Review: NHL ’11 (Sony PS3)

NHL ’11
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Genre: Realistic Sports Sim
Release Date: 9/7/2010

Despite being a jaded journalist when it comes to sports games, I tend to fall for the hype, in good ways and bad. The past few months can be an example of that, as I went from hating NBA 2K11 to foaming at the mouth waiting for it to come out as they’ve kept revealing stuff. I say this because I was in full, foaming mouth, get-this-man-a-tetanus-shot mode over NHL ’11. All of the additions they were making played right to the things I wanted after a year of playing NHL ’10, a game which I only called “the greatest sports game of all time”. Broken sticks? Better defensive AI? A new face-off scheme? Better Be A GM tweaks? A real-time physics engine for body checks? The Canadian Hockey League!? I need this game inside me!

I got the game a week later, and though my thoughts have tapered a bit, I was… distraught. There was a lot wrong with the game, things that went beyond the myriad bugs which have sadly become routine in an EA Sports release (I guess all that marketing muscle means they have to skimp on QA). I was so upset that I literally compared the game to Caddyshack 2 and Rocky V, the latter of which was so bad it was retconned. I even compared it to NHL 2005, which was the worst game in the series other than the unplayable NHL ’97. However, like a good coach, I adjusted, looked at things objectively, and found that there’s a lot to like here, especially for someone who has the resume I have as a player, coach and official. Weeks after release, after withstanding a particularly bad injury (imagine that… our sports guy got hurt playing sports), I’m still not 100% where I stand on NHL ’11, considering that I’m probably the only reviewer in the world that’s even going to be semi-negative about it, as well as probably the only one truly qualified to be critical.

Before I continue, I’ll reiterate my warning from last year: what follows is an EXTREMELY technical review from someone who has been paid to play hockey, and still officiates at a high level. If that’s too deep, no sweat, just scroll down to the SAAS. But for those that know hockey, I don’t think you’ll find a more in-depth review than this.

The biggest thing that was added to this year’s game was the real-time physics engine, primarily for hits. For the most part, it works very well. In past years, you would see a canned hit animation, which would lead to some drastically unrealistic hits, but now, taking into account the size and strength of each player, momentum, the checking player’s checking ability and most importantly, how and where the checking player hits the other player, there are almost infinite amounts of checks that can be thrown. Checking along the boards does feel a lot more natural, because it emphasizes just what a body check is supposed to be: an action to separate the player from the puck. EA’s big marketing push this year was that, “any moment can be a big moment,” but it really emphasizes just how “gamey” the old system was in that it turned most hits into foolishly big hits. Now, unless there is a major talent mismatch, you have to really line someone up – with solid positioning – to throw a big hit, and those hits feel bigger than in the past. I won’t say it’s a game changer – the game still plays the same, all said – but it’s a really big deal that changes board play for the better.

Another addition, related to this, is that instead of having hip checks be a part of regular checking, it’s something specifically set up by hitting the R3 button. This does two things, the most important of which is that it removes the suck-in that used to happen with old checks (it was almost impossible to go wide on human players in the past, they’d just set you up). The second thing it intended to do was to make people be smarter about throwing hip checks, but in practise, the hip check is a bit overpowered; if you skate over someone’s leg, you flip over it as if you got taken out by Brian Leetch. This shows up especially in EASHL games, where everyone just skates with their asses stuck out, waiting for people to skate into them and go flying. This is a noble idea, but needs to be tweaked. I also need to note that the physics engine only really works for hits. Sticks and pucks still go through each other, sticks still go through bodies, all of the issues we’ve had with past NHL games – issues that I frankly don’t think the PS3 or 360 are capable of fixing without taking all of the “fun” out of the game that most gamers are used to – are still here. So while it’s nice that hits are improved, don’t fool yourselves into thinking that the physics of the entire game are fixed.

Another change is the new face-off system. Instead of just timing a stick-press one way while the puck goes down, you have to position your stick to either the forehand or the backhand, and either draw it back, lift the stick, or tie up the forward. There are other options such as playing it forward yourself or shooting it on net, but those three things are what you will need 90% of the time. It’s OK, but I wish they went farther by changing the timing of the puck drops (not every linesman drops the same), and throwing out anyone that jumps. However, this is a step in the right direction.

Broken and dropped sticks also play a part into this year’s game, and though they happen just a bit more than they do in real life, it adds a bit of predictability to the game. Not only can players break or drop sticks, but forwards can give their stick to defencemen, something I find a nice addition. Even better, it’s contextual. You’re a lot more likely to break your stick blasting a one-timer from the point than you are making a pass, and if that pass you make hits a bit of broken stick, the stick will alter the pass. This is one of the only additions I can think of that I universally like.

The final really big change on the ice isn’t even something that was advertised: they tweaked defensive AI big time. If you ask any long-time NHL player – regardless of when they started – how they played offence in past years, and it was all the same: set up the one-timer going across the crease. The method of doing this has changed over the years, but the result has been the same: pass across, one-timer, score. That’s still effective… if you can complete the pass. The defence is worlds better at stopping the pass now and keeping play to the outside. If you make a pass to the centre, hoping it will get through the defenceman, it will be sucked up without effort, even on the lowest difficulty ratings. It’s also much harder to draw the defenceman on the two-on-one: he does what he’s supposed to do, which is take away the pass and let the goaltender worry about the shot. Thankfully, EA compensated for this by making goaltenders somewhat human. They sometimes give up some weak goals, but there’s no rhyme or reason to it. They just give up the same types of goals that real goaltenders would give up. It’s not just a matter of goals going through arms or eight-holes, but sometimes, goaltenders angles will be out of whack, and best of all, it happens more to lesser goaltenders than it does to guys like Luongo and Brodeur. They might have finally gotten the goaltending AI right, in the sense that it’s realistic and actually reflects how goaltenders at the various levels of professional hockey play. Another thing that positively contributes is the fact that the “advanced” passing from last year, where you hold the passing trigger down depending on how fast of a pass you want, has been made default, which allows you to either rifle a pass across or slow it down to lead the player on. This helps change the dynamics of offensive zone play, because you have to have a second to load up a pass across the slot or risk having it be picked off, and even a harder pass isn’t guaranteed to get through. All of these things combine to make a game that is sublime to play in the zones, and even better is finally a game that has a PROPERLY ramping difficulty. Before, I had problems at higher difficulty levels because it felt cheap; the proper way to win wasn’t to play hockey the right way, but to expose the bigger exploits. Now, with just about all of those holes closed, higher difficulty levels are possible with excellent results, and the cheezey goals from last year are about gone. This part of the game – in-zone play – is mostly blissful.

The preceding paragraph is what makes the next few so damned frustrating: EA did all this, and then left a number of infuriating bugs in, as well as leaving some issues unfixed and even making some older issues worse. Going back to checking, they’ve changed the way checks are thrown. Now, instead of pushing the direction of someone that you want to hit, you have to press up to hit high, left or right to throw a normal check, and down to hit low (like to cross check someone in front). First off, bad on EA for not telling anyone about this or at least making it easily known, because I had to have a friend – who thinks he knows hockey better than he does – tell me. Secondly, while this works great on hitting someone with the puck, it’s atrocious for bodying up someone in front of the net. I’ll be sitting there, trying to push a screening forward out of the way, when my player will try to throw a hit to the puck carrier, who could be in the far corner. So I figure, OK, I’ll have to get some momentum going, but if I do that, I often run right past the guy while trying to throw a hit to who knows where. In either case, I’m out of position, and the person I was trying to (legally) clear out has either gotten a tip, or is in position for a rebound. It’s possible to tie his stick up with the X button, but usually my player – anyone from Nicklas Lidstrom down to an OHL player – is too stupid to tell the difference between “tie his stick up” and “WHACK!” This is problematic if you’re trying to play as a defenceman, especially in Be A Pro. This is, of course, assuming your player even wants to throw a check. I’ve had times where I’ve had my guy load up a check, get next to the guy, I’ll release, and nothing will happen.

Goaltenders, for all the good things they’ve done in this game, have gone completely the other way when it comes to rebound control. There are times shots will be stopped, but sit there fluttering on the goaltender while he sits helplessly in the butterfly, or flopping around as if he was getting a gnat off of him. In fact, anything near a goaltender’s feet – especially if you’re playing in Be A Pro as a goalie – is like a live grenade being thrown into a foxhole, with the goaltender alternatively panicking and staying still, panicking and flopping around, and panicking and doing both at the same time. I do realize that more had to be done with in-close shots to make the game more realistic and remove reliance on pretty one-timed goals, but this is out of hand. Tuner sets have only somewhat mitigated this, but I shouldn’t have to rely on tuner sets weeks after release to fix a staggering problem that showed up in the demo, and the fact that every early review threw universal praise to the game without even acknowledging something as obvious as this as a problem makes me want to ask some serious questions to the “journalists” who did those reviews.

There are also a staggering number of bugs, such as players being physically unable to handle where to go when they break a stick, or goaltenders literally throwing the puck into their own net. My list of videos is loaded to the brim of bugs and strange occurances, which is inexcusable in a fully priced retail game that is charging used gamers a price to take it online. I had a few times online where play would literally be taken back to an earlier time – like, we’d get through four minutes of gameplay, then go back to the opening face off – before getting disconnected. Who’s doing QA up in Vancouver, the Keystone Kops? Yes, this has been mitigated by an update, but a bug THAT bad should never have seen retail. Then there’s the dive check, which was supposed to be countered this year by the addition of a particular auto-deke, but is still cheap, even to the point where I had a time where the stick literally went through the body of my player to knock the puck loose. The auto-dekes didn’t rebalance anything, they just screwed up balance the other direction. It’s one thing when Evgeni Malkin pulls off an amazing move, but if I have Steve Bernier or Travis Moen deking players out of their jocks, something’s wrong. Again, a few of these issues have been eventually handled by tuner sets, but some bugs are still in effect, and considering it’s been a few weeks, I’m exceptionally displeased. If EA could have gotten a bug-free game out – on an engine that’s four years old, mind you – I’d be a lot happier. As it is, this is like a gigantic turd in between two slabs of chocolate cake. Let’s just say the centre overwhelms the package.

In terms of modes, Hockey’s Ultimate Team is the overwhelming new choice. It’s just like the Madden Ultimate Team, in that you have to manage player cards who have various contract lengths on them, can make players better via expendable statistic cards, and mix and match your lineup with every player in the game, from the NHL down through juniors, meaning you could theoretically have a line with an NHL centre, a left wing from the Swiss Elite League, and a right wing from Sault St. Marie, a defensive pair from the AHL, and a goaltender playing in the QMJHL. Note that lines have chemistry ratings that are dependent on whether a player plays in the same league or on the same team – meaning, there’s a huge bonus if your entire first line comes from the Pittsburgh Penguins, but a penalty if you have a scattershot setup like I described above. That adds a nice, gamey element to the game; namely, your players will fumble easy passes and throw passed out to God knows where, because professional hockey players can’t complete a routine pass to each other if they don’t go on team-building retreats with each other. There are single player tournaments to join, though they all have set rules, some of which can be a bit arduous. The real crux of the game is the online tournaments, and therein lies the problem with HUT: To be competitive, you have to shell out money. A mid-sized pack of cards costs 2,500 and guarantees you a “rare” card (usually an NHL player or an elite prospect), but you only get anywhere from 200 – 400 pucks per game, depending on how you play, so even if you just play enough to get the pucks you need, chances are good that by the time you’re done, you’ve lost a lot of players due to them having their contracts come up, so unless you get a lot of contract cards – and if you do, any improvements players see will cost you, and could take you over the salary cap – you could end up in a rut of having to go back and forth with peewee packs, which give you almost nothing but low-level and junior hockey players. The only way to break that rut – other than getting lucky and winning a trophy, which will, again, only give you a few really good players – is to break out the PSN card. It becomes a vicious cycle after awhile. In fact, due to the chemistry requirement, superior players who don’t want to spend money are still going to struggle, since they don’t want to Even with the promotions EA does, all that does is take the price of a 7,500 puck pack down to 5,000… or $1.49 instead of $1.99. Which one would you pick in a pinch? Lastly, there’s no guarantee that this is going to be worth anything in a year. NHL ’12 could come out next year, with a new set of cards and some token additions, and all of that work and/or money you spent on this year’s HUT would be useless that day, as you’d be expected to build/spend it all up all over again. I said this with Madden, and I’ll say it here: Ultimate Team is like getting the Canadian equivalent of a Korean MMO, only you have to pay $60 for it, the most successful players are usually the worst, and it’s obsolete in a year. The only good thing about this mode is that it’s not as bad as Madden’s. Once again, I’d like to know how the hell reviewers – who I never really notice, but since I bought this game initially, I read reviews prior – didn’t catch this shit, though I now understand why every EA Sports title comes with a nice, glossy PR guide that basically tells people what to review.

Oh, and before I go on, it seems like HUT isn’t immune to bugs, either. I’ve lived in apartments in Portsmouth, VA that had fewer bugs than this game.

The addition of the Canadian Hockey League – the overseeing organization of the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League, all of them junior leagues – greatly affects all modes of the game, from the Memorial Cup that starts off Be a Pro mode to the drafts in Be a GM. It’s a great addition to the game, especially in a year like this where two highly touted prospects – Edmonton’s Taylor Hall and Boston’s Tyler Seguin – will likely make NHL rosters. It’s really nice to be able to play as your favourite junior hockey team in the game, but I think more could have been done to expand on this. The game lets you play the Memorial Cup, but that’s about it in terms of significant additions. You can simulate a season via season mode, but the game foolishly lets you sign overage players, meaning I was able to concoct a starting lineup that included Sean O’Donnell, Nikolai Zherdev, Patrick O’Sullivan and Ray Emery as my starting goaltender. That’s something that needs to be fixed.

The CHL also plays into Be a GM, which saw some changes under the hood. The biggest change is the addition of restricted free agency, which is done to near perfection. The way contracts – especially restricted deals – are done in this game is a mirror of how they’re done in the NHL. A restricted free agent is a player under 27 who has fewer than seven years in the league, but is past his entry level contract. Teams who have players that are restricted can offer them a qualifying offer to keep them from becoming a free agent. If that qualifying offer isn’t signed by July 1st, that player becomes an RFA – if none is offered, that player becomes unrestricted – and if a team tries to sign a restricted free agent and he accepts, that player’s team has a week to match the contract, or let him go and accept compensation depending on the salary of the signed player. In terms of how players run their teams, this actually makes those draft picks that we all like to trade much more valuable than they used to be. On that note, the draft actually goes the full seven rounds now, and the game lets you trade up to five years worth of picks and up to five players, which can lead to some very complex trades. I’ll go into this in more detail in a bit, but this was the biggest thing people have been requesting out of BAGM mode, and EA nailed it.

Going back to the CHL, there are many options for starting a franchise, such as what rosters people want to use – you can have rosters be draft-day accurate if you wish, and redo the NHL draft – but the most curious is how the NHL Draft is handled choose you go with accurate rosters. It makes the draft useless, because the best players available are what would have been the eighth round selections in the “real” NHL draft, so you end up filling your roster out with mostly useless players. No matter what you do, most of the scouting work for the first couple of drafts is done for you if you have access to Eliteprospects.com or hockeysfuture.com (protip: get a high pick so you can draft either Adam Larsson, a defenceman from SkellefteÃ¥ in Sweden, or Richard Ullberg, a Finnish goaltender in ’11), though the game generates the people that aren’t actually in the game, including early draft picks to make up for prospects that can’t be represented in the game because they’re still amateurs (CHL players, even teenagers, are professionals). That’s where things get goofy; right now, the prospective #3 pick in the 2011 Draft is a North Korean kid named Wade Pyatt. It’s not physically possible to fully recreate the NHL Draft because they can’t put in colleges or the USHL (amateur leagues), and due to this some teams lose players (meaning, Edmonton has the rights to Taylor Hall, but the Stars don’t have Jack Campbell), but EA did a pretty decent job with the draft.

It’s other aspects of BAGM – including those infernal bugs – that bother me. Your owner is completely asinine with expectations most of the time, as he wanted me and the Edmonton Oilers to make the conference semifinals in my first year, which would be nothing short of miraculous considering their past record and roster. Trade logic was played up as being “better”, but in reality, it’s just more anal-retentive. Trades get rejected for the dumbest reasons, as I found out in my adventures in trying to trade Shawn Horcoff and his 5yr/$27.5m contract. I practically wore a sandwich board saying, “WILL PERFORM SEXUAL FAVOURS FOR GETTING RID OF HORCOFF’S CONTRACT”, and no one took him, for stupidly arbitrary reasons. The Kings wouldn’t take him and a 1st round pick in exchange for Ryan Smyth – a worse player with a more expensive, but shorter range deal – because they didn’t want to give up wingers. Eventually, I tried to trade him and a 1st for Andrew Brunette ($2.35m/1yr), and it was rejected, because “we are trying to get younger, and we can’t do that with veterans like Shawn Horcoff”. This would make sense if Brunette wasn’t six years older (37) than Horcoff (31). The game holds to its arbitrary team desires as to what they want in trades like babies holding onto a breast, and it makes most trades exercises in either frustration, unless you’re willing to have a lot of trades where you give up two quarters to get four dimes.

Even worse is the fact that BAGM is literally more broken this year than last. Last year was a bug free affair for the most part, and any issues were minor. This year is a mess. There’s a nasty bug where players sometimes won’t develop… at all. Player development is the same as last year, in that you select a category for each player to concentrate on, and that player develops stats mostly in that category. Right now, I have eight skaters and Carey Price who are sitting on the maximum of 1,500 experience points and haven’t developed one lick. Considering most of these are youngsters – youngsters who I have playing *specifically to develop* – it’s almost mode-breaking. Sure, I could simulate the season, but that leads to more problems. I simmed ahead to see how players develop, and noticed that my starting goaltender had played all 82 games for the 2011 season; my backup came in relief in three games for the entire season. Not only is this hyper unrealistic from a statistical standpoint, it’s bad if you have a goaltender you’re trying to develop as a backup, and furthermore, exposes a problem – the fact that goalies don’t fatigue, something NHL ’04 did – with the mode itself. Lastly, the waiver wire is a mess. I saw Mikko Koivu – an 87 rated centre with a manageable contract – playing in the AHL for an entire season. I’ve heard of reports of Henrik Sedin – only the most valuable player of the entire NHL – being in the AHL. Finally, I saw – one after another – two nice little nugget cross the transaction wire in a fantasy draft franchise:

* PIT claimed G Miikka Kiprusoff off waivers from BOS
* BOS claimed G Tuukka Rask off waivers from PIT

What the hell is this, one of those post-deadline waiver deals you see in Major League Baseball? No team in their right mind would waive either Kiprusoff (top 5 goalie) or Rask (the best goalie prospect in the game). Player potential is also a bit screwed up. For example, Jimmy Howard has an 85 rating, but C potential (meaning, he’s plateaued) at 26 years old, but Jimmy Waite – 41 year old Jimmy Freakin’ Waite, who was Ed Belfour’s backup in Chicago in NHLPA ’93 – actually has a B- potential rating in athleticism. Again: Jimmy Waite, the 41 year old backup goaltender for a German team, has more “potential” than a Calder finalist in his mid 20s. Players also start depreciating really young, which they did last year as well. My friend tells me that Nathan Horton – age 25 – is running a C- potential in his second franchise season, and I know by my third that Mikko Koivu was running a C- at 30, meaning those players were depreciating exceptionally fast. These issues make Be a GM mode almost unplayable, at least until the patch comes out to fix everything. Three weeks later, it’s not here yet. I lauded EA’s post-release support in my demo impressions, but they’re really slow on the uptake this year.

Be a Pro mode saw a change with the addition of the Memorial Cup, meaning you can join any junior team you want and start off right in the Memorial Cup. It’s a lot better than the one game you had to make an impression last year, but they almost ruin it by putting in a silly XP requirement. The good news is that they fixed experience in this game, so that you develop more evenly and with greater frequency than last year. The bad news is that they make that a requirement to get drafted, and later, to get playing time in preseason mode. It’s extremely exploitable, and if you have a bad game, it’s almost impossible to catch up. Once the season starts – either in the AHL or NHL (That’s a strike. If this was realistic, they would have to send you back to juniors if you were under 20, because junior-eligible players can’t play in the AHL.) – the XP requirement goes away, which is a good thing, but any of the problems from last year’s game are still around. There’s too much of a hard statistical requirement because the game does not know how to register good play that doesn’t result in something going in a box score, something that’s made worse by the stringent requirements to be registered for a hit. These are related. If I’m chasing winger in the corner down, and he has the puck, he wants to get rid of the puck. If he lets it go before I hit him, unless I staple him to the boards – and risk a boarding call – I don’t get credit for the hit, nor do I get any credit if, say, that panicked dump leads to a turnover in our favour. My solid play has led to a turnover, but because I don’t get credit for the hit, I lose credit. In fact, the game wants me to play a style of game that is against how I was taught to play growing up. The game wants me to recklessly hit players, sometimes even taking myself out of position to do so, when I want the players to either come into me or go wide. We call this “man-side defence,” but it costs me valuable hits, which also costs me at the end of the year when I get evaluated, especially since players in this game do everything they possibly can to avoid any contact possible. Finally, I had one season where I literally won the Calder, the Hart and the Conn Smythe trophies, and was greeted the next year with a pleasant message… basically telling me that if I played really well, starting out on the third line, I would have a shot at making the big club. If this was real life, I’d be in the papers for bitch-slapping my GM while screaming, “I PRACTICALLY WON YOU A GOD DAMNED STANLEY CUP, YOU IDIOT.” Then again, that’s just as dumb as Rick Nash (89) being my team’s second line RW because I (75) earned the #1 spot, yet my team is too stupid to, say, play Nash on the left wing and move Nikita Filatov (82, and dumber than a post) down, which I would love because Filatov exposes another problem: the AI of your teammates is practically retarded in BAP. Filatov and Vermette are almost guaranteed to cross the blue line, do a stupid auto-deke, and either turn it over, get dusted and turn it over, or take a wrist shot from the side dasher boards. Defencemen carrying out of the zone are more than happy to just carry the puck right into the forecheck on all difficulty levels. Basically, if I don’t specifically tell my players when to pass, I’ll almost never see the puck, and even then, they do exceptionally stupid things. Some of these things are fixable with a patch.

When playing as a goaltender, the gameplay is similar to that of last year, which is fine in and of itself, but things are made hairier by the rebound issues I described a few paragraphs back. Furthermore, while the addition of edge control last year was huge, there have been no improvements this year, and I can think of three that need to be added. First, we need the ability to T-glide (this is when a goaltender pushes from his back leg and glides with his front before stopping suddenly). It’s hard to get across the goal crease for those cross-ice passes, which makes one-timers especially problematic, especially in EASHL, where no one can effectively play defence. The second thing we need is some way to adjust the camera to look around. As I’ve stated, though I have played some defence, I grew up playing goal. If the puck’s in the corner, I usually take that time to park myself along the post, and swivel my head just to see where the other players are set up. Is there a winger sneaking in for a back door one-timer? Are they working an overload? Is someone parking in front for a screen should the puck get to the point? Even with the high camera, you can’t see half of the ice at any time, so if that puck comes out to the dot, and that player passes across to the other side, you could be seeing a shot from a winger you didn’t know was there; I don’t care how good you are, that puck is going in the net. The final issue is something that was kind of improved, but needs to be fixed for online play: goaltending is still largely automatic. There’s really not much point in going out and cutting down the angles, because you just leave yourself susceptible to backdoor plays, tips and weird bounces. Why not just do what a lot of human goaltenders do in EASHL: sit in the back of the net in the butterfly, and let the game automatically make saves for you? Unless you’re out to lunch all day, that’s all you really have to do to succeed as a goaltender in most games, making slight adjustments to your positioning. Since there’s a gigantic blue arrow that shows you where the puck is, all you really have to do is make sure your shoulders are square to the big pointy part, adjusting for extreme angles, and you’re fine. For online play, I would really like EA to make it closer to the manual goalkeeping option in FIFA ’11: make it to the point where, if you don’t do a save motion, you don’t make the save unless the puck just hits you or you’re in a proper butterfly with your shoulders square. Let’s separate the men from the boys here. Other than that, goaltending in BAP mode has the same problem the other positions have, multiplied: the game doesn’t care how goals are scored on you, it just cares that they went in. It doesn’t count a power play goal or breakaway against you, even a bad one, but if your idiot defenceman passes the puck up the middle and the centre puts it into the net without you being ready, that counts fully against you. There needs to be a contextual grading scheme for Be a Pro mode, and for EASHL, for that matter.

Speaking of EASHL, it’s come back, with a lot of improvements. It’s a lot easier to jump into a random, ranked game now via the drop-in game, and there’s also support for practices with your EASHL teammates, should you land on a team, which is a HUGE improvement for top-tier teams that take things seriously. With that said, it’s still an issue getting onto one of those top-tier teams unless you have a friend. I almost want to ask my friend if he wants to start a team with me, because the process of getting on a team that’s worth a damn is too painful. There are public teams to join, but like anything involving the public, this is more trouble than its worth. There’s a leaderboard setup for people that want to recruit or be recruited, but just getting onto that leaderboard is a problem in and of itself. The same problem that plagues Be a Pro plagues EASHL rankings: the game only cares about hard stats. You know what that means: BRING ON THE RINGERS! Drop-in games are the best way to increase your stats to get noticed for a good team, but consider yourself lucky if you get on a team where you’ll actually see a pass; most of the time, you’re stuck with some idiot who auto-dekes all day, takes 20 shots, scores on none of them, and only hits RT to call for the puck (this reminds me: EA Vancouver. Please, please, please, for the love of Mary, PLEASE make it so that players can’t call for a pass from computer goaltenders if they’re more than five feet away. Lord knows how many times some idiot has called for a pass from the goalie from the blue line and the puck’s ended up in our net). This means the game ends up usually being a fight over who gets the puck so they can pad their stats, and since computer players always obey calls for passes, all it takes is one jerkoff to screw things up, especially since win-loss totals don’t matter. As a defenceman and/or goaltender, this is doubly problematic for me because their mistakes cost me via my save percentage and plus/minus. All of this can be solved with some contextual grading of players – ie, punishing those who play a selfish game, like NBA 2K11 is trying to do in My Player mode – and rewarding those that play a team game, even if you have to overcompensate to do so.

I don’t mean to sound like a Negative Nancy, though; even with those problems, EASHL – which allows for full six-on-six play – is the best online mode in sports. There is nothing better than having a good game going with six human players, especially if everyone knows how to play hockey. One game under these circumstances is good enough to make people forget about the ten before it that sucked. The only time the experience becomes a problem is when all the connections cause lag issues, which usually aren’t a problem unless you’re a goaltender. The improvements to this mode make what was the best package in sports better, even if improvements are needed to stay ahead of the curve.

Graphically, I think NHL ’11 made silght improvements over last year. Faces for most NHL players are mapped in very well, and though there are a few weird results, they are few and far between. They must have made a lot of changes, because loading – either loading a mode, or especially when simulating games in Season or BAGM modes – takes FOREVER. In fairness to EA, my only other example to go off of is the 360 version of the prior few years’ versions, so I am unsure if this is a PS3 issue or an NHL ’11 issue, but the times are still excessive. On-ice sounds are just fine, but the EA Trax soundtrack takes a cue from the soundtrack found in Madden, in that it sucks. They made sure to combine a few newer songs with a bunch of old-school arena anthems, but those songs are all so overplayed as it is that the last thing I want to do is hear them constantly in my game. These songs played so often that they made something happen that I thought was impossible: they made me sick of the band Europe. Thank goodness there’s a custom soundtrack option, and thank goodness that, despite the fact that it seems to only like MP3s, the system – from getting the music off of my memory stick and onto the PS3, to putting it in the game – of getting custom soundtracks into the game is seamless. There are a lot of nice options here, including having certain songs playing for certain teams for introductions, for goals, even for winning the Stanley Cup. There’s even a song you can play every time your pro scores in BAP mode, which is very nice. I love what they did here, even if it means I get to hear a soundtrack that has Jay-Z’s “Heart of the City” following King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight“.

With all of this stated, even taking into account my recent head injury, it took me an exceptional amount of time to take in everything this game had to offer. There is a world of gameplay to be had with NHL ’11, and even taking away the week and a half I lost while I tried to recover, it still took me two weeks of constant, holy-shit-it’s-3AM gameplay to absorb everything and review this game properly. This is why I’m harping on reviewers who seemed to be able to get a review out so quickly; it’s not possible to review a sports game in 2010 so quickly without missing something. I understand readers were waiting on this review, and I know EA’s probably not happy with how late it is – especially with how negative I’ve been so far – and I apologize to everyone involved. But I need to say this: I would rather be late and 100% accurate than hit a superfluous deadline and be wrong. I feel I owe that to our readers, and to the companies that send us games. That’s the blessing and the curse with games this deep; there’s so much to do that it’s hard to process it all.

The Scores
Modes: Good
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Good
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Bad
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

Don’t make any mistake: NHL ’11 is a good game of hockey, and those that buy it will be able to adjust to the new game to get a playable, enjoyable product.

With that said, I don’t think I’ve been this disappointed in a game in a long time. I was legitimately excited for this year’s game, and while it took some nice steps forward, it took just as many backwards due to the terrible job of quality assurance. If I play your game and find myself pining for the older version at times, you have a problem on your hands, and while I’m not about go to back out to buy NHL ’10, this year’s game is a big enough disappointment to hurt. Due to everything that had to be fixed, and everything that still needs to be fixed, I have to say that this game feels rushed.

If you want to think of NHL ’10 as the winners of the Stanley Cup, think of NHL ’11 having a stereotypical ‘Cup hangover, making it into the playoffs as an eighth seed, and getting wiped out in five games. Unless you’re a huge NHL fan and play a lot of online games, either save your money for another year, or pick it up after patches make the single-player modes playable.

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