This season the hockey world is being presented with a trio of titles, including the first-ever EA-published hockey game on the Nintendo Wii. There's a lot of puck talk to come, so hop over the boards with us as we skate through each of the games in our hockey video gaming wrap-up for 2010.
NHL 11 (PS3, 360)
For some time now, EA's NHL series has set the tone for realistic hockey simulation. The franchise's groundbreaking deke-stick control propelled the game into a level of authenticity that a hockey title hadn't been able to achieve prior. With NHL 11, mostly everything we've come to love and expect remains in tact, we're just not sure how long these subtle updates and improvements will continue to dazzle fans of the sport.
This year, EA has focused mostly on tweaking existing gameplay. That said, there a few notable additions we really enjoy like accidental stick breaks, new deke moves, a more natural and realistic body-checking system, and the ability to "cook" a pass for more power.
The overall speed of the game does feel a bit slower this time around, which we believe was done to increase realism. EA says the game utilizes a new physics system, and though it's definitely noticeable with body checking, we don't think it's that apparent with the puck. We may be nitpicking here, but at times we wish it would flutter more or bounce around on its end. When it stays horizontal too much, we think the game loses some of the unpredictability of the sport.
Though we welcome the updates and tweaks, there are few items we wish had been addressed. For example, some instant replays are still glaringly inappropriate and sometimes totally out of context. After a mind-boggling save, we'd imagine the next stoppage brings it again in slow motion--this isn't always the case. Also, line change boxes come up slower than last year--why fix something if it isn't broken?
Don't get us wrong, NHL 11 is the pinnacle of hockey video games. It is by far, the most realistic, true-to-life experience to date. However,, we continue to wonder how the franchise will stay fresh year after year with incremental update games like NHL 11. For the hockey enthusiast who might not pick up the game each season, it's tough to create an incentivizing argument for purchasing NHL 11.
NHL 2K11 (Wii)
2K Sports chose not to release an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 version of NHL 2K11 this year. However we justify it--as a necessary business decision or not--it's upsetting to see the lack of competition on these two consoles. Regardless, now that 2K has focused all energy on the Wii platform, 2K11 feels like a game that has been meticulously crafted for the console rather than a lower-resolution port.
As you might expect, 2K11 is chock-full of motion control gestures that emulate playing with a hockey stick. Players whip the remote around to shoot and can use the Nunchuk accessory to deke through defenders. Kudos to developer Visual Concepts for implementing Wii MotionPlus support. Not only does it make an instantly noticeable difference in play, it adds another title to the severely lacking MotionPlus library. If you chose to use the motion controls in NHL 2K11, better do it with the MotionPlus attachment.
Though the motion controls work well, we actually think the game is a lot more fun when using the Wii Classic Controller to play; and we think core hockey fans will agree. Simply put, there's a much better hockey experience to be had with buttons and an analog stick. Reaction time feels a bit snappier, and we think it gives the player more precision.
In terms of gameplay, 2K11 serves up a decent balance between arcade and simulation hockey. We really liked the way the puck plays in 2K11--it feels organic and smooth. At times it even rivals what NHL 11 is able to offer strictly speaking from a puck physics point of view.
NHL 2K11 offers the best core hockey experience on the Wii, and we really appreciate the option to be able to switch between control modes. There's plenty of fun to be had with the other modes like Mini Rink, too, which we think makes a great party game.
NHL Slapshot (Wii)
New this year is EA's NHL Slapshot, a Wii exclusive hockey game that comes with a plastic stick that holds a Wii remote and Nunchuk. The game's opening movie explains how to assemble the accessory as well as the motion controls for the game.
EA tapped "The Great One" Wayne Gretzky as the cover athlete for Slapshot, and his likeness is scattered throughout the game. There aren't too many game modes--and absolutely no online play--but we did like the Peewee to Pro feature that follows a mite on ice to his eventual NHL destiny.
There's no getting around the gimmicky hockey stick accessory that comes with NHL Slapshot, but once assembled, it actually does work quite well. We think compatibility with MotionPlus would give Slapshot a bump in precision and control, but all things considered, the motion controls in Slapshot are on par with 2K11's with or without the stick accessory.
Perhaps the game's ultimate flaw is that there is no way to play NHL Slapshot with the Classic Controller like you can with NHL 2K11. There are a handful of quirks that could easily be resolved by using a standard controller and we're not sure why this wasn't implemented. Thrusting the stick to check on defense almost always triggers a slapshot the second your player takes possession of the puck--something that wouldn't occur with the Classic Controller.
Unlike 2K11, Slapshot is an arcade hockey game first, meaning there's plenty of over-the-top hits and action. At times Slapshot reminded us of EA's three-on-three downloadable offering from 2009 with its seemingly oversized puck and speed bursts. Wii hockey fans looking for a simulation experience won't find it here, but instead will enjoy the ease of play and unique modes like one-on-one two-player shootouts.