Reviewed: September 13, 2010
Released: September 7, 2010
Well the day has finally come. EA has finally scared poor 2K Sports away from the big boy game systems. 2K Sports once ruled the rink with their hockey game. Their gameplay and classic teams were the best 4 years ago. But the mighty sports powerhouse of EA Canada checked 2K into and over the boards. After last years dismal 2K10, the puckheads at 2K decided to go play where the big boys are not and just develop for the Nintendo Wii and Apple iPhone. It's tragic really.|
I loved NHL 2K7. But in the space of just two years, EA had stolen the puck and has yet to let it go. So now EA has the only hockey game for Xbox 360 and PS3. NHL 10 was a great game last year, gaining 22 sports game of the year awards including an Editor's Choice from Game Chronicles. Yet they were not satisfied.
NHL 11 is back with a new real-time physics engine and over 200 other gameplay enhancements to really rub salt in 2K's wounds... and that's not all. The physics engine has been completely revamped and it is amazing to play. NHL 11 has some of the most realistic feeling gameplay ever seen on a console. The players skate, check, and fall down just like their real life counterparts. Add the fine details of broken sticks, face rakes, hip checks, and laying down to block shots, and we have ourselves a lock for sports game of the year.
General gameplay hasn't changed a whole lot but EA's focus seems to have been in the details because there are tons of little things that have been tweaked and improved. Custom camera locations and user celebrations are welcome additions that make NHL 11 even close to the real thing. Play modes have been enhanced and increased in NHL 11. This year we have to choose from Hockey Ultimate Team, Battle for the Cup, EA Sports Hockey League, the fantastic Be a Pro mode, Be a GM mode, Playoffs, season, tournament, create plays, practice, and shootout modes. If that's not enough, you can sit around and customize your player to your hearts content.
Be a Pro mode is once again some of the most fun I've ever had in offline sports games. In this mode you start off in the Canadian Hockey League's Memorial Cup playoffs (Jr leagues), which determines your draft selection. You then try to make an impression on an NHL team in the pre-season in hopes of signing a contract for the regular season. Playing normal skaters is great fun both offline and online. You can also play as the goalie but a great deal of time is spent watching the action. It seems to me that the only people who might like playing as a goalie are people who have actually been a goalie in real life.
Hockey Ultimate Team is a new feature where you create your own team and battle in the EA Sports Ultimate Hockey League online. This mode is similar to other EA games that use the trading card collection concept to make a team. You earn EA pucks and collecting cards to improve your team. Play well during the regular season and you can advance to the championship. This mode is a lot of fun if you have the time, but personally I still prefer the Be a Pro mode for instant action.
Xbox Live has the usual Versus Play (1 on 1), but also includes the awesome Team Play and Shootout modes. The newest addition is EA Sports Hockey League, which plays with trading cards. It can be a lot of fun but I've found players often spending money to buy all Jumbo Packs, which have the best cards. It's a good way for EA to make money I suppose but doesn't seem very sporting since the players didn't earn the cards by playing well.
Another revenue stream for EA is the actual online experience. Yes, if you want to play online, you have to either buy the NHL 11 new (an online pass code is included on the back of the instruction manual), or fork over 800 Microsoft Points. The game comes with a 7-day free trial, but after that you either have a code or pay da man. This is of course taking a direct shot at the used game market but I suppose EA is entitled since the development cost is so high and the life cycle is so short.
NHL 11 once again increases the number of teams available to 10 leagues plus national and prospect teams. Leagues include the NHL (30 teams plus 2 all-star teams), AHL (30 teams), Elitserien (13 teams), SM-Liga (14 teams), Del (15 teams), O2 Extraliga (14 teams), National League (12 teams), OHL (20 teams), QMJHL (18 teams), and the WHL (22 teams). We also get 21 National Teams and 2 prospect teams.
Unfortunately we lost the Montreal Canadians historical team in NHL 11. This remains the one area where EA has yet to make any big strides. Several other sports games in the EA arsenal now have “Team Builder” applications online where players can make their own teams and rosters without any real threat of lawyers busting down the door. EA still has plenty they can do beyond a Team Builder.
EA owns the NCAA college license so I have to wonder why they wouldn't put NCAA teams in the game as well. It wouldn't take a whole lot of resources to make even just the top 20 NCAA teams a reality. It certainly wouldn't warrant their own game (maybe on Xbox Live), but would fit right in with the Canadian Jr's leagues as a source for draft players.
While we are on the subject, isn't it about time the women get some ice time? The USA and Canadian women's hockey teams are followed by a lot of female fans, and adding men's and women's NCAA teams into the mix would even increase the appeal of NHL 12 next year. Inclusion of these teams would certainly increase the fan base and sales for this game.
Fights are an area that could use some improvement. It is fun of course, but very simple. Still; cheers to EA for including some fisticuffs for all the cement-head gamers. Fighting is only available for skaters, not goalies, which is unfortunate. It would be great to see a bench-clearing brawl occasionally but I'm sure the NHL would frown on such things.
The graphics in NHL 11 are once again stunning. Frequently friends have walked into my living room and thought I was watching a real game. When they soon realize there is no EA Sports channel, they immediately want to play. Everything from the stadiums to the fans have been improved. The presentation is not quite so “ESPN”-like, but it is very close. One small side effect of all the detail is occasional framerate issues. There is just too much action in a hockey game to have 12 players, plus the fans and ref all moving at the same time. It's an issue on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 but a very minor issue.
Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return to the broadcast booth once again and do their usual outstanding job. Thorne particularly does a great job of sounding excited about the plays and Clement provides some good commentary. NHL 11 sounds like a real TV broadcast. The only downside I've heard so far is a carry over from last years game. Thorne has a bad habit of saying “be careful, he's gotta move that”... every... single... game. I couldn't stop playing just because one little phrase but it sure does get annoying.
The only down side of the audio is the selection of songs for the menus and stadium. Someone at EA thought putting Europe's “The Final Countdown” in NHL 11 was a good idea. They should be fired immediately. Other bands represented are Airborne, Danko Jones, Dropkick Murphys, Megadeth, Pantera, Ramones, The Black Keys and others. There are only 16 songs so there's not much of a choice. I chose to turn them all off eventually. Thankfully NHL 11 does support custom playlists.
NHL 11 is one of those rare sports games that I know I'll be playing in two months. There is just a ton of value in NHL 11. The number of game modes and teams is never ending entertainment that you just can't find in other sports games. 40 achievements are available for a total of 1,000 gamer score points. Achievements are way too easy (10 points just for visiting the Ultimate Team trading screen), to the rare kick or glove pass that leads to a goal (30 points). It's good to see some difficult achievements, but I have the hardest time with online play achievements such as playing 250 games online. Who has that kind of time? NHL 11 has an 18-page manual but most of what you need to learn can be found in the interactive gameplay tutorial located in the game.
It has been widely reported that 2K is “just taking the year off” from the 360 and PS3 versions but will be back for 2K12. I don't see how they can possible recover from EA's onslaught. If NHL 12 has even half the improvements of this years version, 2K would be best to spend their investors money elsewhere. EA's NHL 11 Hockey is a near perfect sports game, held back only by minor framerate issues and the lack of a “team builder” module. I can't wait until NHL 12.