Zdeno Chara is prowling the ice like a frost giant who hasn't slept in 72 hours. The towering defenseman for the Boston Bruins is bowed up to his full 6-foot-9-inch height and heading my way with bad intentions in his virtual eyes. I do my best to fake him out with a sweet little deke…but it's too late. Before I know it, my pitiful forward is bowled over and absolutely pasted against the boards--his legs flying into the air, his arms akimbo, and his neck landing at a sickening angle on the ice. NHL 11 producer Sean Ramjagsingh looks over my way, gives me a smile, and begins telling me about the new physics system that's been implemented in the latest hockey game from EA Sports. But all I need to do is look at the splayed form of my power forward on the ice to know everything I need to know.
The new physics will perhaps be the biggest change in NHL 11, and it is one that has taken a full year to implement, according to Ramjagsingh. The result--though seemingly amped up for effect in the demo we played at EA's May pre-Electronic Entertainment Expo press event in Los Angeles--will bring in a new sense of power to the NHL series' already impressive hits. I spent some hands-on time with a one-on-one demo of the game, and I can say unequivocally that although most of the results were the same (that is, Chara blasting my guy into the boards or simply knocking him down on the ice), no two collisions were exactly the same. I saw glancing blows that spun my forward around and head-over-heels blasts that made it look like my guy was shot by a sniper sitting atop the rafters at TD Garden. One time, I even managed to get the better of Chara, taking him down despite giving up at least seven inches and 50 pounds.
Bigger, badder hits are the most obvious benefit of the new physics, but a subtler by-product might be the increased attraction of playing the defenseman position. While upending forwards and taking slap shots from the point has always been fun in previous NHL games, the new system adds an increased physical element that will make playing the bruisers in the back that much more appealing. With the press of a button, you can lean forward to either attempt to block shots (similar to the kneel mechanic that remains in NHL 11) or upend an unsuspecting forward who is coming your way. When you couple that with the ability to poke check, sweep your stick freely back and forth, or lift the stick of an opposing player, there will be lots of weapons in your defensive arsenal this year.
Elsewhere, the development team is extending the control a player will have with the right stick by completely overhauling the face-off system, which Ramjagsingh calls the number-one request from NHL series fans. Now, you'll have multiple options when squaring off in the circle, including whether you choose to use a forehand or backhand grip on your stick before the puck drops. By pushing forward with the right stick, you push at your opponent's stick, and by pushing back, you'll swipe for the puck once it hits the ice. You can even push your opponent off the puck once it drops by pushing forward with the left stick and take a quick shot off a face-off pass by pushing forward with the right stick.
Finally, there is one other detail that should please hockey fans: Broken sticks are in NHL 11. They won't occur in every game you play, but they'll be frequent enough to make the game realistic. If a player loses a stick, you'll still be able to control him--if the puck gets near, he'll kick it to keep it out of play and even try to snatch it out of the air for high shots. A nearby teammate might offer your player a stick to borrow, and you can also skate to the bench to pick up some replacement lumber. My time with NHL 11 was limited, and I didn't get to experience the full six-on-six gameplay, so I'm very interested to see not just how the new physics engine affects collisions in a proper game, but also how the AI players handle the engine's capabilities. Based on past experience, I'm optimistic that the change will be a good one for the series and will follow up with another report soon. Look for more on NHL 11 throughout the summer and beyond.