I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy, and I can report that this year's version, NHL 11, includes plenty of new and upgraded features. Unfortunately, it includes a few bugs as well.
Here are some of my first impressions after several days with the new game:
- One heavily promoted new feature sees the introduction of broken sticks, which will crack or even shatter completely at the slightest contact several times each game. In an additional attempt at realism, the same technology was also applied to each of Rick DiPietro's body parts.
- The game features revolutionary puck physics that are hyper-realistic. When a shot is deflected you can see the puck fly into the stands. When a pass is deflected you can see the puck roll into the corner. And when the Flyers lose a game in the finals you can see the puck get tossed into an abandoned dumpster behind a convenience store near Chris Pronger's house.
- Unfortunately there are several bugs, including a strange offseason roster glitch I ran into in franchise mode. After finally winning my first Stanley Cup after decades of trying, I went to my roster screen and noticed that half my team was suddenly listed as playing for Atlanta.
- The game includes an improved breakaway and shootout system that promises to completely revolutionize the way you randomly swing your stick back and forth before skating into the goalie without even getting a shot off.
- Fans of "Swingers", rejoice: You can finally make a player's head bleed again, although in a slightly different manner than previous versions. This year, instead of throwing a body check or winning a fight, you now cause blood to pour out of an opponent's ears by forcing him to listen to the Leafs' pre-game theme song "Free To Be".
- Negotiating long-term deals with free agents is so realistic that the game kept interrupting me with empty threats about voiding contracts I signed while playing NHL 10.
- The game includes an elaborate new "Ultimate Team" mode that allows you to build a dream team by mixing and matching trading cards, a feature that will no doubt prove extremely popular with gamers who accidentally buy NHL 11 because the game store was all out of Pokemon.
- There seems to have been some sort of audio mix-up with EA's FIFA soccer game. When I played a game in Montreal, the crowd just kept doing old soccer chants from the 1980s.
- The game features a fully customizable sound system with a slider for each element of background noise. For example, you can slide the music from "high" to "low", the crowd noise from "loud" to "silent", and Pierre McGuire from "excruciatingly loud" to "oh good lord even when I turn off the game I can still hear him in my nightmares".
- Oops…. Typo alert! For the 19th version in a row, the year listed in the game's title doesn't match the year in which the game is actually released.
- The game features an in-depth sneak preview of the 2012-13 version. To access it, follow these steps: Put down your controller; turn off your game system; and watch poker reruns on TV while drinking scotch and crying.
- Gone are the days of nondescript pixelated fans in the background; crowd detail is spectacular this year. For example, if you zoom in on the fans in the first few rows of the ACC crowd during overtime of a Leafs game, you can actually tell which stock prices they're absentmindedly looking up on their Blackberries.
- Unfortunately, it looks like the game's graphic design team got a little lazy when it came to player models. I was playing a game against the Canucks, and two-thirds of their top line looked exactly the same.
- Finally, here's a neat bonus offer: Look for a proof of purchase coupon inside the box. Collect ten, mail them to the NHL head office along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, and you'll receive a personally signed letter back from Gary Bettman congratulating you on becoming the new owner of the Phoenix Coyotes.
(Previous game reviews: NHL 10 | NHL 09)