Demo Impressions: NHL ’11

Note: The purpose of this piece is solely to look at the on-ice play in the demo. Modes such as Hockey’s Ultimate Team will be investigated in the review in September, when I’ve seen them in their entirety.

The release of the yearly NHL demo, for me, is equivalent of Black Friday; it’s my indication that the sports game season is fully upon us. I know that after the demo comes the main release, as well as the releases of both NBA games, all of the football games… it’s a glorious time, which doesn’t even go into the releases of NCAA Football and Madden. Every year at this time, I download the NHL demo, and soak in the new gameplay changes. I’m a huge fan of the series and the sport, so the demo has the potential every year to either make me unbearably excited, or morose for weeks.

This year’s demo has been out for about a week now, and I’ve played around with it quite a bit. Speaking purely from a gameplay perspective of the early build, my opinions so far are… mixed.

The biggest change made to this year’s game is the addition of a physics engine. In past years, you would see specific animations for bodychecks that didn’t always seem contextual, in some cases causing players to “suck in” to each other to complete the animation. Last year, EA tried to address it a bit with the addition of different flavours of play, from casual to hardcore. With the new physics engine, you’re supposed to have to actually stand up the person you’re trying to hit; it’s not good enough to hit them, you have to hit them right, with different hits depending on where you catch the player. For the most part, the new system works well in that you can *feel* the difference between a light hit and when you light someone up or get lit up. In terms of hits along the boards, I’ve never had a game feel this right, as there are an untold number of animations for all sorts of different body checks. Open ice is fine as well, but things tend to fall apart when it comes to not having momentum, such as in scrums after the whistle and when jostling for position in front of the net. I had way too many instances, when I choose to be a defenceman in my zone, where I would try to push or jostle someone out of the way, and ended up just blindly throwing a hit at thin air while my man got a tip or rebound. There is no reasonable way to tie up someone in front of jostle with him; you can try to lift his stick, but you’re just as likely to take a slashing penalty or miss completely. This needs to be addressed, since this will likely be a huge issue in Be a Pro.

Another thing added is that hip checking is now noted as something you have to determine to do. It used to be that you could just let someone get to the side of you, flick the right stick, and watch your defenceman make a beeline to the forward’s legs to take him out at the speed of light. Now, it’s a lot more realistic, in that you have to actually drop down and get him with your hip by pressing the R3 button. If it’s done right, it’s a great play, and if it’s done wrong, you’re out of the play. This is a great addition that adds another layer of skill to body checking, but the physics need to be cleaned up a bit; there are times when I’ve went to hip check someone, missed, but because the player clipped my skate or something, he went flying over me as if I executed a perfect, Brian Leetch-like hip check.

New face-off mechanics are the last of the on-ice major changes. Now, instead of just being a timing ploy (flick back on the stick at the right time), you have to set up your move ahead of time. The right stick is the stick, the left stick is the player. For example, if you want to use backhand side of a right handed centre to win the draw back to a defenceman, you have to hold the right stick to the left (as if you were pulling the stick back with your left shoulder), and then do a semi-circle back. So far, I’ve had issues adjusting, and kept resorting to just tying up the opposing centre; winning draws any other way feels like luck. There’s supposed to be a rock-paper-scissors approach to this, but I’ve had issues adjusting. However, this could be because I’ve never played forward in my entire life, and don’t have a clue about how to take a real face-off.

Overall, while in the course of playing multiple games, I noticed that the pace of the game had slowed down a bit; everything is more deliberate this year than it was in NHL ’10. This is a good thing; the game is still fast paced, but it’s been tempered a bit to resemble what real hockey feels like. Another thing I like is that the pressure passing mechanic that made its comeback last year has returned, and has been made default. This eliminates a lot of the ping-pong passing that was going on before, and instead gives players the option of either bulleting a pass to players, or leading them on up the wing. On the other side, it forces players to be smart about where they’re going with the puck, both in the offensive zone and on the breakout. Speaking of passing, the computer defenders do a VERY nice job of defending those one-time shots we’ve been using since NHL ’94. On two on one breaks, the computer defenders do a great job of staying between players and taking away the pass, to force you to take the shot. The little tricks that you were able to do to separate yourself and get a cheap passing lane in ’10, such as cutting to the centre of ice and waving towards the goal, aren’t possible anymore; they either get cut off by the defenceman stepping up, or get soaked up by a backchecker covering the wing on the other side. It’s a lot more realistic, and the one-timers that do happen end up happening at places on the ice you’d expect to see them. On that note, there’s a palpable difference in player quality between the higher and lower levels of the game. In the Hockey’s Ultimate Team part of the demo, you can go through a tournament that pits you against the Windsor Spitfires (winners of the Memorial Cup, junior hockey’s championship), both Stanley Cup finalists (Philly, Chicago) and the Canadian National Team, and the jump in play between going from playing Windsor – a team of teenagers – to playing the Flyers is absolutely noticeable. That’s not something I’ve been able to say much of in the past.

Shooting the puck feels a lot more realistic now. The mechanics are the same, but wrist shots and snap shots have been sped up a bit, which is especially noticeable on the snap shots, which used to be useless in the past. The issue of being able to skate towards the slot and shoot a heavy wrist-shot high to the glove side has also been addressed. Goaltenders are also not as much of puck sponges as they were in the past, though they went overboard in fixing that issue. Now, any shot that’s on goal stands a good chance of literally bouncing on the goaltender as he flails at it. I’ve seen numerous pucks literally sitting on the goaltender’s shoulder – even his glove shoulder – while he sits there helplessly in the butterfly. It’s one thing to see this happening while you’re playing a normal game, but this could cause massive issues while playing as a goaltender in Be a Pro or Online Team Play. Thankfully, something like this is easily addressed via a patch, and I’d be willing to bet EA Canada has this taken care of on day of release.

What I AM non-plussed about are the numerous issues that should have been addressed from last year that were either ignored, or made worse. The computer AI, though improved, still has issues while breaking out. There are times when they’ll just pass around the neutral zone, and will continue to do this without dumping the puck in. Sometimes, the computer player will skate all the way back from the offensive blue line to behind his net, as if they were playing keep away. It’s not even like the computer is trying to sucker you into not filling your holes while forechecking; they’re just too dumb to do anything else. There’s also an issue of trying to hit someone; sometimes, the game just doesn’t read that you’re using the right stick, and your player will just skate up to the guy with the puck and do nothing. Then there’s issues like board play, when you’re tied up. I STILL cannot shake myself loose in any way possible. If I have the puck deep in the offensive end – like, say, if I got the puck on a forecheck or a dump-in – and I’m tied up, I either have to hope that someone comes along to help (not always smart, as if they get the puck and break out, now two forwards are trapped instead of one), or just sit there and wait until the puck is taken, because I cannot get away from being pinned in any way. In real hockey, this is a holding penalty. And forget handling the puck as a goaltender; I’ve had goaltenders who go back to play the puck pass in the complete opposite direction that I want them to, to the point where I’ve just decided it’s smarter to shoot it out, possible delay of game penalty be damned. Of course, even if you make a mistake while passing, it’s not like anyone’s going to take advantage; whenever the goaltender passes or leaves the puck out, opposing players will blindly skate over it. It’s like they have a gentlemen’s agreement to play the puck, as if they were playing pond hockey and you just took frozen pucks behind the goal.

Finally, in the land of the frivolous, there has been the addition of user celebrations for goals, much like what’s in FIFA. These are all but useless. If you don’t hit a button within a split second of scoring the goal, your scorer will do a canned animation. Most of the goal animations have a stiff, Uncanny Valley feel to them, and look horribly out of place. At the very least, the time in which you’re allowed to do them is mercifully short; you can’t skate around the entire rink pumping your first for a minute and a half like you could in FIFA.

Overall, there’s a lot to like, but I haven’t seen a game this late in development in this series that has been this badly in need of gameplay tweaks. There’s a lot of work to be done to make this feel like a polished game, and I’m worried that they won’t have it done by the time the full version comes out on September 7th. If there’s any reason to be thankful, it’s that EA’s post-release support for their games is better than any company not named Valve. They will listen to their customers, and support them. That’s a good thing, because this one might need the support.



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