EA Sports’ NHL franchise skated onto the ice in August of 1991 with NHL Hockey, which was available only on the Genesis. With each successive release of the NHL series, EA has done an incredible job of integrating the fundamentals of hockey into the games. It is these fundamental basics of hockey in which games are won and lost. With NHL 10, they gave us board battles, an incredibly important part of a dump-and-chase style of hockey. NHL 09 did not offer a way to battle for the puck down deep (or anywhere for that matter) which we often see in real hockey after the puck is dumped in. It was merely first-come-first-get-the-puck. When NHL 10 introduced board battles, it made the game what it is, the truest form of a hockey simulator ever produced. That all changed when NHL 11 was released this September which not only includes board battles, but more than 200 additional gameplay enhancements that help it easily succeed NHL 10.
At the core of new features in NHL 11 is an all new real-time physics engine. The physics engine was designed to produce true-to-life reactions with face-offs, body checks, players, and the puck. The players move differently, the hits are entirely new, and the puck moves more realistically. It is an understatement to say that every aspect of the game has been impacted by the implementation of the new physics engine. There is a slight adjustment period when transitioning from NHL 10 to NHL 11 to get acquainted with the new physics of the game, but it is well worth the learning curve.
With the new physics engine in hand, EA’s developers headed out to enhance virtually every other part of the game, and they did. One of the more toted about features of NHL 11 is the addition of the EA Ultimate Hockey League (EAUHL). The EAUHL is an online dynasty mode that allows you to acquire actual AHL, CHL, or NHL players which are used to build your team from the ground up. Players are represented by their hockey card. For example, Henrik Zetterberg: If you acquired Zetterberg’s hockey card, he is now a part of your franchise and at your disposal in EAUHL games. In the EAUHL, you are responsible for managing every aspect of your franchise. Mix up line combinations to create chemistry between players, manage player contracts to ensure they are in your lineup when you need them, compete in online monthly leagues to prove that you have what it takes, and of course do it all while remaining under the salary cap.
Not only did EA craft an entirely new physics engine, but they enhanced several other pieces of the game as well. The hits have also changed with the introduction of the Hit Stick. If you are familiar with EA’s Madden series, then you already know about the Hit Stick. The Hit Stick enables players to aim high or low when checking an opponent. Mix in the new real-time physics engine that does not animate hits and you have the potential for a hit that nobody will ever see again. That’s right; the physics engine does not animate hits. In previous versions of the game there were animations for hits, that means you got to see the same hits over and over again. Never again. Hit an opponent low and send him over your back, rail him into the boards, or clip him and hit knee-on-knee. Every hit is different. In addition to the Hit Stick, a hip check button has been added that allows you to initiate a hip check instead of letting the physics engine decide when conditions are right. NHL 10 only performed hip checks in certain situations and it was purely automatic, you couldn’t force a hip check. A hustle button now serves as the missing turbo everyone seems to have been looking for. Hustling does cause a skater to fatigue, so use it wisely.
Rounding out some of the more notable gameplay enhancements include new quick dekes, broken sticks, custom goal celebrations, disallowed goals, and a completely redesigned face-off system. The quick dekes are performed the same as before, but the moves have changed and you have more control over dekes. Sticks randomly break when taking shots, blocking shots, and getting hit. Kick the puck, go to the bench for a new stick, or borrow one from a nearby player. Custom goal celebrations can now be invoked after scoring a goal. Most buttons on the controller perform a preset celebration such as riding the stick or jumping head first on the ice. Questionable goals are automatically reviewed, creating a few tense moments until the referees rule the goal good or overturned. And final, the new face-off system. NHL 10 offered few choices when approaching the face-off dot, but NHL 11 takes face-offs to an entirely new level. Players can establish a forehand or backhand grip prior to the puck drop to direct the puck to a certain team mate, tie-up the opponent taking the face-off to allow teammates to retrieve the puck and make a play, or shoot directly off the face-off. The addition of the new face-off system is one of those fundamental basics that EA pays attention to. They know what a face-off means to the game of hockey, as do the fans, and they brought it to life in NHL 11.
One thing EA has always done well, with all of their major titles, is provide a variety of game modes that offer something to everyone. Most of us don’t play every game mode regularly, but prefer one to some or none. I prefer online versus play because it offers the most realistic opponent a game can offer, another human. Other players may prefer the EAUHL, Be a GM, Be a Pro, Online Team Play, or season modes. To each his own, but the point here is variety. I may grind out a season with my beloved team and watch them grow playoff beards during the postseason, hit up online ranked versus for some fan-on-fan brutality, or test my Ken-Holland-like skills managing a team in the EAUHL. We, as hockey fans, have the opportunity to play whatever modes we enjoy most and EA continues to dish out the best variety in town.
Let’s face it, you know if you’re a hockey fan or not. If you are, and you play video games, this is a no brainer. You need this game. There won’t be a better hockey game until next year and you couldn’t ask for a better game to deliver on both ends of the ice. NHL 11 is a must have for true hockey fans and due to the high level of detail and control, it may appeal to players who enjoy sports games in general.
Pros: New real-time physics engine, broken sticks, custom goal celebrations, disallowed goals, new face-off system, playoff beards.
Cons: Matchmaking issues, losing is no fun