Product Review: NHL 11

For the past two years, EA Sports’ NHL series of videogames have received countless critical accolades, and deservedly so. The technological leap from NHL 08 to NHL 09 was enormous, and NHL 10 built upon a great foundation. Needless to say, expectations for NHL 11 are quite high, and while the changes are for the most part subtle rather than dramatic, the result is yet another huge leap forward.

Graphically, the game is certainly improved over last year’s edition, though the difference isn’t meteoric. There haven’t been too many modifications/additions to the online experience, either.

But while the enhanced control setup from last season’s game remains intact, taking faceoffs has been transformed into a thrilling new experience. That, along with two other major changes, is why NHL 11 just might be the best sports game ever produced…

Taking the Draw

Historically, winning faceoffs has been all about timing, hitting a button at precisely the right moment after the referee drops the puck. But with NHL 11, that experience has been completely transformed.

With NHL 11, numerous faceoff strategies (pulling the puck back on the forehand/backhand, shooting the puck off the draw, tying up the opposing center) can now be employed to add great intrigue to what was in prior years one of the few fairly dull aspects of the NHL series. The computer AI catches on quickly, so tactics lose their effectiveness if overused. It will be interesting to see over time whether a repeatable pattern for winning draws can be determined – as in prior years – or whether the randomness offered by the new system (think rock/paper/scissors with a physical-skill element added in) enables it to remain fresh indefinitely.

Canadian Hockey League: It’s In The Game

One major change is the addition of the CHL (Canadian Hockey League). Comprised of three Canadian junior hockey leagues (OHL, QMJHL, and WHL), this addition allows hockey fans to catch a glimpse of the NHL’s future. And furthermore, it opens up the possibility for fans to make their own determinations as to which players should be recalled to the NHL squad… and when.

It’s great fun playing in a small, high-energy CHL arena, and the differences in skill level between the players is far greater than at the NHL level, making for some fun opportunities to exploit mismatches a la EA’s NCAA football videogame.

Much-Improved Artificial Intelligence

Another more subtle change is an absolutely critical reason why NHL 11 far outstrips NHL 10 in the battle for “greatest hockey videogame ever.” Typically, discussions of artificial intelligence center around the computer-controlled opposition and its ability to offer gamers a compelling challenge. But with NHL 11, the most remarkable improvement is the improved AI for one’s computer-controlled teammates.

For the first time – perhaps ever – in a sports video game, one gets the sense in playing NHL 11 that the AI-controlled teammates are all rowing in the same proverbial direction. And this makes for some absolutely dynamite fun, particularly when cycling the puck in the offensive zone.

Skill Level Information (For Context)

I started on the “pro” difficulty level, where I consistently outplayed the computer by a wide margin but found that the opposition’s goalie made numerous spectacular saves to keep the game close. When I switched to “all-star,” roles reversed, and suddenly it was me depending upon my goalie to keep me in the game. Over time, that will most assuredly change, though I’m unsure whether I’ll ever be ready for the “superstar” skill level.

For those familiar with NHL 10, I played most of the year at the “pro” level, switching to “all-star” about 3/4 of the way through the season. This should give you a sense of my skill level and help you to better understand my comments about AI in proper context.

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