NHL 11 Review (PS3)

EA Sports' NHL series is an impressively dominating sports franchise. It has been running almost as long as Madden and FIFA and despite some stiff competition from 2K Sports' NHL 2K franchise it has remained the best ice hockey game series around.

This year 2K have decided to rest their franchise on everything but the Wii giving EA a bit of a breather, but for Peter Moore's EA Sports there is no resting. They have thrown everything they have into NHL 11 and what they have come up with is a pretty impressive package for ice hockey fans.

The new draws actually work

Every EA Sports franchise has received major updates this year. One of the main updated features has been the AI increasing the individuality of players and making the team stars play much more like they would in real life. Everything from the team-lifting all round scoring and assisting prowess of Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby to the no-nonsense hard-hitting style of Brian McCabe have been recreated like never before.

Playing NHL 11 is a joy and has been made even easier than before. To get to grips with the updated analogue controls every player has to go through a quick tutorial that will equip you with a basic knowledge of the controls to avoid getting routed in every game. And, for players that don't like these new-fangled analogue stick controls, you can select the control scheme from NHL 94 allowing you to return to the 16-bit heydays of button-bashing.

One of the main features of the improvements made to the controls is in the faceoff department. Until now winning faceoffs has felt very arbitrary with no real finesse required. The new system allows you to cater for the handedness of the player taking the draw and you have the choice of whether to try and strike the puck as it drops or tie up your opponent and leave the puck for your wingers to pick up. You can even shoot straight from the draw now giving you a jump in offensive situations. This all works extremely well and with minimum practice you will be demolishing even the most skill faceoff stars like Olli Jokinen and Vaclav Prospal in the faceoff circle.

Another great feature is the new fights. It just wouldn't be a proper NHL game without some sort of fighting system and the new one that EA Sports has implemented here is top notch. Simply use the triangle button to goad an opposing player into dropping the gloves and then get ready for the fisticuffs. The animations for goading are varied and realistic with the glove-to-the-face move feeling particularly cool.

Smell the boards!

Moving into the fight itself and the NHL team has taken the lead here from the Fight Night series. As is typical with all ice hockey fights, you hold on to your opponent with your left hand and pound him with punches using your right. This maps directly onto the thumbsticks. You can dodge and drag your opponent about with the left stick and jab and hook at him with the right stick. Just push the right stick forward for a jab or pull it back and then push forward to clean his clocks with a haymaker. Winning the fights will give your team a boost and, depending on where you are playing your opponent's team will also be affected by the outcome of the fight as well depending on the crowd's reaction.

The game plays smoothly and quickly, just like you'd expect from the NHL series and the graphics, replays and the commentary from Gary Thorne and Bill Clement all add to the experience. The games actually makes you feel like you're watching them on ESPN only you actually have control over who wins. The analogue controls feel very natural and the noticeable lag from previous titles has melted away to reveal the control system that EA Sports intended it to be all along.

All the usual features are there from GM mode to the classic season and playoff modes. Now though there is a massive selection of ice hockey leagues from the minor leagues in North America to the European leagues that feed the NHL with all its foreign talent to the newly added Canadian Hockey League.

EA Sports has continued to support the Be A Pro mode allowing you to play through seasons as a single player in the team rather than control the whole team. This time around they have also added the Ultimate Team mode into the full retail release. FIFA fans will be familiar with the Ultimate team mode. This allows NHL fans to create their own team from a massive selection of individual players and go online to compete to make your team the ultimate ice hockey team in the world. There is also a bonus addition for hockey nuts and that is the inclusion of the downloadable title 3-on-3 NHL Arcade, giving hockey fans even more hockey action to satisfy their thirst.

Time for a new stick...

One of the other nice touches that EA has added is the ability to insert your own music on you console's hard drive to the various in game events. You can have the New York Rangers come out on the ice in Madison Square Gardens to the Beastie Boys or have the game select a random Metallica song to be your home goal celebration. You could even have Ugly Kid Joe's Everything About You play as one of your opponents is sent to the penalty box on home ice. The game's own soundtrack is also pretty decent with Pantera's Walk and Europe's The Final Countdown lining up alongside new music from Airbourne and the NHL classic track 2Unlimited's Twilight Zone.

NHL 11 is easily one of the most feature-packed and entertaining ice hockey games ever created. If you thought that it would be hard to top last year's award winning NHL 10 then you would be wrong. EA Sports has pulled another cracking game out of the bag proving once again that its days of the annual grind of dull iterations are well behind them.

Top Game Moment: Deking your way around the likes of Martin Brodeur and Mikka Kiprusoff to score in a one-on-one has never been so satisfying.