EA's NHL franchise has been the most critically acclaimed sports franchise of this generation. EA Canada rebooted their NHL franchise in 2008 by creating a dual stick control scheme that allowed for a massive increase in stick control and shot options than any game before it. Ever since then they have been steadily building on the formula by increasing both the in-game mechanics and the variety of modes and styles that could be enjoyed. This year's iteration continues this trend and addresses the biggest issue that existed with the previous few games.
In terms of the actual in-game mechanics, NHL 11 has a completely new real-time physics system which creates a much more realistic game environment. Players no longer get locked in hitting animations which lead to stupid controller throwing penalties. It also fixes the bizarre situation where a perfectly lined up hit would barely throw the opposing player off stride but a horrible backwards skating hit would crush somebody. This change gets rid of some of the weird glitches where a player could track someone around the back of the net easily by just holding the hit button.
The faceoff system has been completely overhauled which is good news for fans of the franchise. The formula used to revolve around the timing of the right stick drawback, combined with the players faceoff rating and then some secret math to determine who would win. This required almost no skill and became incredibly predictable for people who played regularly. This year, EA Canada has introduced a new skill based faceoff system that is more realistic and requires some strategy, just like a real faceoff would in the NHL. The system is quite simple in that it relies on the franchise staple of two stick controls. The left stick allows you to control the player's body positioning, allowing you the option to try and tie up the opposing center while your wingers retrieve the puck. The right stick controls the hockey stick and allows you to choose your draw side and try to outwit your opponent in the circle. The controls for this are quite simple and understandable to hockey fans, however, the intricacies might take a while for fans of the game but not the sport to pick up.
Goaltending has always been questionable in EA's NHL franchise and NHL 11 still has problems, however, they are nowhere near as bad as previous versions. The biggest improvement seems to be in the decision making area when the goalie loses track of the puck in the crease. In previous games, the goalie would flail around like a fish out of water and knock the puck in far more often then he should. The goalie will now search for the puck and will actively make sure not to kick it in accidently. They are not 100% successful, but neither are the professional goalies. The other major improvement is in the decision of whether or not to leave the crease when the puck has been dumped down the ice and players are chasing it. He will now successfully pick up the puck, which allows the player to be a lot more relaxed than in past versions when the goalies would miss the puck a lot and sometimes deflect it into their own net. The situation has been improved greatly, but there are still flaws in the system.
As the developers are proud to boast on the back of the box, there are a lot of minor in-game mechanic improvements this year. The most immediately noticeable is that you can both lose your stick from a hard hit or blocked shot as well as have it break with alarming frequency, just like in the real NHL. All of the improvements made to the game allow a more dynamic game and realistic game, which fans of the sport will truly appreciate.
NHL 11 also presents a real treat for a lot of Canadian fans as now the 3 leagues of the Canadian Hockey League, the WHL, OHL and QMJHL are in the game. Major junior hockey is extremely popular in a lot of Canadian towns and having them in the game with player names is a real treat. The additional bonus is that they are usable in both the season mode and playoff mode so you can play as your favourite CHL team and try to win the Memorial Cup. The addition of the CHL adds to the list of leagues involved, as now almost every major hockey league is represented aside from the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League), formerly the Russian Super League. This shows EA Canada's commitment to making their franchise the most complete hockey game on the market.
The Be a Pro system has been improved immensely. When you start there is no longer the generic game to see where you will be drafted. You now play in the Memorial Cup and the combination of games is used to decide where you should be drafted. This improvement means that you are no longer guaranteed to go in the first round and your agent will tell you what you need to work on to get a higher draft rating and will give you his predictions on where you will go. This situation makes the starting part of Be a Pro a lot more fun as it no longer feels like you're the only person that was drafted.
All year long, EA Sports has been promoting their new Ultimate Team mode which began in FIFA and has since migrated to the majority of their professional sports games. This system allows players to collect hockey cards and build a roster using the cards, then take that roster online and compete against other players. The system layout has a lot of very cool ideas that are poorly implemented and really take a lot of the fun out of managing your team. A lot of the elements are far more time consuming and frustrating than their counterparts in the rest of the modes, such as moving players around that are already on the active roster. The Auction house is brilliant and there is a real thrill to participating and trying to get the cards you're interested in, especially if you get into a bidding war and win. While this system is great for long-time fans of the franchise who want something a little different, the poor interface will probably turn off most casual players from playing more than a couple of games.
A lot of minor presentation improvements have been made which are nice but not overly necessary. Things such as improved pregame videos and more aesthetically pleasing scoreboard layouts are nice; however, the most annoying part of the presentation, the in game commentary, remains the same. While new lines are added to the commentary every year, hearing the same problematic lines and poor pronunciation of certain players' names can be frustrating to the long time fan.
NHL 11 is another great step forward for a franchise that has done so much to improve its standing and get gamers interested in hockey. The new physics system fixes the vast majority of problems with the game mechanics and the minor things such as broken sticks really emphasise the realism that EA Canada is going for. Casual players may still be intimidated by the control system, but the learning curve is worth the enjoyment that comes once everything has been figured out. Long time fans will continue to be impressed by EA Canada's desire to keep pushing the franchise forward and achieving a more immersive and realistic experience.