2K Sports made one of the more intriguing - and gutsy - calls in sports publishing when it shelved NHL 2K on the PS3 and Xbox 360 for a year, going Wii-only for NHL 2K11.
The business story makes sense: At the time, 2K was unchallenged in Wii hockey (EA Sports has since announced a competitor, due out tomorrow). And while its core console offering had lagged in both quality and sales, NHL 2K on the Wii had a well-regarded second offering last year and enjoyed decent sales, especially in Canada.
So NHL 2K11 only on the Wii makes sense for business, but does it for the consumer? Did 2K Sports plough everything into its Wii version? Or is this a tide-me-over until the studio gets back on its feet with the 360 and PS3?
Presenting the NHL: Wii games get graded on a curve, so here's the obligatory blah blah blah about it being last-generation graphics. OK, done. That said, NHL 2K11 is a finely rendered game for the hardware, and it has gotten some TLC with new lighting, arena interiors and more recognisable player modelling - and in more than just the faces. Big goons handle differently than nimble snipers, for example. The commentary by Randy Hahn and Drew Remenda is still strong and breezy in appropriate spots. It may not draw raves, but you won't be conspicuously reminded you're on a Wii, unless you're playing one of the Mii mini-games.
Lots Of Value: Hand it to 2K Sports; there is a ton of variety on the disc. One-off game modes include mini-rink 2-on-2, pond hockey (four offensive players to a side) and the outdoors Winter Classic, which is hard-wired to last year's setting and participants (Fenway Park, Bruins and Flyers) but still a gas. Traditional 5-on-5 hockey has the franchise mode, and it's the only Wii hockey title with online multiplayer, which includes both leagues and a cooperative team-up mode. It does not have a singleplayer career mode, and I would think a mode controlling one guy, especially a goalie, would be optimal for motion control. But 2K10 did not have it in any version, so Visual Concepts would have had to build it specifically for Wii first. Finally, "Road to the Cup" replaces last year's Mii Super Skills challenges. The mini-games are a bit quirkier, but a lot of fun among friends and kids, and the progression (winning games wins you fans, fans win you the whole shebang) is more purpose-driven.
Classic Controller Support: This is not the kind of compliment 2K Sports set out to receive, but the game is one of only a few team sports titles that support the Wii Classic Controller, and it's much more accessible as a fully featured sports simulation with one. Three control sets serve your tastes, whether you want to shoot with face buttons, shoulder buttons or the analogue stick. It's the only hockey game on the Wii that can be played with a traditional controller, and it's a comfortable fallback for those who find the motion control too byzantine and just want to play by more familiar means.
Limp wristers: Slap shots on motion control are no problem and feel great. Wristers and putbacks nearly always have some sort of hitch in the swing animation, and one-timers didn't normally fire off as intended. Shots are activated by pulling on the B trigger and flicking directly left for a fast shot, but the game seems to detect even the tiniest draw right and cycles the slapshot animation. It takes a good deal of touch to smoothly execute the bang-bangiest of shots on goal. You'll frequently see your player get into a slap animation with a brief pause and finally the wrist shot, and when you're operating close to the goal this is long enough to allow the goalie to get into position, or for the defenceman to swing over and clean you out. You can stuff rebounds with a quick pull of the B trigger, but it's insufficiently accurate from anything but point blank.
Infor-motion Overload: I'm admittedly not the best at hockey, but this sport is just too fast-paced, with too much continually contested or in motion to be played with so many gestures that barely feel connected to the action. There are six contexts with many discrete commands to remember - for example, you can sweep your stick, hold it to the ground to block a pass or raise it in the air. After the tutorials, my mental RAM had filled up too fast to access how to do this and many other highly specific tasks in the heat of the moment. Among friends with two Wiimotes and Nunchuks I could easily see many games being played only with slapshots, body checks and basic passing, and no user goalie control, because everyone understands a slapshot motion, a shove (with the Wiimote and nunchuk) and a button press to pass. After that, it's a tangle of modifiers and subtleties and remembering to reach for the minus button to get on your netminder. If you're dying to play hockey with motion control, go into pond hockey or the mini-rink and have a blast. Otherwise, be prepared to put in a lot of time getting to the point where these gestures are second nature.
NHL 2K11 isn't going to make hockey fans get out of bed and buy a Wii. If they have one, however, it's worth a good look, especially for those who didn't catch NHL 2K10. Those who bought 2K10 on the Wii won't see too much different in this year's game. And everyone should fetch the immediate online roster update because the one on the disc is a bit outdated.
Its motion control has its moments, especially with MotionPlus. The 1:1 stick handling is finely tuned. I just rarely transitioned from it into the shot I wanted. Puck juggling is a neat curiosity, but its usefulness just wasn't that apparent to me. In sum, the motion control set is better suited to lower-stakes affairs like mini-games and multiplayer with friends in the room. So this is neither a step forward in the argument for motion in the core sports simulations, nor a game that truly wins on the features that set apart this platform.
But the core product is still a serious treatment of hockey, and with a Classic Controller, NHL 2K11 is one of the few full-featured, traditional sports sims on the Wii. It's an unusual stronghold for a sports developer to seek while it retrenches on the 360 and PS3. If NHL 2K11 doesn't completely fulfil the discriminating sports gamer, it still offers plenty to a broader spectrum of skills, ages and expectations.
NHL 2K11 was developed by Visual Concepts and published by 2K Sports for the Wii on August 24. Retails for $US49.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types in both single and multiplayer modes.
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