Summer. It’s a beautiful time of year, isn’t it? Well, on the northern slice of the planet, I should say– sorry Aussies, et al. It’s a time to hear the laughter of children playing in the streets (well, not in the city; I hear drunkards in the streets, mostly), a time to visit beaches and canyons (must confess I haven’t done much of this either), and a time to sample summer beers at your local pub, patio or festival (check).
Most of all, however, it’s the time of year when EA Sports releases demos for their Big Two franchises (in North America): Madden and NHL.
One of those is a bit more popular than the other, I’ll let you guess which. And while I am a great lover of American Football, when in comes to gaming my affection lies in the great white north.
My introduction to the NHL series was with ’94, which probably to this day remains the most critically acclaimed of the bunch. That’s not to say it remains the best, of course it’s not; it was groundbreaking, however, and breaking new ground is really what I’m on to here. The first two iterations of the series lacked total licensing from the NHL, so in one instance the player names could not be announced and in the next, team names. It wasn’t until this third version, NHL ’94, that the series’ potential was realized.
In all subsequent years the series has followed a fairly predictable formula: a slight improvement here, a new rule or feature implementation there, and then a substantial change to the major mechanics. The latter is due mostly in part to evolving technology cycles. For the NHL series (and many other sports video game franchises, I would imagine) this has meant that give or take a year, about every third version aims to be a reinvention in some manner. Sometimes failure, other times success.
After ’94, NHL 95 (yes, they dropped the apostrophe) was equally considered a classic, introducing new features like trades, free agency and the ability to play a full season (complete with year-end trophies being awarded). Staples of the realism of the series ever since. The franchise then stagnated: NHL 96 and 97 brought not much more to the table than reintroducing fights, pools of blood spilling from the heads of injured players and somehow, flimsier controls. The arrival of 98, however, came at the dawn of post-Quake “3D acceleration.” It was a major overhaul of the game engine and featured exquisitely rendered player models and the first time one of the games could actually pass as three-dimensional-looking. It was basically the launching point for the modern era of NHL games: every year a slight improvement in graphics and “realism.” This was the first reinvention of the NHL franchise, and for the most part, a success.
Few versions over the next decade did much to innovate. The first I owned after 98 was 2004 (both of which I played on PC). I tried every one in between but none of them struck me as the definitive hockey experience I needed to have. Two years later I switched to the competing franchise’s game, NHL 2K6, my first console hockey game since NHL 95 on Genesis. I played it relentlessly and again, after sampling the next two versions I still saw no reason to upgrade.
It wasn’t until late in the lifespan of NHL 08 that I heard EA‘s franchise had made some drastic changes to retake the reins on virtual ice. 08 was the first time in several years that EA‘s title was declared superior to 2K‘s. It introduced the most fundamental change to the series since NHL ’94: controlling almost all of the on-ice play with no button presses (with the exception of manual line changing) and instead using a full analog control scheme for skating, checking and shooting.
Since then I’ve bought 09, which was basically a refining of 08, much like 95 was to ’94, and have been playing it to this day. Even throughout the early part of this summer I’d been saying to myself I would make 09 last for at least another season. After all, the joke is that each year’s new EA Sports title is just a roster refresh slapped on the existing product. Though to be fair, this more accurately applies to the Madden franchise, which, for the record, I am seriously done with after 10. There hasn’t been one brilliant improvement since Madden 2000. Unless you consider spinning and juking the most essential part of Sunday.
I have a strange obsession with maintaining the roster of my Blackhawks franchise to exactly that of the real Blackhawks depth chart. It’s embarrassing to admit, but even though I’ve invested two full seasons, I was heavily tempted to start over recently just so I could create Viktor Stahlberg and add him to my roster (Chicago acquired him in a trade this off-season from the Maple Leafs and it pained me to learn that he does not exist in NHL 09). I enjoy playing the part of coach and general manager as much as the hockey itself and right now my roster is a bastardization of the real thing: former Blackhawk Kim Johnsson (currently in limbo) sits in Stahlberg’s spot at the moment. Sigh.
Today, though, all this fuss may be moot: after thoroughly exhausting what the NHL 11 demo has to offer, it seems EA has tinkered, refined, improved, and I daresay perfected the introductions that NHL 10 brought to the series. I swore I wouldn’t be doing it, but after several hours spent with the latest roster update version in the NHL series, I am seriously considering putting 09 down and splurging for this new puppy.
Just what is the latest and greatest? This must be said a thousand times every year about every new entry, but it does literally feel like the best hockey game ever to grace a home gaming system. This is because NHL 11 is based on a physics engine, whereas all previous NHLs were based on an animation engine. Skating, shooting, goaltender saves, and especially body checks always looked at least a little bit awkward. They finally look impressive enough that I might just watch the computer have a bout with itself while I busy myself fixing some cheese and crackers. And Guinness.
The series has been infinitely better since the turbo feature was dropped several years ago; you know, the one that had you holding this one button all the freaking time while playing sports games, just so you could go faster. Someone finally realized that everyone just holds the turbo buttons all the time and said well folks, why don’t we just make them move normally, all the time, and forget this turbo nonsense. And I have forgotten it. But even this I think wasn’t truly realized until its importance shines through in this year’s game.
NHL 11 is a new kind of anti-turbo. A newcomer might say the controls feel sluggish or unresponsive, but I would say to them just give it time. It was jarring for the first game I played, but you pick it up quickly and begin to notice how beautiful the movements on your television screen are. You won’t necessarily want everything to zoom by in a [insert Russian player here]-like flash. I’m not controlling paper thin virtual rag dolls on steroids anymore. Players don’t skate up the ice in 3 seconds; a satisfying body check doesn’t mean the opposing player falls flat on his back and slides across the rink. I know this has been mutating for years now in the NHL series, but dammit, this year’s game feels so right.
When Tomas Kopecky pinned a Philadelphia Flyer on the boards and used his skate to kick the puck back to Duncan Keith on the point I said that’s exactly what I wanted to do. When 5’10” Patrick Kane went on the fore-check, laid a clean, solid hit on the defender and tumbled a bit himself in the process I said yeah, that’s probably what would happen if Kaner tried to pull that off in real life. When 6’8″ John Scott flat out crushed a surging right winger attempting to cross the blue line I said oh my, that was satisfying.
NHL 11 will be released on September 7th for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
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