NHL 11 (X360) Review
Outside of the US, Canada and Russia sports fans around the world mostly don’t get ice hockey. There’s not really a single reason as to why it lags behind many other imported sports, being consigned to the same slot as late night Sumo or professional Jenga but that’s where it’s to be found. Everything about it should make it an instant hit… The graceful, ballet like movement of the participants on ice, combined with the unrelenting brutality of a sport that relies on physical intimidation as one of its key components. There are no complicated rules that prevent an immediate understanding – players simply have to knock the puck into the net and that’s a score. Everything else is icing on the cake.
Yet, as true as all this is, not only does it not boast anything more than a cult following in places like the UK, the computer games have also struggled to make a dent in the market as well. It is strange that this is the case given that the magic of Electronic Arts has brought to life so many potential snooze-fests in the digital world. Ice hockey needs no such sorcery. It should make for the perfect blend of visceral and cerebral action that would appeal to all sports gaming fans. And so it was for a period of time – round about up until 1993 – where an NHL title was a must have for the home consoles. Then they took the fighting out, a decision so controversial people still talk about it. This can’t be the reason for the fall of the ice-hockey title but it’s clear something has happened, a radical shift in tastes that has seen the genre drop right to the back of the pack.
It’s resurgence on next generation consoles has been a slow rehabilitation. Previous instalments of the title have earned critical praise and the support of the die-hards but would this latest title be the one to put NHL back into the collective gaming consciousness?
Moving the puck around is simple and responsive and the pace of the game has been slowed down slightly. This is arguably a move away from reality but it does provide players with a bit of extra time to create those flowing passing moves out there on the ice. The right analogue stick, used for deking and shooting is more responsive too with a range of trickery that would be better associated with the likes of Lionel Messi as opposed to a hulking brute in pads. Yet if any reminder was required that it’s not all about grace and flair, some of the huge impacts on the bodychecks will put paid to that idea.
Indeed, the whole physics engine has also been greatly improved and it shows. Player contact feels real, sometimes wince inducing and the means of getting past opponents doesn’t ever feel like a simple animation being routinely played – there’s a genuine feeling of infinite variety. When this is coupled with a hugely improved and challenging AI each game in isolation feels like a very different challenge and different tactics will have to be employed against each opponent every time your team ventures out onto the ice. There’s a few niggles when it comes to the computer controlled colleagues that have to be relied upon, as they don’t always make the right moves to receive those killer passes but it’s not so noticeable as to be frustrating.
With the core mechanics suitably polished and refined it’s down to the game modes to deliver the long lasting appeal. The "Be A Pro" mode, which was pioneered in this franchise before being unleashed in the other EA Sports titles, has gone to new levels in order to tell the story of a sporting hero’s meteoric rise. Introducing the Canadian Hockey League and all the major junior rosters allow for a much more satisfying journey to the top than previously experienced. The initial lack of fleshed out statistics also makes for a much tougher challenge, which makes becoming a bona fide NHL star feel all the more rewarding.
Sporting statisticians will also be in for a treat when they get to grips with Hockey Ultimate Team, a mode that allows for a deep and complex franchise building challenge, with a simple interface that reduces some of those complexities as players are represented through trading cards. It’s nothing new and it does have to be said anyone who fails to understand the fundamentals not only of the game itself but of team balancing, then this mode is going to come with a steep learning curve. Still, even if reduced to trial and error there’s still plenty of enjoyment to be had and there’s enough time to tweak everything before taking it to the obligatory online mode in the Ultimate Hockey League.
As to be expected from an Electronic Arts title there is a television style authenticity to the way the game is presented and it runs right through the game even down to the font on the menus. Cut-scenes as well actually add something to the atmosphere of the game in a way that dull cutaways to crowds, or players being substituted, don’t seem to in other titles. The focus on crowd reactions feels timely and realistic and watching benched players talk to each other and pass water bottles along just makes it feel like the player really is in the middle of something.
That’s the one thing this game probably achieves better than some of its stable mates, that it genuinely brings the atmosphere of a game to the player at home. It’s quite an achievement and in truth it underlines some of the failings of other titles, such as the recent World Cup tie-in, which were flat and repetitive in terms of the surrounding environment. This feels real and doesn’t look far off it too. Although not many might know it, in that respect it is quite possibly the new benchmark for EA Sports titles.
It takes a few run thoughts before any cracks start to appear in the commentary, with a few repetitions that start to sound like mantras and the occasional observation that bears no relevance to what is actually happening on the rink. Still, this is the nature of the beast and being overly critical of commentary in a sports game is a cheap shot unless it’s Mark Lawrenson in Pro Evolution Soccer, then such attacks become mostly justified.
The music is also the now standard Electronic Arts "jukebox", a mix of tracks that can be turned on or off that allow for a degree of enjoyable toe tapping that will carry players through the monotony of micro-management. It’s a bit of a mixed bag and if we were feeling cruel we’d probably award a severe penalty for the inclusion of Europe’s "The Final Countdown", a song that really doesn’t need to be heard more times in relation to sports.
Still, cheesy 80s synth-rock aside, the game is finished off nicely with some genuine sounds that are above the standard fare for most sports titles.
The Hockey Ultimate Team mode will keep players coming back and the multiplayer action is a lot of fun whether it be online or on the couch with a few beers. If there’s any justice this title will reinvigorate the genre and will find a place in the collections of sports fans all across the world. Anyone who wants something a little bit different to the standard fare could certainly do a lot worse than give this a chance.
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