Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: NHL 2K11 (iPad)

Ice hockey is one of the fastest sports out there. Five guys a side, a rink too small to hold them, big hockey sticks and a little puck being slapped back and forth - it's chaotic, furious, and a perfect fit for the video game format.

Did not expect an iPad ice hockey game to play this smooth, or look this good

That said, the speed and precise control required for a good ice hockey video game means the iPad is potentially an uncomfortable fit for the sport. A good ice hockey game needs a good controler, and it's rare to find a virtual control scheme that allows that kind of precision, especially at a frantic speed, and there's a few too many people on the screen to make simple swipes and touch-tap gameplay workable.

Or so we thought. NHL 2K11 is not only one of the best sports games we've played on the iPad, it puts many console hockey games to shame. First up, there are two control options - a traditional virtual controller, and a one-touch system.

Both work beautifully, and you'll be making tough shots and blocking with ease in just a few games. In order to keep things manageable, there are fewer 'buttons' to make use of than a typical modern hockey game - little more than a basic block, boost, pass, and shot 'button,' but within that arcade-ish setup there is a robust AI to play against and plenty of basic, effective tactics to play with.

There's fewer gameplay modes than a full-fledged console game, but what there is is surprisingly deep. The season mode allows for trading, salary caps and injuries, and the full list of NHL teams are represented. For those just looking for a quick fix there's a free play mode. Disappointing there's a mode that claims to be a grass roots "from the pond," mode, but the differences between this mode a negligible - little more than a reskin.

It's a great feeling when that puck finally gets past the goalie

We would have enjoyed an international mode - one of the great hallmarks of the FIFA games is the depth of teams on offer, but the NHL is a big competition with plenty of teams, so it's not like Ashes Cricket where you'll have all of two teams to choose from, either.

The characters look surprisingly good - something of a throwback to the Playstation 2 era; and animate well at a solid framerate that never dips, so the speed of ice hockey is captured well. Sound is somewhat muted, with a lack of commentary making for an uncomfortably quiet game at first, but that quickly turns to appreciation, as no commentator also  means no canned, looped catchphrases.

So for less than $10, you're getting a game that plays a really fine game of ice hockey. For such an exciting sport, 2K China has done a spectacular job here, and NHL 2K11 might well be the first portable ice hockey game that can be genuinely recommended.


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