NHL 11 Review: It’s a Bullet Train to Sore Thumb Junction

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NHL 11
EA Sports
PS3, Xbox 360
ESRB rating: Everyone 10+ for Mild Violence
System reviewed on: Xbox 360

The NHL season officially kicks off this Thursday, and hockey fans looking for a way to live out their dreams via their videogame consoles don’t have too much to agonize over this time around.

If you’re a Wii owner looking for an authentic NHL experience, you’ve got NHL 2K11 from 2K Sports. If you’re a PS3 or Xbox 360 owner, you’ve got NHL 11 from EA sports. There’s no crossover between the two games this year.

Despite not having any serious competition on the Xbox 360 or PS3, NHL 11 doesn’t disappoint. Aside from the actual playability, which we’ll get to in a minute, the sheer amount of depth is almost overwhelming. You’ve got the standard games, season mode, tournament mode, playoff mode, Be A Pro mode, Be A GM mode, the all-new Hockey Ultimate Team mode, and more.

Hockey Ultimate Team

Hockey Ultimate Team is a total time suck (and potential money suck) for die-hard hockey fans. You build your own team from the ground up and play in month-long seasons against other Hockey Ultimate Team owners or the CPU.

As you progress, you earn EA Pucks for various achievements, which can be exchanged for card packs that can be used to upgrade your team. While you’re able to earn cards over time the old-fashioned way, you can alternatively spend your own money—real money—on card packs from the in-game store. Trading cards with online players is an option as well.

This new mode adds an addictive, RPG-type element to the game that ought to easily keep armchair GM’s happily occupied for quite some time.

Other Modes

Be A GM mode and Be A Pro mode are similar to previous years’ efforts, allowing you to run your favorite NHL franchise for up to 25 years in the case of the Be A GM mode, or create your own player in Be A Pro mode.

I actually spent most of my time in the Be A Pro mode. You create your character and choose your position, then work your way through the Canadian Hockey League’s round-robin Memorial Cup tournament as a junior player. Play well enough throughout the tournament, and you’ll get snatched up quickly during the NHL draft. You then play out your career at your given position, building experience points that you can use to improve your persona’s skills along the way.

On The Ice

While the game’s already-nice overall look hasn’t been drastically overhauled, there’s a new real-time physics engine, a new face-off system, hip checks, broken sticks, and a slew of other, more minor additions.

The new physics engine makes for some downright unbelievable gameplay. Each player on the ice seems to move around just a little bit differently than the next, body checks take on all different shapes, sizes, and severity, and each of your AI teammates and opponents literally seems to have a mind of his own. On more than one occasion, I found myself saying, “Wow, I’ve seen that happen in a real hockey game but I’ve never seen it in a video game.”

Case in point: I took a slapshot from the blue line, the puck hit the crossbar, and popped up in the air above the goal. I watched as my AI teammate skated over next to the goalie, lifted his stick up to about shoulder level, and tapped the puck into the net out of mid-air—all in one fluid motion.

The refs then stopped to review the goal, at which point they found that my teammate hadn’t lifted his stick high enough to get called for high sticking. All this information was relayed to me by the AI announcers, who remarked that my teammate knew exactly how high he could lift his stick without getting penalized. Consider the series of events—from a purely programming perspective—that have to trigger one another for that to happen.

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