Enjoy all the new features of NHL 11 and good luck â€“ thanks EA, Iâ€™m going to need it…
Letâ€™s make things clear from the very start. This is not really a review, more of an exploration into an unknown world. I havenâ€™t played any of the previous NHL series (or any sports game within the past 12 years come to think of it) and despite some occasional late night viewing of the game during the last Winter Olympics, couldnâ€™t really tell you a lot about ice hockey other than predictable and obvious details like it involves sticks and blades and pucks and bashing Canadians into barriers â€“ the usual sort of thing.
So why the sudden interest in a massive sports title? Well EA have written in large letters on the back cover â€œEvery moment can be a WOW momentâ€ and with the promise of a pioneering sports video game realtime physics engine, it is time for me to see what Iâ€™ve been missing out on all these years.
Immediately, Iâ€™m asked which hand goes where on my hockey stick when creating my profile as this will influence my dekes. I have no idea so have to go and practice with my umbrella to try and work it out.Â I donâ€™t know what a deke is yet either but the tutorial is simple yet not patronising. Unfortunately, EA clearly hadnâ€™t envisioned anyone playing this game who would take dozens of attempts to get a very basic move correct â€“ the tutorial only moves on once you have mastered the required move which is a great idea in principal and does ensure that you build up the skills youâ€™ll need to survive on the ice. However, the very annoying voiceover telling me to use the right stick to select your fore or backhand grip then choose the direction of the puck or lift the stick of your opposing centre-man whilst simultaneously using the left stick to move your body to block during the new faceoff system becomes maddening as he repeats the instruction on every attempt. I soon wanted to punch something and to my surprise, got my wish as there is a fighting section during the tutorial! In fact, it goes into some depth, explaining how with the â€˜Yâ€™ button you can grab someone then punch them in the face and finally perform a turtle on them (?) or knock them unconscious.
The terminology is there to satisfy the hockey hardcores out there and is unashamedly complex but this helps makes the whole experience authentic and Iâ€™m soon itching to try out my fresh skills and start a match. The atmosphere in the stadiums is electric with classic rock soundtracks blaring out over the roaring crowds, the lights reflecting off the polished ice and players mimicking every detail that you would find in a real hockey match. The graphics are superb and the brief cut scenes of players in the box grabbing some water or chatting to the coach makes the whole game feel like a live TV broadcast. This illusion is quickly dispelled once I start playing as translating what I learnt in the tutorial with the uber intelligent computer-controlled squad Iâ€™m up against takes time. Strategy and planning play a huge part in getting around the other team – get it wrong and things speedily go against you.
With over 200 enhancements, the gameplay is astonishingly good. It flows realistically and there are plenty of clever incidents that make each match unique and prevent the game getting boring. I lost an edge whilst skating and crashed to the floor, my stick broke so I had to scoot over to the box and borrow a team mates (though I also could have just kicked the puck) and a fight started whilst I was throwing some shapes during my celebration of my first goal â€“ it all adds to the drama, excitement and unpredictability that you would expect of a real match. There are millions of ways to score a goal and regardless of your chosen difficulty level (rookie, pro, all star or superstar), timing and mastery over the ice to make tough, accurate passes means this title will provide a challenge for a wide audience.
The other big addition to the game so Iâ€™m told is the Hockey Ultimate Team mode. Earn EA Pucks when playing matches to buy more than 4000 trading cards featuring players from over 10 hockey leagues. Using the cards, you can create your ultimate line up, spending hours matching players with each other to get the right chemistry, contracts and training. You are a manager and a trading card collector wrapped up in a highly detailed package. Once you have your team, you can also play against other players online in the EA Sports Ultimate Hockey League featuring monthly playoffs…but thatâ€™s in the very distant future for me!
For now Iâ€™m happy to keep practising my aim and passing with the old turtle thrown in for good measure. Any moment can be a wow moment and in this game, they just keep on coming. I seriously doubt there are many other sports games that can be as good as this one. Thank you EA for the most sporting fun Iâ€™ve had in a very long time.