What's It All About:
EA Sports' NHL franchise is the yardstick by which all hockey games are judged, and to anyone judging sports video games without bias, it delivers the most enjoyable and authentic sports experience you can get, thanks to the quality of the game and the elements of hockey, both on and off the ice, that lend themselves so well to a video game simulation. NHL '11 is widely viewed as the best entry in the series since the landmark NHL '94, and the latest annual installment keeps pretty much everything that worked and makes fine-grain tweaks to improve several other areas.
The standard pick-up and go game remains mostly the same as last year, with various refinements to the gameplay. That's all you could ask for, and in that way the game really delivers. The new physics engine really puts an emphasis on the contact element of this contact sport, letting you put guys through the glass or onto benches, and for the first time, goalies are fair game, so crease battles actually affect the netminder. In the course of your average game, it won't be a huge deal, but when it happens, you'll appreciate it. The same goes for the improved AI, which enhances both offense and defense, as computer-controlled players anticipate puck possession and adjust accordingly, resulting in more realistic breakouts and better computer defense. This is good and bad, as the defense can be stifling, picking off the majority of your passes, though you'll find the old pull up, turn and pass move is still rather effective.
The one mode that's a must-play is the Winter Classic, as played at Heinz Field in 2011. There's nothing about the actual game play that's much different from the average match-up, but the atmosphere of the NHL's annual outdoor game just makes it more fun. The great thing is, you don't have to recreate the meeting between the Penguins and Capitals, but can pick any teams you want. For fans who may never get to see their team play in the snow, it's a chance to experience a bit of that feeling. That said, this mode has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that if there's no Winter Classic between the Islanders and Rangers, it will be a crime.
The legends mode, which has received tremendous hype leading up to the release of this game, is little more than Be a Pro mode with shortcuts, as you start as a star, Jeremy Roenick, and work to reach career achievements that unlock other great players, leading up to the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky. There are special videos that are unlocked as well, but the main draws for Be a Legend is skipping the development stages and putting superstars on the team of your choice. To your reviewer, it was more fun creating myself and building that character in the traditional Be a Pro mode, as the sense of achievement was greater. Some enhancements here, including in-game goals tied to ice time and better experiences when it comes to your time on the bench, as well as making the CHL part of your player's career (or the ability to play as a CHL prospect) make Be a Pro far more inviting than it's been in the past.
The rest of the modes have received a few tweaks here and there, most of which actually have a real effect on the quality of the game, like the further definition of the team staff in Be a GM mode, which now has four slots, and unlocking higher levels give you specific capabilities. The Ultimate Team mode has new variations in the cards you use to build your team, including healing cards needed to fix injuries. The revamp of the sim engine that lets you skip games in most modes might be the best change in the game though. In the past, simming was limited to stepping in between periods and before overtime, at which point the game might be well out of your control. Now, the game plays out in front of you, via text and symbols, at five rates of speed, letting you enjoy the flow of the game and jump in wherever you feel like. Yes, it's nothing new (as it apes the gameplay of the classic Eastside Hockey Manager) but it's well implemented and makes simming a much more enjoyable part of the game.
Another tweak that's less integral to the game but certainly enjoyable is the Action Tracker, which lets you jump back to big hits, saves and goals through out the game, presented in a continuous reel of alternate angles. This is just how instant replays should be handled. That it's available at any time during the game makes it all the more useful in gloating and basking in the greatness that is you. For armchair GMs, the trade system has gotten a slight tweak as well, with NHL approval on deals, preventing wholly lopsided deals, but seemingly only if you're the one being ripped off. Yet, I still managed to make my yearly first move, trading Rick DiPietro in a salary dump. Unfortunately, we still can't extend contracts, so you still face the horror of a star player reaching the end of their deal and asking for seven times the money they were previously making.
Though online play has had its issues in the early going (carrying over from NHL '11's late-season problems), when you get a match going it's very smooth, and the match-ups make sense in terms of fairness. So far, there's not a lot of the all-star team buying and cheap play seen last season, likely due in part to the changes in the controls, where dekes are tougher to pull off.
One very new feature is the integration of the EA Arena, where you can play for money or prizes. Though it's currently limited in scope (you can't play single games for money) the concept is great for those very competitive players out there. What's not great is how you set up matches, since you have to find an opponent on the EA Arena website, then find them in the game's Arena lobby. It's clunky, and frequently I would find an opponent who was on the site but not actually playing the game.
The controls are less forgiving than in the previous entry, and tie more directly into your player ratings. As a result, unless you have necessary hands in-game, you wont be pulling off the forehand-backhand dekes that led to so many goals last year. You also won't be crushing opposing players with ease as they skate along the boards, unless you're positioned right and are bigger, stronger and a better checker than the other guy. Thus, you have to strategize better, and utilize your teammates more. Coast-to-coast breakaways still happen, but you're not going to tuck it short-side with ease. But on the plus side, returning for the first time in a while, you can skate backward anywhere on the ice, which is handy in setting up passes. In goal, things are much the same, though staying on your pads still gives you something of an unfair advantage, as your control is far sharper, even if it reduces your side-to-side speed.
Achievement fans should enjoy the mix of rewards available among the 45 achievements, which are worth a total of 1,000 points. The achievements can be earned across all modes, with fun ones, like putting a player over the boards into their bench or shattering the glass with a hit, make earning them enjoyable. The legends theme looms large here with several achievements tied to real-world milestones, including the ridiculous "One Great Career", which requires you to compile 2,858 points in Be a Pro mode.
The visuals haven't seen any major overhauls this time around, but they didn't really need it, with the previous release having looked terrific. However, the graphics have received some polish that's raised the bar, including sharper details and some additional animations to cover the new collisions and extracurricular activities, like goalies losing their helmets. I swear I never saw players reach over the boards to hand teammates new sticks, and if I did, it didn't stand out because it didn't look this good. The "TV presentation" also looks improved, especially the highlight packages for impressive players during the game. Overall, the menus look better, but run a bit slower, however load times before games seem reduced.
On an annoying note, there's a large number of jerseys missing from the game, waiting for an unlock code. Traditionally this has meant teams' new third jerseys were unavailable, but this time there are several main jerseys missing, including the Florida Panthers' home jersey and the Winnipeg Jets' new kits. Hopefully we get the code earlier than usual, but no one should hold their breath.
Like the visuals, the audio is all about improving rather than fixing, as the game, including veteran announcers Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, sounds very nice (at least when they aren't plugging something (which they do often.)) The in-arena announcer seems to have been pumped up a bit, sounding more enthusiastic than in the past, and the crowd has a few new bon mots to share. The in-game sound effects are as good as ever, delivering every check, clank and crack quite genuinely, and the soundtrack has taken a step forward for fans of traditional hockey music, folding in more classic rock like ELO than the usual mix of cutting edge before-they-are-famous alt rock.
And in the End...
Fans of the NHL series are unlikely to skip an entry, for any number of reasons, including the roster and uniform updates, the online play or the simple lack of competition, and there's no reason to start now, as this version's tweaks offer a genuine improvement over last year's well-regarded title, once you adjust to the more realistic controls (either through practice or tuner adjustments.) Hell, just the addition of the Winter Classic alone might make it worth the purchase price, and you can consider the overblown legends a little bonus thrown in with the multitude of modes and options available to you.