game in real life, a player is faced with a conundrum. Does he skate around without his stick, pinning guys to the boards, stepping in front of shots, and generally trying to continue playing his position until he get to the bench? Or does he run straight for the bench to get a new stick?

The same tactics apply to NHL 11. A man without a stick is practically deadweight on the ice. It leaves your team temporarily down a man, so each stick breaking is liable to cause a small sweat to break out as you race to get back into the game. Furthermore, broken and loose sticks on the ice can kick pucks out at awkward angles, and can trip up players.

A third huge innovation is the addition of more realistic faceoffs. In previous NHL games, faceoffs consisted of simply pulling back on your stick, hoping to beat the other guy to the falling puck. In NHL 11 the team has added a much more realistic way of fighting for the faceoff win. Players can now pull the puck back towards their defenders, push it forward to their wingers, tie up the opposing center while their teammate swoops in for the loose puck, and they can even shoot the puck directly off the faceoff. Each faceoff is a different experience, a game of judging what your opponent will do and what will work against them.

In addition to gameplay changes, NHL 11 has added the new EAUHL, a version of the popular Ultimate Team mode that’s been carried over from FIFA and Madden. EAUHL allows players to collect cards representing players, essentially creating a hodge-podge team of players from the NHL, CHL, AHL, and European leagues. Players work these teams around to make their lines compatible, improve their players stats with points gained through games, and compete against other Ultimate Teams online.

The mode is addictive, as you constantly want to improve your players, find line chemistry, and gain new card packs with better players.

Beyond that, NHL 11 continues to provide other excellent game modes. Be A GM is the most comprehensive GM/Franchise mode of any sports title, Be A Pro is mostly excellent, with fantastic visuals, and a much-improved pre-season that allows your rookie to actually make the NHL team rather than spend years in the AHL. This is done through paying more attention to statistics and game ratings rather than overall skill level.

There is also the amazing EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL), which allows friends to create a team together and play against other teams in three different leagues (amateur, pro, elite), with the standings resetting each month after a season (and playoffs).

There isn’t much to dislike in NHL 11. There’s a plethora of options for gameplay, the gameplay itself is highly tuned, and the graphics are almost uniformly smooth and great-looking. There are small framerate issues in opening scenes (such as when players take to the ice), and in Be A Pro there seem to be some slowdowns, but otherwise there don’t seem to be graphical holdups.

Goalies are much improved. Through my extensive play I have yet to find any major glitches or exploits in which there’s an easy avenue to a goal.

Overall, NHL 11 is an experience I can’t recommend highly enough. It is fun, it is realistic, it offers a huge variety of game modes and leagues, and provides much more value than its $60 price tag. It’s a game that will be spinning in my console throughout the year. I highly recommend it for all sports fans and for non-sports fans as well.