When you're learning to skate, it's good to take a chair onto the ice. Newbies can hold onto it as they get their balance on the blades, pushing it along and using it like a bike's training wheels. NHL 2K11 could sure use that kind of help. Even though this is 2K Sports' third attempt at fashioning a hockey game for the Nintendo Wii (and the game is exclusive to the console this year), the result is as wobbly as a little kid stepping onto the ice in skates for the first time. Motion controls are frustratingly imprecise when it comes to skating and shooting, leaving you with little choice but to skip the whole motion-sensing thing and haul out a Classic Controller. It's a big letdown, particularly considering the sharp control scheme and catchy on-ice action of last year's effort. Only a healthy selection of game modes and a range of nifty minigames keep the game from being a complete disappointment.
When you first hit the ice, NHL 2K11 seems a lot like NHL 2K10. Much of the presentation, graphics, and sound have been held over from last year. Some of the time, this is a good thing. This is still one great-looking hockey game, with impressive arena atmosphere and natural player animations. Everybody moves in a lifelike fashion, from lumbering tough guys like Derek Boogaard to flashy speedsters like Phil Kessel. The biggest new visual frill is sticks breaking, which happens fairly often but doesn't have any serious gameplay ramifications as it would in the real NHL. Audio is also good for the most part, if virtually identical to that in last year's game and still pretty overcaffeinated. Returning play-by-play man Randy Hahn and color commentator Drew Remenda jump out of their seats with every rush down the ice, shouting goofy, team-specific comments like, "Here come the desert dogs!" The soundtrack remains heavily skewed towards alt-rock, infusing the game with an attitude that not everyone will appreciate (especially after hearing your umpteenth Rise Against or OneRepublic tune.
Some of the presentation is tired. Graphics mirror those in last year's game so much that changes aren't really noticeable. Vancouver's arena is still called General Motors Place on the ice, even though the rink was renamed Rogers Arena a couple of months ago. Even worse, stats and player rosters are out of date. Team records shown when you're going into quick games are from the 2008-2009 season. Team schedules when you're playing seasons are from 2009-2010. Default rosters predate summer free-agency and retirement announcements, so a lot of players are still with teams they left months ago. You see Sergei Gonchar suiting up with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Scott Neidermayer in an Anaheim Ducks uniform, Jaroslav Halak in the "bleu, blanc, et rouge" of the Montreal Canadiens, and so on. An online update has fixed some of these problems (as long as you can get it to work--we had to load the file a half-dozen times before the game finally recognized it), but data problems linger, and the game still shouldn't have shipped with so many core stats out of date. At times, you want to check to make sure you didn't put last year's game disc into your Wii by mistake.
As in last year's game, the main control scheme uses the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, either with or without the MotionPlus. Having the MotionPlus attached to the remote is recommended, however, since it affords you greater control over player moves, at least to a point. While the expanded motion controls allow you fancier dekes, poke checks, and even a juggling move where you can flip the puck onto the blade of your stick, they aren't very accurate when it comes to hockey essentials. So you can dance around with the puck magnetized to your stick a la Sidney Crosby, but you can't get off quick-release wrist shots, turn quickly when pacing an oncoming enemy forward, or even just maintain possession of the puck by stickhandling into traffic. Furthermore, there is still a little too much looseness in player skating, resulting in some Keystone Kops-like messing around by the blue lines and a fair number of unnecessary offsides. Still, it's livable, and better than the controls being so unrealistically sharp that you never go offside at all.
The biggest issue is with shooting: the game just doesn't want to let you fire quick wristers or take one-timers. Slappers are no problem, since you can flail the remote like you're swinging a tennis racquet and get off mighty howitzers. But there is always a slight hesitation with finer shots, which results in being leveled by a nearby defender or the goalie moving into place to make an easy save. Though this issue might sound somewhat minor, it's a tremendous source of frustration. Hitches always happen right at the end of a series of passes setting up a scoring opportunity, so you soon get so annoyed that you give up on playmaking and start taking slap shots from all angles. This problem provides more than enough reason to ditch the remote and Nunchuk for the Classic Controller. But even this isn't a solution, because key functions like shooting and passing have been mapped to the shoulder buttons with no way of changing them. The pad isn't quite as awkward as the remote, although it's nowhere near as fluid and natural as it could be.
At least the modes of play don't offer many reasons for complaining. This is a full-featured game, with loads of options, including franchise play; a suite of minigames; special outdoor options, such as pond hockey and the Winter Classic at Fenway Park; and an option to practice your moves with the remote and nunchuk. Online play is available, although network problems at present cause a lot of disconnections during games and serious lag that makes some matches all but unplayable. Players are reporting this issue in online forums, so it seems that it is widespread right now. Of all these modes, the minigames probably stand out the most as something unique. The big new addition this year is the Geico Road to the Cup, where you have your Mii spin a big wheel to journey to different NHL rinks to play multiplayer and solo games as well as answer trivia questions. Minigames are all quick and quirky, with you trying to avoid being knocked down by barrels, playing two-on-two mini-rink hockey, skating around to capture floating point circles, smashing it up to take control of the puck at center ice, and so on. It's a great option for a party, especially if some of the attendees are kids.
It's actually pretty odd that NHL 2K11 turned out so mediocre. 2K Sports dumped the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game to focus solely on the Wii edition this year, so you might think that the game would be better, not markedly worse and loaded down with a lot of outdated data. Regardless of the reasons behind this year's problems, 2K is going to have to go back to the dressing room for next year's Wii game and work on making the motion controls more responsive.