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2K was kind enough to send me a copy of NHL 2K11 last Friday, so I spent the past weekend putting it through its paces.  One thing I can happily report is that NHL 2K11 is the deepest hockey experience available on the Wii.  Here we have the complete, tweak-able, and adjustable hockey experience, for any user's difficulty level, that most could possibly want.  Sim players can dive into the full Franchise or Season mode and start the upcoming NHL season with their favorite team, or Road to the Cup, and casual players can quickly go into more arcade-focused modes such as pond-hockey.  You name it, it is there.

On the ice, NHL 2K11 seems to have fixed a few issues I had with last years' version.  The skating seems to control better and feel more accurate this year.  In previous years, I always felt the skating felt too "loopy" for my taste, and I would have to adjust sliders to get it where I like it.  This year, the default skating is more spot-on than ever before.

The puck physics are very good, and I've always admired how 2K makes goalies feel "organic". They are more alive in the net than with the competition's game.  They dive, they come out to challenge, the good ones take chances that often pay off with a save.  The average and not so great ones take chances at times that lead to open nets and flops on the ice, depending on the offensive position and passes.  You don't see too much "robo-goalie" with 2K's game, and I've always liked that.

Another area where NHL 2K11 excels is with the "player differentiation".  Sid Crosby, with the puck and with his shots, is way more dangerous than an average 2nd liner.  He'll tuck it home when he can, and you must account for him.  You must account for all star players on defense, or else you will get handled your fair share of "L"s.  Not all NHL players are created equal, and 2K gets that right yet again.

As for the extras, you got it.  Broken sticks are in there, and I learned how dangerous they can be when I fired one from the blue line with Gonchar.  Nothing worse than a stickless defender, and his shot was blocked and taken the other way during his "broken stick shot".  It led to a Flyer's breakaway goal.  You got big hits, small nudges, and everything in-between.  You have diving blocked shots, dekes, and pinning players against the boards.  Deep stuff.

The depth is here.  Wii owners, rejoice.  You have a sim style hockey game that doesn't talk down to you or "Kiddie-fy" the experience.

But...there are some chinks in the NHL 2K11 armor that bear mentioning.

First and foremost, this is a Wii game, and the Wii lacks the graphic horsepower of the 360 and PS3.  However, I have to admit that I have seen much better looking Wii games in my day.  Player graphics (outside of the faces) look extremely "last gen".   Player numbers often come off as very jaggy, and the anti-aliasing seems to be non-existent at points.  Many crowd views (such as the pre-game intro) reveal 2D crowds that look like a cardboard cutout ad the camera pans.   All in all, there's just too much grainy, jagged looks to what should be smooth lines and corners.  Yes, I know about the Wii's hardware, but I really feel that this game does not take advantage of the available hardware in ways other games - particularly first party games from Nintendo- have.  The game looks like a late life-cycle XBOX 1 release, such as NHL 2K5.  I expected a bit more in this category, even though my graphic expectations for most Wii sports titles are set lower than with 360 and PS3 releases.

Now, on to the controls.

I can't give any impressions on Wii Motion Plus, as I do not have the device.  However, I did play the game with both the Wii-mote/Nunchuk combo as well as with the classic controller.  Although I prefer the more ergonomic (and sports game friendly) controllers of both the 360 and PS3, I did find the NHL 2K11 controls with the classic controller to be superior to the Wiimote/Nunchuk controls for myself personally, but both are acceptable.

Unfortunately, 2K has still opted to not totally copy the right-stick controls of the competition.  Like in past years, the Pro-Stick controls let you move the puck left and right to varying degrees while you skate up ice, but the complete freedom of movement with the stick is not on the level of EA's control mode.  Shooting with the R-stick (or the Wii-mote) is very hit or miss, and with the AI's propensity of being able to nudge your shooter into an animation that prohibits a shot, it makes those controls feel unresponsive.  This problem was also shared with the 360 and PS3 versions last year.   Often you can't seem to shoot with a defender touching you, yet there's no "stick hold" animation, or any other animationg you can see, showing why it is you can press up on the R-stick (or flick the Wii-mote) and the shot won't release. There's nothing worse than flicking your Wii-mote like a fool over and over again and getting no shot off near the net.   Shot blocks, I can understand, but for those you actually get the shot off.  But with what I'm talking about, it makes you feel like the controls aren't responsive, when in fact it is more about the defensive AI's ability to nudge you into a "out of control" animation that nullifies your button press/flick that should release a shot.  And they seem to be able almost on demand when you are in the slot.  (It becomes worse at higher difficulty levels too).  This is something that has needed some sort of a fix for several years of 2K hockey.  I hope next year they get to it.

Those criticisms aside, a Wii-owning hockey fan cannot go wrong with NHL 2K11.   It is a very deep experience, and chock-full of NHL goodness. But there's still plenty of room to improve for next year.  However, multi-system owners, such as myself, might be a bit put-off by the seemingly "late last-gen graphics" that the Wii exhibits with this title.

 

Hands-on by Scott Hemphill

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