Yesterday the NHL 11 demo was released on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace as a free download for Gold subscribers. I have been a fan of NHL games since NHL 95 on the Sega Genesis and have owned every NHL game from NHL 98 on the PlayStation up until last year. Last year’s game really disappointed me in the direction that franchise was going. It seems like EA is trying to make this the most realistic as humanly possible and that is never what the NHL games have been about. Some might say that is a good thing but NHL games are supposed to have an arcade-like feel. It’s what keeps them exciting and fast paced. If I wanted to engage in “board-battles” every time the puck went into one of the corners, I would have stuck with playing the NHL 2k series when they implemented that feature four years ago with 2k7. I was hopeful that NHL 11 might have reversed the downward trend but I was wrong.
The first thing you will notice when you try the NHL 11 demo is that it’s really as bare bones as a demo gets. For some reason you aren’t allowed to play Exhibition as most sports games demos allow but you are forced to play Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelpia Flyers. This wouldn’t really be a big deal except that once the game is over, you see the Stanley Cup celebration. First of all, you can’t skip this cut-scene so unless you want to sit around for five minutes, you’ll have to exit out to the dashboard to get into another game. Couldn’t they at least have let me bring up the menu to leave by pressing start? The second reason this is stupid is because some people want to earn the right to watch these cut-scenes by actually winning the Cup during their season. Seeing it in the demo just cheapens the whole experience.
Electronic Arts made everything harder to do in NHL 11. This isn’t to say it is more difficult, but it is harder to play mechanically thanks to a completely overhauled physics engine. It’s harder to hit people, harder to shooter, harder to skate, even harder to pass. Sure it is a lot more realistic now but it’s a lot less fun.
Besides making things more “realistic” there were a few gameplay changes. Most are small things like being able to face-wash players to instigate a fight or players being able to break their sticks when performing massive slap shots. There is also a new face-off system which is perhaps the best addition and a new passing system which threatens to ruin the game completely.
The way the new passing system works is that you no longer pass the puck when you press the button (or trigger) but instead you have to hold it down. Once you release the button, you’ll dish the biscuit. The longer you hold it, the faster the pass. This makes one-timers almost impossible to complete considering most of the time, a one-timer is something that you see open up during a fast break so you aren’t going to just be perpetually holding the pass button down expecting to see one become available. If you try to pass without holding it, it’s a really soft pass that will never make it to the recipient. In my opinion, this is the biggest flaw of the game because it really slows things down offensively.
If the new physics engine or the new passing controls don’t frustrate you, trying to use classic controls all but makes the game unplayable. You lose out on a lot of critical functionality by using this control scheme, not the least of which is the ability to perform manual line changes. When they took manual line changes out of the classic control scheme a few years ago in NHL 09, EA got a lot of complaints from fans so it is surprising to see they never put it back. It’s almost as if they are trying to discourage people from using the same control scheme they have grown accustomed to for the past two decades. I’m sorry but the A button passes, not some stupid trigger.
Overall, if you are interested in buying NHL 11, you should definitely try the demo out first. If you like an ultra-realistic sports game, then this is going to be right up your alley. Otherwise, you may be sorely disappointed.