How does one improve the best sports franchise in the last three years? No, don’t say it. Don’t argue with me here. NHL is, without doubt, the best EA Sports franchise there is – the 22 Sports Game of the Year awards the franchise has received over the past three years speaks for itself after all. Sure I am a huge Madden fan, but the realism, the polish, and the amount of content in NHL 08, NHL 09, and NHL 10 have been a few of the reasons why it has been so successful.
After last year’s title, it was hard for me to fathom exactly how it could be improved – hence the previous question. Well, that question was answered for me by getting my grubby hands on it behind closed doors at E3. However, before my mind could process the changes and improvements that have been made in NHL 11, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor.
This year, NHL‘s physics engine is the main focus. For those fans of the NHL franchise, this is like a dream come true. By that I don’t mean that the physics were poor before, but instead that a game so polished can only be best improved one way: core gameplay mechanics. If you thought NHL 10 was realistic, wait until this September when NHL 11 releases.
Sitting down and playing with one of the developers of NHL 11, I was introduced to new gameplay mechanics and physics improvements as we went through a match. First, faceoff. In previous years, faceoff was simply a flick of the stick in the general direction you wished to push the puck. This time around, the full control over faceoff is astounding. The right analog stick acst as your hands prior to the drop of the puck. This means that you can adjust the position of your hands on your stick allowing you to setup exactly how you wish to gain control of the puck once it is dropped. It is with this control that you can push it through the opponent’s legs for a breakaway, keep control of it yourself, check the player at faceoff, or simply drop the puck back. The controls are extremely intuitive and provide for a much less frustrating faceoff experience.
Canned animations are no more as the real-time physics are implemented into every facet of the game. This was quickly realized when I bumped into an opposing player and he lost his balance falling to the ice. In previous years, hits or checks resulting in the player falling were nothing more than animations. Each limb of each player now has physics applied to it as a hit is dealt. There really is nothing more gratifying than watching a slow motion replay of a hit against the boards and seeing the player fight for balance.
After having dealt a gratifying hit, I skated down ice with the puck with every intention to execute a slapshot. I gave the shot everything I had and witnessed the defender extend his stick in a desperate effort to block the shot. To my amazement, the force of the shot completely ripped the blade off the stick. The shock didn’t really set in until the developer, who was also ecstatic at what just occurred, invited everyone in the room to watch the slow motion replay.
Shortly after the shot, the defender, now with a broken stick, throws it on the ground and receives a new stick from another defender who then goes to the bench to get another stick. The broken stick is now nothing more than litter on the ice. Just as in real life, it will shift along the ice as it is bumped by the puck or hit by another player. This attention to detail is truly awe inspiring.
Another element of the core gameplay mechanics that received some tweaking is player movement on ice. Skating and stick control are much more fluid and realistic. Dekes are the best way to witness these changes as breakaway goals provide the same advantage as in real life. No longer will the player fumble over the deke when close to the goalie and instead will execute what is called a quick deke.
Changes to movement on the ice in this new real-time physics system is also apparent in the new flip and jump mechanic. For those players familiar with the series, the frustration of being unable to counter a defender dropping to the ground to go after the puck was enough to want to break a controller. Now, the player can counter this defense by quickly flicking the puck over the player on the ground, jump over the player, and regain control of the puck. This move also serves as a great way to split the ice of two defenders. And while this sounds a bit overpowered, defenders actively watch for moves such as this and will quickly lay you out.
These are only a few of the noticeable changes in NHL 11, but real-time physics seems to provide an enormous amount of opportunities for unique events to occur. This is a big deal as previous NHL games felt a bit repetitive and canned at times. While not everything in NHL 11 has been revealed, what was demoed at E3 left me speechless. If I had to pick the best sports game of the show, this would be it – no contest.