For sake of getting contentious matters out of the way first, hockey gamers should know the new edition of EA's NHL franchise, NHL 11, is "Online Pass enabled." That's a concise, prettier way of saying, should you acquire the game after the single free Online Pass code included in the box has been activated, you'll have to pay EA $10 for access to online features. While I'm usually the sort of games consumer to jump up and down about the injustice of it all, I'm not really miffed about EA's new Online Pass plan for sports titles. It just won't affect me. I'll never wait long enough after release to get more than a paltry discount buying a sports title used. While I do buy a fair number of games of other genres used, all my sports games have been purchased new.
If the new Online Pass scheme — designed to recover lost revenue from used games sales — bothers you in principle or might cost you some extra money, be warned in advance: The Online Pass may be a deal breaker unless you'll settle for an offline-only experience. Before you write off the game altogether, be clear on the point that the Online Pass is essentially a household pass, if there's only one Xbox 360 in the house. Anyone with an Xbox Live Gold account stored on the original Xbox 360 console with which the pass was first activated may use the pass with his or her unique XBL and EA accounts. You won't have to buy additional passes for your spouse or two kids or roommates who play NHL 11 online from the same Xbox 360. Also, the specific XBL account with which the pass is activated may use the Online Pass with that XBL account on additional consoles. Ultimately the fee-based EA Online Pass argument has a lot more to do with your philosophy of the gaming market than actual gameplay disturbances. Activating the pass and downloading the token takes no more than a couple of minutes, and after that, almost everyone will experience NHL 11 online and off as you would any previous edition of the franchise.
The more EA consistently turns out good games in its NHL-licensed franchise for HD consoles, the more difficult I find it to uncover standout new features with which I can spin fresh angles in my reviews. This year, I've got an easy hook to hang my hat on: faceoffs. The game's faceoff mechanics have been substantially redesigned from previous years, and the new system greatly improves this gameplay element. It may seem like a small thing, but faceoffs often govern puck possession in hockey, so winning them is extremely important. If you're like many EA NHL players, including myself, who had some issues easing into skillfully played faceoffs last year, you'll likely be thrilled with this year's changes. Depending on how you handle the stick and puck, you can do things like lift your opponent's stick, accurately aim passes from the faceoff, and shoot from the faceoff.
The basic control for playing faceoffs is simple: Hold the right analog stick to the left or right — the longer you hold, the more powerful your puck-grabbing move — and pull back on the stick when the official drops the puck. In a mere 30 minutes of playing the new game in Pro mode, I improved my faceoff winning percentage over last year by an impressive figure. Don't worry; it's not been made too easy. The CPU still winds faceoffs, especially if you don't get set and prepared as soon as you should. Of course, human opponents who put in the hours and practice the various faceoff moves will win more faceoffs than the casual player. NHL 11 clearly imparts the feeling that you have more control over the outcome of the faceoff, not that some virtual coin has been tossed behind the scenes. It's a welcome upgrade to a perhaps unglamorous, nuts-and-bolts element of gameplay that may not always get the attention it deserves in development.
Some of the other highly touted new features of NHL 11 are more an indicator of the stability and superior quality of the franchise than examples of leaps and bounds in annual upgrades. Sure, it's great attention to detail to put broken sticks in the game, but it also makes them count for more than just a visual. If a player's stick breaks, he gets a new one or even kicks the puck with his skate to hand off the play. Features like broken sticks certainly promote the detailed realism of EA's hockey sim, but they aren't going to affect gameplay in a way that will bowl you over. You're not likely to hear a lot of, "Oh, wow! Broken sticks! I've got to pick up that game now." When the development team is annually charged with enhancing such a consistently solid sports sim, though, it's eventually going to get down to these little things, like snapped sticks and even snappier dekes out on the ice.
I am nicely impressed by the new ultimate team mode, even though it's one of those feature suites for which few sports gamers will ever more than scratch the service. As the mode's name implies, it's a fantasy or build-your-own team mode, piecing together the best of the best of everything, including jerseys, venues, and all sorts of items. The mode is modeled around trading cards and also allows the ultimate team mode to be played as a sort of modern trading card game with a video hockey backend. Using NHL 11's ability to simulate games without playing them, the ultimate team mode can, if you wish, be played almost purely like a trading card game. This will certainly appeal to fans of both hockey and trading card games, as well sports gamers who prefer a deeply simulative, rather than arcade, style of video game, and those who want to do much of the work of building and managing teams on their own. Because it's time-consuming and deep, the new ultimate team features may not get a great deal of attention over the life of this game in your collection, but they certainly deserve recognition and admiration.
In regard to the annual laundry list of what most of us want from a modern sports sim, NHL 11 checks all the appropriate boxes. The presentation is once again excellent. Sound is very good: Big hits indeed sound big, and ambient crowd noise is realistic yet unobtrusive. Graphics this year, as in the last few years of EA's NHL-licensed franchise for Xbox 360, are great, with the addition of a much revamped real-time physics engine. The physics engine is billed as eliminating a lot of those cookie-cutter moments in player animations. The engine lives up to its billing, though you'll often only notice in the game's robust replay features and movie clips edited and saved from these replays. Replay reels are where the new details shine through.
As I've come to expect, NHL 11's online multiplayer matchmaking and gameplay elements are consistently fun and technically excellent. Games that fail to negotiate connections and start are few, and unintentional dropped connections are even fewer. I also tend to find the NHL 11 crowd on Xbox Live a good one, a lot of players willing to play through all three periods even if they're taking a drubbing or, conversely, far outpacing the competition.
In this reviewer's opinion, NHL 11's music soundtrack is more of an accessible pop/rock playlist than the more hard rock selection typically associated with hockey titles. That's not to say that there isn't an edge to it here and there. I don't know that it's possible to say a soundtrack that includes Ramones tracks has no edge, but these days, thanks to innumerable music video games and a general penchant for nostalgia, even the punks of yesteryear have a more pop-loving audience. It's a good soundtrack all the way through, though you'll probably find it overall softer and dancier than in previous years.
EA's NHL 11 contains no out-and-out breakthroughs in video game sports. I don't know we could fairly expect anything amazingly revolutionary in a development cycle only about a year long, and I don't know if or when we will next see in hockey simulations something that makes our eyes fall out of our heads. Yet given a fairly abbreviated development cycle — by contemporary AAA standards — and considering there's only so much a design team can do in simulating a sport that does exist in the real world, EA has again turned in a great iteration in their popular NHL franchise. This year, for me, NHL 11 is worth it for the new faceoff system alone.
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