It’s not all that common for two fairly high-profile demos to be available on the same day, but that’s exactly what we got with today’s simultaneous releases of the NHL 11 and H.A.W.X. 2 demos today via Xbox LIVE.
While it’s easy to generalize that EA’s sports games are mere roster updates every year, NHL 11 is much more than that. In-game, there’s a new faceoff system, bigger hit and hip checks, a better sense of momentum for players on the ice, and tweaks to the presentation that bring the game closer to a television broadcast than ever before. Transitions between breaks in gameplay are now augmented by pertinent stat overlays and better-looking replays of action that occurred on the ice just prior to the play stoppage. Broken sticks occur and players have to decide whether to stay on the ice to try and defend or to quickly skate back to the bench for a stick swap and leave their team briefly shorthanded. Hit animations are better than they’ve ever been. Goal scoring celebrations spotlight the scoring player and the home crowd reacts loudly to each player’s name as they’re read by the (new) PA announcer. Crowd interaction doesn’t stop there, either. Big hits on the ice by the home team bring huge swells from the crowd; the ambient atmosphere has rarely– if ever– been better.
The NHL 11 demo allows players to either play the final period of the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Final between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks in Battle For The Cup or grants players a chance to check out one of the game’s big additions: Hockey Ultimate Team. Battle For The Cup, as it did last year, really accentuates the emotion and excitement of the Stanley Cup playoffs without having to play through a full season to get there. It’s instant gratification (of sorts), but really lets players see, feel, and experience a playoff atmosphere and that do-or-die feeling. Winning the Cup in the demo lets players in on a rather impressive Stanley Cup celebration, complete with player handshakes, emotional moments, and a team picture for the ages.
Hockey Ultimate Team combines elements of fantasy hockey, a trading card game, and NHL 11 gameplay into a pretty addicting package that looks to keep players into NHL 11 for a long time. Players get an initial deck that contains player cards, training cards, contract cards, and head coach cards. Player cards are individually assigned to positions, filling all of the lines that you would if you were playing an actual game. You’ll need to set up scoring lines, defensive pairings, special team lines for power plays and penalty kills, and more. Since NHL 11 has rosters for the NHL, AHL, and now the Canadian Hockey League, you’ll have a wider selection of player cards… but, at least at first, not all of them are going to be superstars. Line chemistry also comes into play, so expect to do lots of mixing and matching of lines– even in the demo– to tweak your team as much as possible. Training cards can be added to player cards to make them perform better, and contract cards extend the number of games that a player card can be used before the player “retires”. Once your team is set, you participate in tournaments and the results are decided on the ice and your team comes to life and you play actual games with your players and lineups. As you play, you earn “pucks”, which are the equivalent of Madden 11‘s coins. These pucks can be used to buy booster packs for your card deck as well as to buy cards at auction to improve your team. The demo gives players a chance to unlock a special deck upon release if they share the demo with friends on their XBL friends list, which is a nice plus.
The retail version of NHL 11 arrives in a few short weeks, and if the demo is any indication, it has the potential of being the best hockey game that we’ve seen in years.
The H.A.W.X. 2 demo isn’t nearly as positive an experience. The first level of the demo puts you in a plane flying with the Russian military as they attempt to quell a strengthening uprising that threatens the security of the entire country. After some setup, your squadron is ambushed by the insurgents and a battle begins. The good news is that the decent dogfighting from the first game seems to be just as good here. It’s fairly exciting, and some enemies are smart enough to use their own flares and chaff to throw off your missile locks and make missile engagement tough. Sometimes, it feels a little too tough as your plane can’t always seem to get close enough for gun combat and it feels more like a chase than a dogfight… but at least it’s a moderate change of pace from the usual lock-fire-cycle target routine.
After the dogfight ends, a refueling sequence begins shortly thereafter. This is a decent idea, in theory, but the execution is all wrong. Much like in the first H.A.W.X. game, a Superman 64-like ring-flying sequence is initiated in order for you to take the “most efficient path” to the refueling plane… but the catch is that you only have 5 minutes to fly close enough to initiate the sequence, fly through the rings without making too many mistakes, then fly at a limited speed towards the refueling plane and try to dock with it. The first problem is that the ring-flying sequence is just broken here. In order to complete the refueling exercise in the allotted time, you literally have to fly through the rings with your afterburners on… and the trajectory is far from straight. Missing too any rings in a row prompts failure. If you get through that sequence, your speed is then curtailed as you have to “gradually” increase your speed to approach the refueling plane. That would be fine if time wasn’t ticking down from, say, less than a minute to go. Complicating matters is the fuel nozzle, which you have to line up with properly in order to initiate the refueling sequence. Simply put, this refueling sequence makes the frustrating one from Top Gun on the NES seem like child’s play; it’s unnecessary and should have a prompt for auto-refuel in order to maintain the pace of the game. It’s a game-breaker… and not in a good way.
The second stage puts you behind the stick of a stealth bomber in Africa as you are required to bomb a series of strategic targets from 15,000 feet. Players must activate night vision (which is a decent touch) and then take off manually. Once you reach the first waypoint, you’re given your first set of targets. After ascending to 15,000 feet, you switch to Precision mode and drop bombs on set targets from a different perspective. This sequence is a break from the norm and executes pretty well. Once those targets are dispatched, enemy helicopters must be shot down below 15,000 feet, opening your craft up to anti-aircraft and missile fire from the ground below. Bombing select targets at an airfield is your last objective before you’re instructed to return to the carrier… and land your plane.
Yes. In another scenario culled right from Konami’s Top Gun, you have to land your plane. This involves yet another round of flying through rings, as well as skillful throttle control, lowering your landing gear, and landing at the correct angle and speed. Flying through the rings is the toughest part, but not having to fly against the clock makes landing a bit easier than refueling. Once you land, the demo ends.
H.A.W.X. 2 is due to arrive around the same time as NHL 11: September 7th. It’s selling for $10 less than a standard new game, which is a plus, and the dogfighting certainly seems as good as the first game. With the addition of difficult refueling and landing sequences, however, it remains to be seen whether H.A.W.X. 2 can be a great follow-up to a game that surprised a few people last year.