The hockey season has begun again, and NHL 11 adds a new yearly title to the major team sport with perhaps the longest history of being represented in video games. Sure, maybe the first few were glorified versions of Pong, but we’ve moved well past that now. EA Sports tries to solidify its lead in the hockey game world this year with another consistently solid product, tweaking a few modes while adding in Hockey Ultimate Team and some pretty big changes to the body check system.
Be a Pro mode has seen a slight improvement in that your career does not begin with the Futures All-Star Game, but rather with CHL playoffs, giving you a taste of a sort of “minor league” hockey before making your big break, and giving NHL teams longer to scout your abilities. Otherwise, the mode is much the same as before, allowing you to control your own character and nobody else over the course of his career. It’s a totally different way of playing, and one that many people will no doubt find more entertaining than controlling an entire team.
The most notable addition gameplay-wise, however, is no doubt the incredibly satisfying hits in this year’s edition. In NHL 10, hits may dislodge the puck from the opponent, but they would rarely do much more than imbalance the opposing skater. No, this time, a successful hit will send the target player flying in highlight-reel collisions. These collisions are very fun to land correctly, and still hilarious to watch even if you’re the victim. Combine those hits with the new broken sticks you’ll see now and again, and the game feels a lot more dynamic and interesting when it comes to the big hits.
More frustratingly, there seems to be a much larger difference between the best and worst teams in the game this year. While the Blackhawks will zip around the ice and bruise the opponents as normal, the weaker foreign league teams often feel completely sluggish and awful, a serious downgrade in the game’s pacing. So switching between your NHL Franchise mode and your Ultimate Team may require completely different playstyles, for better or worse.
The new Hockey Ultimate Team mode, borrowed from EA Sports’ FIFA and Madden series before it, allows you to build your own team through a sort of virtual collectible card game. Playing (and winning) games with your team earns you “pucks,” which allow you to purchase new “packs” containing new players, jerseys, stadiums, contracts, or player upgrades. The elements of strategy and collection involved are very satisfying, if perhaps not as well suited to hockey as soccer or football. The offline tournaments aren’t particularly detailed and they feel a bit dead, and online matches can be intimidating, but that feeling of collecting and arranging is still addictive as ever.
NHL 11 is an improvement over last year’s version, but likely not enough to warrant a new purchase for NHL 10 owners unless the new rosters and Ultimate Team mode matter that much to you. If you’re a true fanatic like that, you’ll buy the game no matter what I tell you, but if you’re not, this wouldn’t be a bad year to take off, with such relatively minor improvements.
NHL 11 is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Mild Violence. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360.