Platforms: PS3 | X360
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Ice hockey is not a big sport in this country. In fact, I think it probably ranks behind underwater basket weaving and bowls. However, that doesn't mean that we can't enjoy exploring these outlandish sports from the comfort and safety of our armchairs from time to time. Back in the day I was an enormous fan of NHL 94, I had no real idea what offsides were, why the game kept stopping for faceoffs, what role the referee even played (most of these questions are still unanswered), but I absolutely adored the speed of the game...and, of course, the fights. It was a sport I'd revisit over the years, especially when EA Big released the hilarious NHL Hitz that upped the ridiculous arcade, pantomime nature of the whole sport into an arcade, pantomime game.
But sports games tend to suffer from cosmetic treatment, their yearly sprucings making for few real changes along the way, but EA's NHL series has been treading new ground for the past few years, revamping the way hockey games should be played by overhauling the control system, sticking in a full real-time physics engine and removing chance from the entire equation. At no point when you're out there on the ice do you feel like control is ever being taken away from you unless it's of your own doing.
The pioneering control system, recently nicked for NBA Elite 11 too, sees everything take place on the twin sticks. It's best to think of the controller set up as essentially equating to driving with the left stick, and interacting with right. By that I mean that in offence, you'll use the right stick to control your hockey stick: to deke, to shoot, to wind up and fake. In defence, however, you'll use the right stick to body slam people, which is incredibly satisfying.
This, though, is where the new physics engine comes into place. In times of yore, such interactions would have been determined by pre-rendered encounters featuring elements of chance and random dice-roles stacked upon attribute scores. There's none of that now. If you're controlling a 6'5" bear, he'll flatten a 5'8" mouse in front of him. Similarly, you need to get your body checks spot on - mistime them, fail to generate enough speed or mishit with your aim a little off and your player will fail to check properly. The number of times I failed to generate enough momentum and just wound up awkwardly shoving opponents after a reverse hug suggested that y player was playfully flirting rather than aggressively taking someone down. Conversely, if you time your check to perfection , they'll clatter into the barriers or tumble loudly over onto the ice.
The new physics engine affects the puck too. It'll ping and zip off of the goalframe, it'll squirt out of faceoffs if not controlled properly. It makes scrappy moments genuinely exciting and tense as both teams attempt to wrestle control of the puck and it's good toknow that if you come out of situations victorious it's because you've done it all, there's been no random dice roll helping you out. One of the much clamoured-for additions is that of broken sticks - they'll snap if you don't treat them well and you'll either be forced to grab another one from the bench or a teammate or, alternatively, go roaming around the ice - stickless - kicking the puck with your feet and looking for whoever broke your stick so you can administer some serious payback...behind the ref's back, naturally.
These gameplay changes actually serve to make the game both more accessible and trickier to master. With everything mainly distilled down to the two sticks, although you have variable passing on the right trigger that's dependent on how long you hold the button down for (thanks for nothing there, Tutorial!), getting into the game is far easier, there are no fiddly combos to learn and the relaxed pace of this instalment means that it's not too overwhelming. That said, the lack of speed in comparison to previous versions might be a bugbear for some hardcore fans, but it does serve to place an added emphasis on strategy and, there are plenty of gameplay additions to please the faithful.
Most of these gameplay additions are to be found in the Ultimate team mode, something which will be incredibly familiar to any FIFA fans out there. Incorporating trading cards mechanics into the process of building up an Ultimate team is a fantastic idea and a welcome addition. The sheer depth of the mode is staggering, with cards to customise pretty much every aspect of your team from stats boosters to sock colours and there's plenty here to keep fans entertained through the winter. Unfortunately the interface is awful and fiddly, you need to take the game online to progress, meaning nabbing that Online Pass if you're purchasing second-hand.
There are the usual slew of other game modes in there too: the GM mode is your basic career-style mode, Be A Pro returns and is nowhere near as boring as playing through the FIFA 10 mode largely due to the fact that there are far few players on the ice meaning you're in the thick of the action most of the time. You'll start out as a young amateur, hoping to impress in the playoffs to determine your draft place for when the pre-season rolls around. It's a shame that these modes remain relatively untouched from last year's game, but the sheer amount of content and wealth of gaming options on offer here is mindblowing.
EA Canada have pulled out all of the stops, it would seem, to craft a game that's made for hockey aficionados but playable by anyone. The presentation is exceptional - the sheer amount of polish that's gone into this game is utterly astounding, even with the new real-time physics engine - and the gameplay sparkles to match. For hockey fans, it's an absolute must-buy, that's for sure, but other parties would to well to check it out to, if only to see what a sports game with the shackles taken off can really do.
- New physics engine is fantastic
- Massive amount of content to keep you entertained
- Ultimate Team is a brilliant new mode...
- ...but it might be too much for newbies
- Fighting system is unreliable and fiddly
- Commentary could be better
The Short Version: NHL 11 isn't just a great hockey game, it's a shining example of how sports games should be done, with some fantastic gameplay additions that make for a much more satisfying, realistic and engaging experience. It'll please fans from those with a casual interest to hardcore hockey hosers and everyone in between. Bravo, EA Canada. bravo indeed.