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.

Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: (l-r) Joe Sakic and Alan Hepple of the Colorado Avalanche attend the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Prior to Thursday’s loss to Columbus, Colorado GM Joe Sakic was asked how his core players have performed during an ugly 9-12-1 start to the year — “inconsistent,” he said — and was then asked he had any intention of breaking the core up.

“Not right now, no,” Sakic said, per the Denver Post. “It’s early in the year.

“I have faith in them, but to me, the start is not a core thing — it’s a team thing.”

Not long after Sakic said that, the Avs lost their fourth straight game, putting them on 19 points — tied with Arizona for the fewest in the NHL.

And then, in his first real bit of message-sending, head coach Jared Bednar took the core to task.

“I’m going to say this,” Bednar said in his postgame media availability. “Tonight, I thought our supporting cast did a real good job up front. I didn’t love some of our top guys tonight. Not that they didn’t work hard, but I didn’t love their game as a whole.”

The controversy surrounding Colorado’s core guys dates back to the Patrick Roy era. After missing the playoffs for a second straight year — which he called “unacceptable” — Roy unloaded on his top players in an April radio interview, saying “the core needs to show more leadership.”

“It was like this when I played for Montreal, it was like this when I played for the Avs,” Roy continued. “The core are the ones that have to carry the team. They’re the ones where, when you lose a game, it has to hurt from the inside. You should want more.”

At this point, it’s probably prudent to identify exactly who comprises the Avs’ core. The Post says it’s “generally considered to be six players, now all tied up to long-term contracts.” Six of the longest-term contracts on Colorado’s books belong to Nathan MacKinnon (signed through 2023), Erik Johnson (2023), Gabriel Landeskog (2021), Tyson Barrie (2020), Matt Duchene (2019) and Semyon Varlamov (2019).

Carl Soderberg, signed through 2020, could be seen as the potential seventh member.

Roy clearly wanted to move on from at least some of these guys, and the fact Sakic didn’t was a major reason why Roy abruptly resigned in August. But it wasn’t that Sakic just keep the core intact — he actually strengthened his commitment to it by giving Barrie a four-year extension this summer, at a time when many figured the puck-moving blueliner would be dealt.

In light of that, it’s not really surprising that Sakic came out yesterday and publicly defended his core guys.

He’s sticking to his guns.

For now, anyway.

Like the Blackhawks, the Ducks have a youth movement of their own

Anaheim Ducks' Ondrej Kase, center, of the Czech Republic, celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks with Ryan Getzlaf, left, Nick Ritchie, front right, and Cam Fowler, back, during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columba. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The Anaheim Ducks, after a fairly unimpressive start under new/old coach Randy Carlyle, are slowly but surely beginning to find their game. The Ducks dominated the Canucks last night in Vancouver, a 3-1 triumph that came after consecutive victories in San Jose and at home to Montreal.

Last night’s game-winning goal was scored by Ondrej Kase, a 21-year-old rookie forward from the Czech Republic who was playing only his eighth NHL game.

That’s worth mentioning, because the Ducks have been forced to introduce a number of young forwards into their lineup, after losing the likes of David Perron, Chris Stewart, and Jamie McGinn to free agency, and while Nate Thompson remains sidelined with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Carlyle was asked if his lineup needed some fresh blood anyway, after last season’s disappointing first-round playoff exit.

“Well, if we did or didn’t, it was budget,” he said. “Simple as that. So that’s the way the hockey world works. You can’t maintain the level of player and the pay scale when you have talent in your lineup that grows. So you always have to have a fresh supplement of talent, and they have to be entry-level people.”

The Ducks, of course, had to give significant raises to a couple of their young stars, Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm.

     Read more: With Lindholm signed, Ducks GM hopes to keep team together

Kase, a seventh-round draft pick in 2014, is just one of the rookie forwards who’ve played for the Ducks this season. Joseph Cramarossa is another. Nick Ritchie isn’t a rookie, but he’s still on his entry-level deal.

“We’re still very much so a work in progress from the standpoint that we haven’t found a niche for every player,” said Carlyle. “You know, big Ritchie’s been a good player for us. … Cramarossa basically coming in and earning a spot in training camp. Kase. Those are decent entries into our lineup and we don’t have to play them too high. And that really helps when you don’t have to put them into your top-six forward grouping.”

That’s because the Ducks still have veterans like Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Corey PerryJakob SilfverbergAndrew Cogliano, and Antoine Vermette.

The Ducks, in that way, are a lot like the Chicago Blackhawks, who’ve been forced to an even larger extent to insert fresh blood into their lineup. It’s been a work in progress for Chicago as well. Though the ‘Hawks have been winning a lot of games, they’ve been heavily reliant on their veterans for goals. Whether they can become a consistent three- or four-line threat by springtime remains to be seen.

In fact, for both teams, that question may very well determine how far they go in the playoffs.

Because like Carlyle said, for teams to remain successful in today’s NHL, there has to be that constant supply of young talent. The Pittsburgh Penguins, with their contributions from all the Baby Pens, proved that again last season.

When that supply runs out, well, did you see the team the Ducks played last night? There’s a reason the Canucks are no longer among the league’s elite. Their supply ran out for a few years, and it’s only starting now to be replenished.

Abdelkader out 2-4 weeks as another — yes, another — injury hits Detroit

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 15: Justin Abdelkader #8 of the Detroit Red Wings skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on March 15, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Red Wings 4-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Injuries are a part of the game. But in Detroit, they’re becoming a fabric of the team.

On Friday, the Red Wings announced that burly power forward Justin Abdelkader would miss the next 2-4 weeks with a MCL sprain (per the Free Press), suffered in last night’s OT loss to Florida.

Abdelkader — who has four goals and eight points through 22 games this season — was averaging 16:26 TOI per night prior to getting hurt. He’d also been heating up lately after a slow start to the year, with four points in his last six contests.

As mentioned in the headline, this is just the latest in a series of injuries to hit the Wings:

Andreas Athanasiou has been out since Nov. 11 with a knee injury.

Darren Helm has been out since Nov. 17 with a shoulder issue.

Jimmy Howard hasn’t played since Nov. 25 due to a groin strain.

Alexey Marchenko was placed on IR last week with a shoulder problem of his own.

Brendan Smith is out four weeks with a knee injury.

Tyler Bertuzzi is out 3-5 weeks with a high ankle sprain.

The club is expected to make another recall from AHL Grand Rapids to fill the Abdelkader void. Leaning on the Griffins has been a common trend this year — in last night’s game against the Panthers, both Anthony Mantha and Ryan Sproul saw significant playing time.

Gudbranson threatened Martin in a ‘fit of rage,’ didn’t really mean what he said

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Erik Gudbranson didn’t really mean it. He doesn’t actually intend to kill Matt Martin.

“That was kind of a spur of the moment,” Gudbranson said Thursday. “I was walking to the dressing room. I was just frustrated. That was a tough night. Do I mean anything I said? Absolutely not. That’s outrageous. That’s just kind of a fit of rage. Unfortunately, it got blown up to that proportion.”

Gudbranson, of course, was heard saying, “Matt Martin’s dead,” after his Vancouver Canucks got thumped, 6-3, in Toronto on Nov. 5. Martin, the big Maple Leafs forward, had gone after Canuck rookie Troy Stecher in the boisterous affair, which had also featured a controversial Nazem Kadri hit on Daniel Sedin, among a few other things.

The Canucks have a rematch with the Leafs Saturday in Vancouver.

Gudbranson was asked if he’d heard anything from the league ahead of the game. He hadn’t, personally, but his general manager, Jim Benning, was contacted, and then Benning relayed the message to Gudbranson.

The message is obviously that the league will be watching closely.

The Canucks, currently missing their two best defenseman, had one of their worst performances of the season Thursday, falling 3-1 to the Ducks at Rogers Arena. So they should be doubly motivated to play well Saturday against the visitors from Toronto.

“That’s a good hockey team that spanked us in their own building,” Gudbranson said of the Leafs. “Our main focus, and especially mine, is coming out and getting two points. That’s the best way to hurt them. We need to be ready for a big tilt.”