NHL 2K11, this year's hockey offering from 2K Sports, is only available on the Wii, a SKU which sold incredibly good numbers for the series last year. This also allows the developers of the HD console versions to take off a year and retool. The result is a decent hockey game on the Wii, but it's not quite a surefire purchase for sports fans, especially if you own an Xbox 360 or PS3 and intend to grab EA's hockey title this year. For Wii-only owners, NHL 2K11 has a few flaws but isn't all bad, but I was expecting a better effort this year.
To start things off, NHL 2K11 offers a wide variety of control options this year. You have your basic Wii Remote and Nunchuk support, support for the Classic Controller, and some Wii MotionPlus love. The Wii MotionPlus addition is nice to have, especially when it comes to controlling manual dekes, which are incredibly viable and downright impressive considering that the controller picks up on the subtle movements required to successfully perform the old hockey standby of getting around a pesky opponent. It even gives you enough precision to carry the puck on your stick or juggle it in the air.
It's a bit baffling that the game is able to provide this level of precision in puck handling but manages to screw up the simple movement required to make an actual shot. While the game responded well enough to get by in most instances, there were multiple occasions when I would make the movement to slap the puck into the goal — only to be presented with a player who just stands there with the puck at his feet. It was certainly one of the more glaring annoyances, and I didn't expect it from a game that supports the MotionPlus accessory.
To get around that issue, I spent a large portion of my time using the Classic Controller option. All control options allow for multiple setups, so with the Classic Controller, I enabled the retro mode, which mapped most of my pass and shoot buttons to the face buttons. The top buttons were used for dekes, back skating, and centering my player. I found it to be the most comfortable setup because the default Pro Mode, which had the top buttons mapped to shooting, felt a little awkward. I found myself screwing up too often when it came to the type of shot I was trying to perform, so I was happy to see multiple configurations for each control option in this release.
However, all the control options in the world can't make up for the way the players actually control, which I found to be sluggish and unresponsive, not the fast and fluid controls that were in previous 2K hockey entries. There was a lack of speed on both offense and defense, especially when it came to enabling back skating; there always seemed to be pauses that left me open to annoying hip checks and steals. There was too much delay between the time I lost the puck to when I finally caught up with the opposing player to form a sizeable defense, and if it weren't for the almost ridiculous stopping ability of the AI goalie, I would've lost more games than I won. It's kind of nice to see the goalie AI being so effective against a non-player-controlled opponent
The goalie AI is pretty great at stopping an NPC character, but on the flip side, I found the AI to be laughable against player-controlled opponents. There's a technique that has gained a lot of popularity online: You circle the goal to throw off the defense and goalie, almost guaranteeing an easy wrist shot into the goal because it takes the AI so long to catch up. It'll work for and against you online, making some situations feel out of control due to the AI's dumb reaction to the same play over and over again. I'm glad that the AI never figured out how to use the technique against me when playing offline, or I might've never won a match.
For those who are interested in the more technical aspect, you'll be happy to see that the title offers a cornucopia of sliders and options for you to tweak AI settings to your liking. I'm not a big technical player; I like to switch between the default difficulties, but it was nice to see the option for players to upload their slider settings for other players to utilize, taking out some of the guesswork for players like myself. Along with the sliders, you can turn on and off different rule types, injuries, trades, and other notices by going into the menu options at any time before, after or even during a game. That level of flexibility is a must in current sports titles, and 2K doesn't flinch from the expectation in the slightest.
Along with that, NHL 2K11 has a number of gameplay modes, so there's a whole lot to keep you busy beyond the standard Season and Franchise modes. Pond Hockey returns to allow four-on-four matches with players you choose from across all NHL teams. The only requirement is that you can't change the position that a particular player has in real life (i.e., goalies can't be forwards). There's also a Mini-Rink mode, which is exactly as it sounds, allowing for three-on-three matchups in a much smaller rink. It can be fun and frantic at the same time, and you can make some quick scores without the nuances of penalties, injuries or commentary.
Road to the Cup is one of the more interesting modes, catering to a family fun minigame collection based on hockey, including trivia, a game board-style presentation (complete with a spinning wheel with multiple scenarios), and different events, such as avoiding barrels on the ice or facing off in small two-versus-two multiplayer challenges. The game mode is also really short, so you can get a small group of friends or family and whiz through it in about a half hour. It's not a mode that I'd suggest playing through by yourself because then you'd be up against the game's questionable AI, but it's certainly worth checking out with a group.
Finally, there are the different online options. Along with your standard one-on-one quick game matchup, you can participate in online leagues or Team mode, which allows up to 10 players to compete, filling in every available role on a team with an actual online player. The problem is that the online net code isn't particularly good, and I'd often encounter lag that grew progressively worse when more players were added. If you want to play a full matchup in Team Play, well … good luck. It was often bogged down, and players would drop from the match until it defeated the purpose of having the mode in the first place. The one-on-one matches held up pretty well, but anything greater than that was a chore.
Overall, NHL 2K11 certainly has some positive aspects, but the bad outweighed the good in this year's iteration. It's baffling that the MotionPlus accessory can pick up the nuances of a manual deke but can't reliably detect when you're trying to make a shot, and the overall sluggish nature of player control was certainly frustrating. Combine that with a spotty online mode, and all the control options and modes in the world can't make up for the fact that the game just wasn't very fun to play. I hope that 2K has some improvements in store for next year's release because the goodwill of Wii hockey fans won't survive another experience like this.
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