EA kind of have an easy victory with NHL 11 this year. Its major competitor, NHL 2K, is taking a break this year which means I can happily announce that NHL 11 is the best hockey game of the year. Luckily, I can actually justify that beyond it being so by default. The past two entries in EA's hockey sim franchise have been fantastic. The same could be said for most other EA Sports titles as well. It seems like, recently, EA Sports have really been trying their hardest to get the most realistic experience possible whilst maintaining the fun. NHL 11 is no different. There are a few annoying additions which I would've liked to not exist but NHL 11 really is the ultimate hockey package. At least until next year.
The big thing EA has to tackle with is making the next edition better than the last outing; otherwise people will just stick with the previous edition. So, for NHL 11, EA have pulled out a real time physics engine which is exactly what the series needs. It's definitely baby steps at the moment, but EA has a three year roll out plan to get the engine established. Even so, the addition is highly welcome.
The main difference players will immediately notice is that everything feels weightier. Big hits will look a lot more painful. Slamming a guy into the boards before he falls to the ice is incredibly satisfying. That is unless it's your guy, but then you just have to admire the tragic beauty of it all. Shots feel like they have more power behind them when a player blocks the shot and reacts accordingly to where the puck hit. Even the subtle gestures make all the difference, and not just cosmetically either. It's standard fare that if a check doesn't connect with the other player, then nothing will happen. However here, if your defender just manages to nudge the player with the puck, they may have a more difficult time lining up a shot because they've been nudged slightly away from the puck. It makes chasing someone down on a breakaway that much more intense. Such small actions can ultimately have such a big effect.
Checks in general feel more realistic. As I said before, the success of checks felt very random at times. In NHL 11, even just a slight check could trip a player up, knock the puck away just as they're about to pass or even successfully intercept a pass. To add to the realism, sticks will snap. It can often all too often but it's a pretty neat addition nonetheless. Even if your stick snaps, you're still able to pass and block the puck, albeit not as effectively. So to remedy this, you can either skate over to the bench to grab a new one or get a teammate to give you theirs, which is handy if you have the perfect shot. The broken sticks on the ice can also be a hazard, being a definite tripping hazard sending skaters flying. It really does provide an unpredictable experience, making it even more fun.
Face-offs have also seen a revamp. As oppose to just being about timing, there are all sorts of new strategic ways to win a face-off. The first of these is the way in which you hold your stick. You can either grip the stick with your forehand or backhand which not only factors into what your opposition is doing (certain combinations will come with different outcomes) but also allows you to have more control of where the puck goes after you win a face-off. There's also the opportunity to tie up the opposition, allowing your players to swoop in and snatch the puck away. If you're feeling daring, you can even try to take a shot straight from the face-off.
Now before I start talking about the EA Sports Ultimate Hockey League mode, the new mode which the game revolves around, I need to say that I hated the Ultimate Team mode in Madden and FIFA. They revolved too much around the trading cards and too little on the actual sport. If I wanted to manage a team, I would buy Football Manager or a specific management sim. When I purchase a sports sim game, I expect some sports. Unfortunately, EAUHL is exactly like Ultimate Team, only fiddlier. You start off with a booster pack of low players and gradually earn more points to buy new packs and gain new players. To make the fact that this isn't very interesting in the first place worse is that the menus are so unintuitive. There seems to be no order to anything. To replace a player, you'll have to search through your entire roster for a suitable player rather than the players being organised in any way. And there are so many menus it's like getting lost in a maze of options. If you enjoyed Ultimate Team, then you should give the EAUHL mode a try but for me, I'd much rather stick with the regular Tournament mode.
Be A Pro mode is back and is better than before, mainly because your AI teammates are actually useful and not just wasting time. Other than that though, there isn't much change here. Why fix something that isn't really broken?
Most of the modes are available to play online and, luckily, it's all relatively lag free making Online Team games or one-on-one matches much more exciting with players rarely dropping out, unless you are severely beating their ass into the ice.
Knowing that NHL 2K wouldn't be released this year, you'd think EA Canada would take a back seat knowing full well that they will win the title of best hockey game this year, mainly because there are no others. Luckily for us, they realised that would be a stupid idea and went all-out in delivering a fantastic physics engine that really adds to the game. EAUHL could definitely do with some improvements but on the ice NHL 11 is easily the best hockey game yet. Until NHL 12...and 13....and 14... and 15....