Game Review: NHL 11
Developer: EA Sports
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Players: 1-4 (online 2-12)
ESRB Rating: E10+
EA Sports’ NHL 11 comes at an interesting time. Their usual rival with the only shared sports license of all the major sports, 2K Sports, is concentrating on a Wii release this year, so EA gets the full attention of 360 and PS3 users this year. Did they take it easy and pump out another iteration without inspiration? Read on…
When you first boot up NHL 11, you’ll create a player and then be taken right into a brief training tutorial that goes through some of the basics of the game. Trust me when I say you will want to go through this, especially if you have skipped a few years in the series. After this, you’re thrown to the main menu, and it’s here that you realize just how much you have available to you in the game. In fact, between the depth of play modes and the sheer replayability of what these modes offer, I will continue this review by relating this game to that of an MMORPG, because I almost feel like that’s what this game is.
The basis of any MMO is character development, and with Be A Pro mode, you take your created player either straight to an NHL team, or into the Memorial Cup Tournament to increase your NHL Draft status. You can choose any position to play, and even the type of player (which affects your starting stats). After each game, you’ll compile experience points that you can spend on increasing your stats; you won’t be building a superstar right away, the spending is nicely dispersed to encompass the fact that you will be playing this pro for at least 80+ games a season over many seasons. Any good player will know that a high level character is only as good as their equipment, and you can upgrade yours by performing various feats throughout the game (which are all explained so you know what to do). These equipment upgrades will increase various stats, which helps in creating your superstar.
Looking to join a guild? Visit the EA Sports Hockey League and you can join or create online clubs with your created player, and participate in daily, weekly and monthly tournaments. The nice thing here is you don’t necessarily have to wait for your clubmates to get a game going, you can drop into a game at any time to play and work on leveling up your online created player (which is separate from your single player character). You can also practice with your team, and join at different levels from Amateur up to Elite.
Is crafting more your style? You’ll likely love the newly added Hockey Ultimate Team, which turns the game into a card collecting game, where your team is comprised of players based on cards you collect. You can acquire more cards by spending in game currency called pucks that you earn while playing in the Ultimate Team section of the game, or by spending real world cash. You can use these cards to build your team, or trade them in-game for pucks that you can use to buy more packs. There’s been some discussion as to how easy it is to spend real world money to get packs versus having to play several games to earn enough pucks to buy a pack, but with the ability to trade cards for pucks, and the going rate for many cards, you can accumulate pucks fairly easy if you’re into using the trading system. There will always be demand for cards as well, because every card has a limited number of uses before the player retires, and there’s no way to extend that card past the lifetime playability. You also need to use contract cards to keep those players on your team, so everyone will always be in a situation to turn cards over. You can play single player or online in this mode, so it’s nice to not have to interact with the outside world while you amass your team. You won’t be able to participate in some of the bigger tournaments without playing online opponents, however.
Are you better with the planning and execution on a higher level, like a good raid leader? You’ll be spending most of your NHL 11 life in the Be A GM mode then. You’ll take the reigns of an NHL franchise, and immediately be responsible for balancing your salary cap, signing new players from the draft, and keeping or trading current players by making contract offers to keep them happy (or not). You can send out your staff to different places to scout out future talent, and you can also spend EXP that you earn from games in this mode on upgrading your staff’s abilities to make them better at what they do (better doctors, better scouts, etc).
Finally, if you’d rather just spend some time playing around, consider NHL 11’s version of instanced dungeons. You can play a quick single game, battle for the Cup, enter Playoff Mode, tournament mode, or partake in an entire season (with standard rosters or utilizing a draft).
As you can see, there are a TON of places to spend your time, and if you played no other game this year, you still would not be able to min/max all your characters and teams across all the different modes, it’s just that deep.
Of course, if you have a lot to do, but it’s not fun doing it, what’s the point, right? Fortunately, you’re well covered on this front too. The action on the ice handles well for the most part, complete with a new faceoff system that actually works, broken sticks that are about as frequent as they are in real life (re: once or twice a game), decent AI, good play-by-play, and rewarding gameplay. If you haven’t played a game in the series for a while, you will have to relearn how to play, and this will take longer than the initial tutorial. It took me about 5 games before I was able to put a goal or two up on the board consistently (rather than just spazzing out in front of the goalie on breakaways). I personally recommend playing some Be A Pro, or exhibition games with position lock on, so you get an idea of the flow of the game, positioning (which is very important in this game), and how to use your teammates. Truth be told, I actually prefer letting the AI take over on the other players so I can set myself up correctly, but I’m sure with time I’ll be capable with either. Little touches are nice too: the crowd stays into the game, and really tries to spur on their home team in a close game, and celebrations that occur when winning the cup are excellent. It really makes it feel like you are participating in a huge moment, rather than just another game with different commentary. The game also rewards good gameplay, and punishes running around just hitting people; you’ll spend a lot of time in the penalty box if you check yourself around the ice. The graphics are great, and the sounds are also excellent. Finally, the scaling difficulty that the game uses (you can turn it off) works very well, especially as you’re learning the game. Down 0-3 in the last period, I rattled off 4 goals in regulation to pull off an incredible win, and I never felt like the CPU was just laying down and letting me score. The rush associated with this was awesome, and while I’m sure I’ll be victim to this same scaling difficulty down the road, I’ll take it for how awesome experiences like this are.
Like any good MMO, there are some balancing issues. I really wish you could earn pucks in ANY game mode you play, rather than restricting it to the Ultimate Team mode only – it’s hard enough to earn pucks in the single mode, when you explore the other areas that are so awesome in this game, you should earn some pucks (even if it’s half of what you normally would earn). There are some minor frame rate issues (noticeable in certain areas of the rink, though infrequent), and the game does feel just a touch slower than full speed; it’s not SLOW, but you don’t see blistering speed either. The game modes, while awesomely varied, are also terribly explained. Be a GM mode has virtually no explanation whatsoever on how to conduct your business effectively, and while the help menus help a little, a tutorial would have been ideal. The in-game replays done with a stoppage of action (which will happen a LOT; the goalies seem to think that every puck they get is a candy bar, and thus never kick the puck back out) are good if you’ve scored a goal recently, but are otherwise lackluster, rarely showing big hits or great shots that just happened. The music is fairly varied, and encompasses many tracks in use by teams today, but you’ll still want to load your own because eventually it just gets old. The other most glaring issue is the inexcusably long load times whenever saving to the hard drive is concerned. Autosave isn’t bad, but if your action is going to require the save dialog to pop-up asking for a file name, you can wait upwards of 45 seconds at times. That’s just too long.
vttym’s take: OK, so I know this review is a little different than others because I played the comparison game, but just to make sure I’m clear on what I thought of this game, let me spell it out for you: I absolutely love it. There is not a single thing that has been left out of this game, and what’s there is thought-out, well executed and, most importantly, FUN. I didn’t even mention the addition of the playable CHL, because I couldn’t think of an MMO equivalent of how awesome that is. And with this game being the only gig in town this year, there is no reason not to pick this up. I fully expect that, like the MMO I had in mind when comparing this game, I’ll be playing this game 6 years from now.
Hopefully I’ll hit max level by then.