It’s been over a decade since I’ve played a console hockey game. I’m not into the sport enough to keep up with the yearly releases, but I still have fond memories of playing NHL 94 and Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey. Coming into NHL 11, I was understandably intimidated. Video game hockey has evolved quite a bit, which makes jumping in with my primitive video game hockey skills scary.
The part that scared me most were the controls. By default, a number of actions are mapped to the right stick, which opens the door for player-controlled stick-handling maneuvers and pin-point shooting. It also opens the door for all sorts of options on face-offs that I never would have thought of. It all adds greatly to the realism of the game, but I was quickly overwhelmed by the button layout and the options available to me.
After floundering through my first game, I set my controls to ‘NHL 94’. If you have your controls set this way, you play it just like you would on the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis. This made it a lot easier for me to jump into, but it’s limitations were also apparent. In this mode, I sacrificed all of the benefits of the regular control scheme, including the ability to control a shot. Amplifying the issues of this control scheme include the fact that the computer still had access to these options. Unless you’re playing with another opponent with ‘NHL 94’ controls, you’re setting yourself up for an uphill battle.
Instead of being a grumpy old man and trying to stumble through the game with the old controls, I decided to learn the new ones. Having full control over the puck makes the game feel so much better. One of the first goals I scored involved me splitting two defenders and going top shelf over the goalie’s glove. Knowing that I had full control over that move and that shot made that one sequence feel exhilarating. Now that I at least have a basic grasp on the default controls, I don’t think I’d ever go back to the old way of doing things.
Everything else about the game feels top-notch. NHL 11’s depiction of hockey plays very realistically and rewards those who try and play the sport properly rather than rush the net over and over again. Even though my knowledge of the sport is limited, it didn’t take long for me to recognize that I would have more offensive success if I passed the puck around until I got a good shot. I also found that getting a shot off of a rebound is usually a great scoring opportunity.
Was NHL 11 as scary as I thought it would be? No, not really. Once I got over the initial confusion over the controls, I found it to be a great game that I’ll come back to any time I’m in need of a hockey fix. I don’t know if that craving for hockey will ever go beyond the game’s quick play mode, but I’m glad I have it.