Growing up in Canada, autumn was always my absolute favourite time of year. The crisp fresh air and leaves changing colors were nice distractions from the tedious task of igloo construction, but the real draw of fall was that it meant hockey season was just around the corner. Soon, skates would be sharpened, sticks taped and rinks frozen, so that young and old alike could partake in our national pastime. However in recent years autumn has taken on a whole new meaning, as it also heralds the arrival of EA Sports’ annual contribution to the best sport on virtual ice.
Gamers familiar with the formula established in previous NHL titles will feel right at home with NHL 11. Most of what the latest edition offers in terms of new content consists of either new modes or gameplay tweaks. They don’t change the experience dramatically, but do add a serious layer of depth that sometimes makes NHL 11 feel more like a simulation then a fast paced, no holds barred hockey contest. This is made perfectly clear with some of the new additions, like broken sticks (because that’s every hockey fans favourite part of the game) and video reviews of iffy goals where the game will either call no goal or award you (or more often the computer) with the score. These are both welcomed, albeit slightly unbalanced additions; they always seem to favour the computer in their rulings, making you feel ‘cheated’ more often than not.
The designers also made some changes to the game's pacing, ramping up the default game speed to slightly unrealistic levels, which might irk some of the more ‘realism’ driven fans, but in fact this makes the games feel more action packed and fast paced then they would under NHL 10’s speed settings. Also, passing has been slightly touched upon, now requiring the player to hold the pass button a fraction of a second longer to make an accurate pass. This is a big deal to many gamers out there who are complaining that their passes are no longer making it to their intended target, however the change was made to add a bit of ‘hockey sense’ to the experience so that gamers have to start thinking a few moves ahead just like the real hockey players.
The controls also remain unchanged from the previous instalments; you move your player with the left control stick, while the right stick is used to both shoot and aim your passes as well as to deliver hits when you don’t have the puck. Passing is handled with the right shoulder buttons and the ‘Y’/▲ button is used for pressing your opponent against the boards. The game does feature some new deeks and advanced stick handling, all controlled via a combination of rocking the right stick sideways and various button presses. Just as in NHL 10 you can fully customize your control and gameplay settings, allowing you to play the game the way you want to.
In terms of gameplay modes, franchise staples such as ‘Be A GM’ mode and ‘Be A Pro’ (franchise and solo careers respectively) make their expected returns; however, they remain largely unchanged from NHL 10. Instead, the developers decided to focus their efforts on the new EAUHL (or EA Sports Ultimate Hockey League) mode, which allows gamers to get serious about their hockey experience. As you collect trading cards you can build your perfect team right down to the minutest of details. However it can quickly become overwhelming for some gamers, as the EAUHL expects you to already have very deep knowledge of hockey and the players involved, not just from the NHL but juniors and international leagues as well. In other words, the game expects you to be Canadian.
Naturally the game features a plethora of multiplayer modes, ranging from the humble 2 player shootout to an epic online EAUHL competition. In this year’s edition the online navigation has been smoothed out somewhat with fewer dropped matches and a quicker, stronger feeling connection. This translates well in-game as well, as the more matches I played the less lag I noticed. Of course, teaming up with real life friends for some ‘on the couch’ multiplayer action is just as fun and frantic as ever, and with more available teams to choose from than ever you can bet that NHL 11 will be a popular choice for multiplayer matches.
NHL 10 suffered in the presentation department by being a near carbon-copy of NHL 09. Well, number 11 fully atones for this with stellar, brighter visuals that actually add to the realism of the experience, with dynamic camera angles during the cutscenes that show the impeccable level of detail that went into something as important as the players, to something as mundane as the ice conditions. You will actually feel as if you are in the building right along with the 20,000 other fans. Speaking of the fans, the game atmosphere - especially during the playoffs - reaches a fever pitch, with people waving towels, more intense goal celebrations and louder music. I actually had to turn down my TV volume at one point during a playoff game because the sound had just become too intense.
One of the biggest changes to the classic NHL formula that EA Canada have implemented is the swapping of the old animation-based hits for physics-based collisions. This makes every single hit feel unique and much more painful than before. Now this might sound like some clichéd, exaggerated PR crap, but trust me, it truly does make the experience feel closer to the real thing, not to mention that you can now see where a player might have been injured on a hit instead of just taking the game's word for it. The changes don’t stop there, however, as player faces animate more realistically (I swear I just saw Crosby cuss) and goal celebrations can now be controlled for some really over-the-top cheers.
The music is once again rock and metal oriented, however the selection seems a bit poorer this time around than in NHL 10, with many songs just not being ‘intense’ enough for the action. Furthermore, many of the tracks sound muffled and are drowned out by sound effects and menu navigations. During matches the tracks are near muted and it seems like the same ones repeat over and over (there's only so many times I can hear Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ without losing a bit of my sanity). Reprising their roles as play-by-play announcers are Gary Thorn and Bill Clement, who address an issue of mine from last year's game by having diverse lines that rarely repeat, and in-game trivia that is actually interesting, clever and sometimes even funny.
I have always criticised game series that pump out sequels on an annual basis for lacking in value. I mean, the day you buy it you basically have a year to enjoy it before it completely depreciates in value and gets cast aside for the new and improved version. While NHL 11 will eventually succumb to this same fate, it does feature enough modes and replayability (especially in the very deep EAUHL) that for the one year that this game is relevant you will find it hard to put down. Add to this the frequent updates and tournaments that you can find online and you will find yourself playing long after the Stanley Cup has been awarded.
Last year in my review of NHL 10 (feeling nostalgic, read it here), I mentioned that if NHL 11 doesn’t raise the bar you should look elsewhere to satisfy your cravings for virtual hockey. Well, it’s been a year now and I can safely say that NHL 11 does in fact deliver the goods. It’s a much deeper, prettier, louder, harder and more enjoyable game than its predecessor and is without a doubt the best hockey video game currently available across all systems. EA Sports has crafted a game that everybody (not just puck obsessed Canadians) can enjoy, so you should definitely tape that stick and lace up those skates.