Defense is where I feel the most comfortable. My passing and shooting skills leave a lot to be desired, and I can feel this entire Florida crowd holding its breath whenever I go charging across the blue line. Even I get jittery when my lane gets shut down and I have to dump the puck to one of my teammates. It’s a 50 / 50 chance of a turnover.
It makes sense. Offensive controls in EA’s NHL 11 are much more nuanced. Defense is all about positional play and reading the offense. I don’t have to be a master with the controls to break up a play, because I’m already ahead of it.
So on defense, I’m the guy who comes slicing across the ice to intercept a shot on goal, then destroys the poor wing that is stupid enough to try and recover the puck. There’s a tooth-rattling crunch as he’s blasted into the boards, and the crowd goes berserk as the Panthers go hurtling toward the goal with 3 on 2 while the Flames try to figure out what the hell just happened.
I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this game. Career mode is neat because you basically role-play as an NHL player, starting with the end of your semi-pro career and then transitioning to the big time. You gain experience points based on your performance, and you use those experience points to upgrade your player. My guy is becoming a little more physical, and little tougher, and is working on his puck control. But while he can be upgraded, I can’t.
Which is why I’m not really ready for the other parts of this game. I have no idea how to play the other positions, so the championship mode is totally beyond my skill. Every time a new player gets the puck, you get control of that guy. I can play left wing, but I can’t flip between the wing, the center, to the other wing in the space of five seconds.
Nor am I ready to tackle the challenge of being a GM, and that brings up my major problem with the EA sports games. They provide almost no assistance to the learner, as nearly as I can tell. You’ve either been with these series since the PlayStation 2, or you’re going to spend a lot of time floundering. The interface is anything but intuitive, and there is an awful lot of presumed knowledge both when it comes to position play and team management.
Admittedly, I should know the sport better. Were I a devoted hockey fan, NHL 11 is probably more self-explanatory. But there are some things I understand perfectly well that the game gives me no real opportunities to practice. I understand what I want to do on offense, but I’m having trouble connecting the action of the right thumbstick on my controller to what my on-screen player is doing with his stick. I need a better explanation, but neither NHL 11′s thin tutorials nor its pamphlet-sized manual provide much insight.
That said, something like career mode goes a long way to making up for the weak tutorial tools. Because I’m being forced to integrate myself into an offense, I’m learning how to help construct a play. When my player runs out of energy and goes to the bench, I watch from the sidelines as the computer players run the game. I pay attention to the kind of plays where I’m weak. Between the coach’s feedback (“Watch the turnovers” is a popular admonition) and the commentary, I am getting up to speed and having a great time doing it.
And that’s the key to getting people into a game, I think. There has to be a hook, something that establishes the game’s appeal without requiring that you necessarily grasp everything that contributes to it. Career mode in NHL does exactly that, by tapping into the most basic fantasy of anyone who watches a good hockey game: playing at the highest level with an elite group of pros, breaking and making the big plays.