Are simulation style video games such as NHL '11 too complicated?

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nhl11toewscover.jpgI haven’t written a review of NHL ’11 just yet for a simple reason: it’s enormous. From the tweaks EA Sports made to the team building aspects of its old modes to the changes in physics and gameplay to the newly added Hockey Ultimate League and its wacky trading card system, there’s a lot to digest. In fact, I might just include a gallery of reviews like I did with NHL 2K11 for the simple reason that there’s a lot to wrap one’s head around.

(If you want a snapshot review, though: it’s really, really good. There will always be minor quibbles, but it feels better than any of the previous titles. If you’re a hardcore hockey fan, it’s worthy of an upgrade even if you own NHL ’10.)

As much as I enjoy NHL ’11 and other sports games that aim to be realistic and fun at the same time, there’s a part of my gaming heart that aches for the days of cartoonish, reality-bending arcade sports games. From hockey’s NHL Hitz series and Wayne Gretzky hockey to the fantastic NBA Jam and NBA Street games all the way through to robots swinging baseball bats and Mutant League Football, previous consoles featured some incredibly fun titles. It’s clear that the gross maturity of people can’t help but focus on the “That would never happen” aspect instead of lingering on the sheer awesomeness of making a basketball hoop catch on fire.

That saddens me.

When EA Sports made a big move to change its control scheme with NHL ’07, they introduced a new level of immersion to hockey video games. Instead of the strength of a shot being determined by how hard (or long) you press down on a button, now your aim (360 degrees worth) and timing are what really matter. One of the things I love about the scheme is that to simply play the game without getting into the subtle nuances, it’s actually quite simple: the left joystick moves your player, the right joystick acts as your stick and guides your body checks, the right trigger passes and changes players while the right bumper poke checks.

Of course, there’s a big difference between being able to do the simple things and showing enough skill to score goals against and inhibit the offense of an experienced opponent.

Owen Sound of Kotaku asserts that NHL ’11 is “harder than its hardcore fans” and ultimately asks if modern sports games are too complicated for casual gamers or casual fans of a sport to pick up.

The deepening complexity of sports video games is more than tolerable, its marketable, because millions of sports fans have a deep, first-hand association with the sport in question, if not as players then at least as lifelong fans. Unfortunately, it’s also a prerequisite.

There is no such prerequisite in a shooter. Mafia II’s instruction manual is two pages: Here’s how to kill someone before he kills you, basically. Part of that has to do with the lawless context of the game. But it’s also because, unlike the subtleties of defending someone in basketball, there are few gamers out there familiar with the subtleties of being a mafioso, and certainly not enough demanding simulation-quality organized crime gaming.

Analysts have asserted that sports gamers are not buying more sports games, but they are spending more money on a single game. The economy may be a big part of that, but it’s only a part of it, I think. As features and different contextual control sets are are added and – especially – as multiplayer communities mature and become more competitive, fans may find themselves without the time or the wherewithal to keep up in the sports they follow more casually than their favorite.

Sports games that try to simplify themselves typically get brushed off as babying the product for people who don’t have sports fan bonafides. Let’s not be so quick to judge things that way. These games may be simplifying themselves to be more accessible to hardcore sports fans who, lacking exposure, can’t yet make that mental connection between what they want their player or team to do and how to execute it on the controller.

There are, however, options out there for people who want to play arcade-style games on modern consoles. Unfortunately, sometimes that requires a certain level of tolerance for outdated rosters (or even imaginary teams stocked with fake players). For one thing, you can play quite a few PS2/original X-Box era games on the newer consoles if they are “backwards compatible.” While $60/full-priced games rarely feature arcade gameplay, it seems like download services are filling the gap. For example, a new edition of the revered NES pigskin game Tecmo Super Bowl was released this year. I’m a big fan of the ridiculously simple soccer game Sensible World of Soccer; in the X-Box 360 version the “A” button controls passing, shooting and attempts to retrieve the ball. Yes, that’s right, passing and shooting on the same button. Another interesting development is that the Nintendo Wii will feature the re-birth of the NBA Live series, complete with an NBA license.

So arcade style video games aren’t dead all together, but simulations demand the biggest budgets and largest audiences. Still, I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: EA Sports is crazy not to release an NHL ’94-style X-Box Live game. Wouldn’t you want to use Alex Ovechkin like the next coming of Jeremy “Going to make Gretzky’s head bleed” Roenick? Get on it, EA.

Video: AHL goalie Jonas Gustavsson scores his first career goal

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He didn’t shoot, but Jonas Gustavsson still scored.

The former NHL netminder, now with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, scored his first career goal Friday, as part of his team’s victory over the San Diego Gulls.

From the AHL:

With San Diego goaltender Dustin Tokarski on the bench for an extra attacker and the Gulls working on a power play, Gustavsson made a save before an errant San Diego pass slid down the length of the ice and into the vacated net at 16:56 of the third period.

Gustavsson is the fifth AHL goaltender to be credited with a goal without actually shooting the puck into the opposition net. In addition to his goal, Gustavsson stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Condors victory.

Bolts and Islanders both win, which is bad news for Bruins

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The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each had to work overtime to decide their separate games, but when they ended, both clubs were victorious.

And that makes things even more interesting in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

With their shootout win in Pittsburgh, the Islanders tie the Bruins in points but take over the final playoff spot for now with fewer games played. The Lightning, despite an abundance of injuries all season, are just a point back of Boston and New York.

Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay against the Red Wings. He’s up to 38 goals, which is second most in the league behind Sidney Crosby, currently at 42 goals.

Sellers leading up to the trade deadline, and without Steven Stamkos since the middle of November, the Lightning are in the thick of this race, even if others may have counted them out.

“Once again, people counted us out,” defenseman Victor Hedman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we showed a lot of character. And we’re right back in it.”

The Bolts don’t play again until Monday, when they host the Chicago Blackhawks — only one of the hottest teams in the league.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s busy slate of games includes a showdown between the Bruins and Islanders. For Boston, it’s a chance for redemption after a particularly costly third period against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

The Ducks defeated the Jets on Friday, moving into a tie with the Sharks at 91 points.

San Jose’s struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.