NHL 11 Hands-On

New physics and a tweaked passing system mean some significant changes for EA's long-running hockey series.

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Players get rocked against the boards, players drop sticks, and the lamp gets lit up. In EA Sports' upcoming NHL 11, a new physics system changes the way players react to one another on the ice, and the result is a game that feels even more realistic than ever before--high praise, considering the NHL series has been a critical and sales darling for the past several seasons now. At E3 2010, EA showed off an updated version of NHL 11, including full six-on-six play and a few control surprises that might surprise NHL veterans.

In our last look at NHL, we had a chance to play the game on practice ice, featuring a one-on-one matchup that highlighted the game's new physics engine, which maximizes collisions between players to make them more realistic. It's impressive in one-on-one play, but its importance becomes that much more obvious in an actual match. We played a game that featured a 2010 Western Conference Championship rematch between the San Jose Sharks and the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, and the Sharks were absolutely manhandled by the Blackhawks' tough defensemen.

After taking one too many blasts into the boards, we tried to alter our strategy by avoiding sideline rushes, only to find the Blackhawks stuffing the Sharks' momentum in open ice. The new system puts a premium on player contact, and as a result, if you're looking to avoid that contact and, you know, make your way to the net, you'll need to make the most of the game's deke options, including toe drags (which are new for this year) and more.

A new wrinkle in the passing game has some important ramifications for NHL 11. In last year's game, a pass was completed when a player pulled the right trigger; this year, the on-ice player releases the puck when the player releases the right trigger. That ever-so-subtle difference in passing turns out to have a significant effect on gameplay; playing isn't as instantaneous as it has been in the past, but you can now control the speed of your pass. The longer you hold the right trigger, the more powerful the pass will be once you let go of the trigger. This new passing tweak has an upside and a downside--on the positive side, you can zip in strong up-ice passes to forwards or set up vicious one-timers with relative ease. On the other hand, passing requires some slightly different timing, as the puck isn't let loose as quickly as in the past. It will require some getting used to this subtle change.

The new face-off system works as advertised, with the player being able to choose from standard or reversed grip before the puck drops. You'll also be able to push or block your face-off opponent and more. That said, new options on the face-off side are just that: new stuff you can do. The basic timing of the face-off remains the same, and we won a fair share of face-offs without needing to use some of the more advanced moves. Whether that means EA reps were taking it easy on us or the more advanced moves weren't crucial to success, is anybody's guess.

There's more to learn about NHL 11, especially regarding game modes. What will the developer have in store for us with long-standing features like online team play and the like? We'll find out as we get closer to the game's release date later this year.

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