According to the packaging of EA’s NHL 11, the two-decades-old NHL franchise has (to date) won twenty two sports-related Game Of The Year awards, and anyone who’s familiar with the series isn’t going to be surprised to hear that. In the UK, where ice hockey is a decidedly niche pursuit that isn’t televised or adequately covered by the mainstream print press, these games have never quite provoked the same level of interest that they do in the US and Canada. But this year’s edition, with its compelling new Ultimate League mode, is probably the finest, and most accessible, iteration yet released.

That mode, which fans of last month’s similarly definitive Madden NFL 11 will instantly recognise, maintains the depth of the series’ previous (comparable) modes of play, but streamlines them into an aesthetically pleasing and easy-to-understand collectible playing card system. You build a franchise exactly as you did before, and earn (or buy) new cards as you progress through the ranks of the online (or, if you prefer, offline) leagues. The system is only as involved as you want it to be though, and the fact that team compatibility is monitored via a ‘chemistry’ dynamic, is one aspect that only the hardcore need to place any real emphasis upon.

The gameplay is as thoroughly delectable as ever, with a ferocious realism – seemingly EA Sport’s most passionate new obsession – pushed to the fore once again this time. The new animation system makes every defensive (and offensive) maneuver completely unique, with body checks now packing a thunderously authentic punch. A well-placed body check can now knock an opponent clean off his feet, send them tumbling onto the ice, or cause them to momentarily lose their footing. These aren’t the condensed ‘canned’ animations of old, and they all look, without exception, very slick indeed.

Your stick can also now be broken or dropped during a scuffle, which means that you’re either left scrambling to pick it up again, or forced to head over to your team’s bench to grab hold of a new one. A broken stick on the ice can also affect the trajectory of the puck, and a new dodge move (which can also be used to avoid downed players) will only allow you to maintain control of the puck if you’re guarding it in the right direction. Instances with broken or dropped sticks don’t occur very often, but they provoke an enjoyably skittish aura of outright panic when they do.

Passing is now pressure sensitive, and holding the left trigger down for too long will result in a heavily-powered shot that’s capable of travelling the entire distance of the arena. You can also now utilise a very slight speed boost, which is best employed when you’ve moved beyond your opponent’s defence; but unlike in say, FIFA 10, you’re only able to use it once or twice before your player gets noticeably fatigued. The brilliant new face-off system also adds innumerable possibilities. Your stick’s movements are mapped to the right thumbstick and your body’s to the left one, so you can use all manner of techniques (like switching between a regular and a reversed stick grip) to fake-out your opponent; or you can simply tie him down and wait for his wingers to move in for a capture.

Whether NHL 11 can notch up another Game Of The Year award this year remains to be seen – and EA Sports will most likely be competing with itself, if our hands-on time with the astonishing-looking FIFA 11 is anything to go by – but it certainly is as richly deserving as ever. There is enough content here to keep even the most fanatical hockey fan busy until the end of next summer, and the new gameplay additions are minor but thoroughly fundamental, serving to make the whole experience basically comprehensive. NHL 11 is deeply complex but just as accessible, and somehow manages to be, much like all of the recent FIFA releases, peerlessly realistic and absurdly entertaining at the same time.

Watch the NHL 11 trailer here…

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