NHL 11 Review

Richard Walker

We can't quite fathom why ice hockey isn't a more popular sport outside of North America. It's got everything: high-speed action, plenty of violence and even a device that rhymes with a swear word. What more could you possibly want? Even EA's video game versions of the sport have been consistently good over the years, with NHL 09 and 10 in particular winning plaudits for its implementation of the ubiquitous shot stick, which made it feel like you're playing ice hockey by twiddling your thumb. Apparently.

"Seriously dude, now isn't time for a cat nap!"

NHL 11 retains the very same control system as NHL 10, erring on the safe side where “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” is the mantra. It's a mantra that serves NHL 11 well, and while we have to confess to being initially bewildered by the game's control system last year - having been weaned on the simplistic two-button controls pioneered in NHL 94 and the frankly brilliant NHL Hockey on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis – the analogue stick mechanic works brilliantly again here.

Yes, it's a control gimmick that we're beginning to see more frequently in sports games, but in NHL 11 it makes genuine sense, mimicking the motions of your player's hockey stick on offense and the direction of your body checks and poke checks in defence. Our confusion centred more around having to use the right trigger to pass and change your player, which just feels plain wrong. Equally odd is the lack of a sprint button, but again, it makes sense as far as the sport is concerned. Skaters build velocity as they glide across the ice, not by boosting on the spot. If you haven’t played NHL 10, getting to grips with the controls is simply a case of rewiring your brain a bit then, which isn't as difficult as it sounds.

Ice-bound scuffles too return in all their violent analogue stick-flicking glory, fresh from being introduced in NHL 10, turning brawls into something more akin to a first-person Fight Night. Press Y to initiate a scrap, antagonising your rival by pulling him around a bit, turning him around if he's got his back to you and you'll be whisked into the first-person fight view. Here you can tug your opponent's jersey by pulling back on the left stick, dodge incoming punches by moving left and right, and jab with the right analogue stick. Is the fight not going your way? Then hold both triggers down to turtle up and drag you and your rival to the ice. Whatever the case, you're both going to the sin bin to think about what you've done. Naughty boys.

"It's like a rose between two thorns... Or three thorns."

As an authentic representation of ice hockey, NHL 11 is unparalleled and the game's plentiful modes let you get involved in almost every aspect of the sport. Ultimate Team (HUT to the pros) is included in the game as standard, so you've all the depth and longevity that comes with that and the compulsion of collecting packets of cards to boost your burgeoning, potentially all-conquering ice hockey franchise. It's possibly NHL 11's biggest time sink, rivalling the Be A GM and Be A Pro Modes for potentially eating up hours of your time. Speaking of which, both modes are back (obviously) with a few improvements, including the ability to now take CHL teams into each, as well as pre-season games and a new Rookie Generation and draft picking system.

For our money though, Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) is NHL 11's most substantial mode and earning the mode's currency, 'EA Pucks', becomes an addictive activity as you're able to unlock boosts for you player's abilities and equipment. Otherwise, you can skip all that and pay for the boosts via the Xbox Live Marketplace, which is exclusively for the lazy player with too much money.

And all of this is before you even consider going online, where you'll find standard versus play alongside team play, league play and even a quick shootout if you fancy briefly dipping in to just smack a puck at a human-controlled goalie. If you want to get really deep into NHL online, then there's the EA Sports Hockey League to get involved with. Hell, you can even embark upon a journey into the EA Ultimate Hockey League where you can take your Ultimate Team online and compete against other player's Ultimate Teams. There's a bewildering array of different online modes, but you'll no doubt pick your favourite and plough your time into that .

Despite the allure of the other deeper modes including the numerous ones to be found online, we spent much of our time just hitting 'Play Now' and getting stuck into a match with friends, which is arguably the best way to play. Hit the ice with some mates and get ready for some laughs, especially if you manage to turn the game into a debacle of fighting, slamming into the boards and tripping. It's brilliant fun. Push Y near the boards and you can hold a player against them and try and perform a poke check. Hold them too long and you'll incur a holding penalty, which in multiplayer, is often hilarious.

"Crunch... Oh wait! I missed him... D'oh!"

NHL 11's achievements are typically tough, demanding a lot of grinding through tournaments, winning trophies or beating the AI at Pro level. There are also a lot of online achievements that involve playing a lot of Ranked Matches. A couple of achievements also pertain to now being able to break your hockey stick, so there are cheevos for blocking a shot without a stick and for performing a pass that leads to a goal. As our stick broke only twice in goodness-knows-how-many games, these achievements will take a lot of playing before they unlock. And they're not the kind of thing that would be easy to setup and orchestrate with friends. Getting a full 1000G will take a lot of time and effort, to say the least.

NHL 11 successfully builds upon the solid foundations laid in previous iterations, adding further refinements to the gameplay (200 new gameplay refinements, apparently) and a great deal of substance in the HUT, Be A GM and Be A Pro Modes. Ice hockey fans will be absolutely spoilt for choice with the wealth of different game types on offer while more casual fans of the sport will appreciate just being able to jump into a game, master the deceptively simple – if somewhat unconventional – controls and enjoy the game. NHL 11 is an excellent follow-up to last year's title, primarily because of Hockey Ultimate Team, but it truly shines due to superlative gameplay, that's simply unmatched.

Decent licensed music and all of the usual atmospherics you'd associate with ice hockey. The commentary is superb too and if you rip CDs to the Xbox 360 and turn them into a playlist, you can put your own music in the game's menus and into the stadium's sound system. An excellent feature that means you can tailor the soundtrack yourself.

Shiny, reflective ice that gets carved up as game time wears on is to be expected in any hockey title worth its salt these days, but the visuals are the finest yet seen in an ice hockey game. Player likenesses and animations are visibly improved, although some do look slightly comical, especially when you're face-to-face with them in a fight.

NHL 11's controls still take a certain amount of conditioning to get used to, as using a trigger to pass still feels unnatural. There's perhaps too much of a reliance on mapping moves to the right analogue stick and being unable to fall back on a sprint button when you need to get on defence or make a fast break takes some getting used to.

There's more modes here than you can shake a hockey stick at, with Be A Pro, Be A GM and the addition of Hockey Ultimate Team making NHL 11 one of the most feature rich, deep and involving sports games available. You'll never be looking for things to do. There's almost too much here.

A fairly uninspiring, even boring list of achievements that require too much grinding both on and offline. You'll need to win almost every trophy, earn every boost, perform rare feats on the ice and spend a hell of a lot of time online if you want to get to 100%.

NHL 11 is every bit as solid and playable as its predecessor. Broken sticks add very little to the game, despite being peddled as a key new feature, but the numerous refinements show in the physicality on the ice and the returning up-close and personal fighting system. In multiplayer with friends, it invariably brings the laughs and online, there's plenty of scope to get involved and keep playing. Hockey Ultimate Team is the real crux here though, and it'll have you constantly returning for more slippy slapshot action.

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