Initial Impressions Review: NHL 11

Yesterday after work, I swung through my local [corporate big box retail store] and picked up a shiny new copy of NHL 11. Here are my impressions of the game after roughly 6 hours of play in most of the single-player modes (online play being unavailable due to network issues with my ISP last night).

Disclaimer: I have not played an NHL-series game since NHL 08 but purchased NHL 11 because the demo was absurdly addictive. I've been gaming for over 20 years and my primary play occurs on the Xbox 360. If anyone wants to poke me on XBL, my gamertag is the same as my handle here, but I rarely play online by choice even when my ISP behaves because I'm sick of being cursed at by 13 year olds. I'm playing in surround sound on a reasonably large plasma TV which makes the MSG standard def feeds look atrocious during the season.


OVERALL: The NHL 11 graphics engine is spectacular, and in replays often appears nearly true to life with the exception of some of the skin gradients on players looking a little plastic. The crowd is accurate enough to not be distracting like the 2d crowd sprites of older sports games. Sound is great, my only complaints are that Europe's "Final Countdown" has a bit too much weight in the playlist for being used as menu music and that sometimes the game seems to not play the sound for the ref blowing his whistle so play just comes to a halt.

QUICK PLAY SINGLE PLAYER: Standard game play is in effect, the only major control changes I noticed between NHL 08 and NHL 11 were a much greater refinement of your control on the face-off. In NHL 08, you didn't have much control other than timing, in NHL 11 you get to choose how your player takes the almost every detail. (I replayed the face-off tutorial about a half-dozen times, it really was amazing.) There are two difficulty adjustments - one is CPU intelligence, the other changes gameplay sliders which micromanage aspects of play between certain defaults and is fairly self-explanatory. Team selection and game-specific option screens are well laid out and intuitive for the most part, the exception being the help dialogues which often bury you in information. Load-times are reasonable. Taking into account the actual game play I experienced in other modes, the physics engine is about as accurate as one can expect in a video game - of particular note is skating momentum when you try to hold up at the blue line - and the new broken stick mechanic fits in smoothly without heavily distracting from play - I'm not seeing dozens of broken sticks every game, but a much more reasonable 1-3, periodically a few more than that and occasionally none at all. As for the immersion value of being in front of a player about to take a shot from the point and having his stick break, allowing you to control the puck and earn a breakaway? Priceless.

BE A PRO MODE: Fairly standard offering for it's breed, the attention to detail available is reasonably impressive. I played a LW starting from the Memorial Cup and through the first two games of the preseason (including being drafted) on the default settings (which also meant "authentic" shift changes and the default camera) and enjoyed it rather a lot. The time spent on the bench, you watch your pro's stamina meter regenerate, and there is a mechanic by which you can force your line back onto the ice. The CPU players on your team do seem to give you a slightly higher priority when they choose to pass, but it isn't immersion-breaking. The only real negative factor? The default "active" camera occasionally has a tendency to swirl around and spin or shake side to side...the intent is lost when you're too busy trying to track your own orientation but can't see something that had been visible a moment ago. (Great example - the camera reversed so it was facing the opposite way on one shift-change, so I came on to the ice with it facing my own goal...when I stole a pass and broke the opposite way, it spun around a good 210 degrees so I was unable to see what the defender I was skating into/past was doing...despite the fact that he was directly "ahead" of me between me and the net.)

BE A GM MODE: I played using the option to start at the 2010 preseason and played through four preseason games. Standard franchise mode, although it seems there could be a bit more emphasis on the "GM" part of the mode and less on the "coach" part of the mode. It appears to swing wildly between you having full control of the roster and the lines and the AI having control of the lines and making it's own roster changes between who you have signed already. I also tried to sign free agents and was soundly rebuffed. ("I'm going to take a few days and think about it while I wait for offers from other teams." ...and then remains a free agent without signing anywhere.) Rather than get hung up on this mode, I moved along to the final mode I tested out last night...

HOCKEY ULTIMATE TEAM (HUT): Ah, EA Sports and their hybrid-"trading card" game mode, gradually being added to all of their sports-game franchises. I'd previously played Ultimate Team mode in Madden and was underwhelmed - it seemed like getting the in-game points to get more card packs to get more cards was made a bit more of a chore than necessary - and was subsequently happily surprised by improvements in that regard in HUT. The problem? The card base the game rests upon is almost TOO deep - despite having maxed out the "bonus" packs available for completing certain milestones in the demo, I still couldn't put together a balanced roster with the 45-50 players I received - with the absolute smorgasbord of leagues and teams in the game, being able to put together a "max chemistry" line is like hunting needles in a haystack. Plus, 90% of NHL players are given "rare" status, so by the time you work up to an actual "ultimate" team in the mode, you'll have spent either tons of actual money buying card packs or invested countless hours of playtime...which is NOT to say that the mode isn't likely to be addictive if you get started on it.

Closing Impressions: I was looking for the game to be enough of an improvement beyond NHL 08 that I wouldn't feel like I'd merely purchased a roster update, and on that count, it passes with flying colors. Many of their PR-touted changes and improvements (broken sticks, proper UFA/RFA bidding, etc) are every bit as impressive as their PR team wants you to believe, and the attention to immersion is good throughout - in Be A Pro mode, after my agent told me that I was projected to go in the top 5 in the re-written and fictionalized 2010 NHL draft and I saw the Isles had the 2nd overall pick, I not only crossed my fingers but also found myself groaning in disappointment when I went to another team. Six hours flew by in a flash - I could have quite easily spent them all in Be A Pro mode - and I expect to toss the majority of my gaming time into the game for the next month or so, and for it to be my "fallback" game when I take breaks from new releases during the winter...not to mention my commercial break and intermission time-waster of choice this season.


Gameplay: 9/10 Fantastically deep, I haven't even scratched the surface yet. The big downside? Dekes still feel a little bit too finicky.

Graphics: 9/10 If only they got the color of human skin consistently right...I'm not sure refs count. Are they human too?

Sound: 7/10 Sometimes game sound is a bit out of balance - when you miss a check and hit the boards, it drowns everything out, the ref whistles occasionally disappear, and there's a certain extra "sharpness" to a lot of game sound that only comes from sounds being recorded distinctly and then layered by a sound engine.

Soundtrack: 6/10 Seriously, I wasn't kidding. It seems like every single time I'm in an out-of-game menu, it starts playing Final Countdown. And that's just a bit much...especially since it makes me flash on Gob from Arrested Development EVERY TIME. Hard to focus on working the phones for a trade in Be A GM Mode when you're thinking about throwing playing cards off a stage while holding a knife in your teeth, you know?

Overall (Not an aggregate!!): 9/10 The game feels like more than the proverbial "roster update" release, has features for everyone, and a deep online component which I didn't even dig into - the online league for Be A Pro players has the potential to be the greatest thing for online gaming on consoles since Halo 2. It is, quite literally, a Hockey MMO. I'm quite literally, and I say this with only a hint of self-mockery, AFLUTTER with anxiety and enthusiasm regarding my debut in that aspect of the soon as I get over my insecurity regarding my relative skill level.


So tell us, what do you think LHH?

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