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.

Blues to retire Bob Plager’s No. 5

ST. LOUIS - APRIL 9:  Former St. Louis Blues defenseman Al MacInnis #2 and his family watch his banner being raised during his jersey retirement ceremony prior to the game between the Blues and Edmonton Oilers at the Savvis Center on April 9, 2006 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The St. Louis Blues will commemorate their 50th anniversary with a special ceremony on Feb. 2, retiring the No. 5 jersey worn by longtime defenseman Bob Plager.

More, from the club:

Plager, who was acquired by the Blues on June 6, 1967 and has been with the organization for all 50 years, will become the seventh player in Blues history to have his number retired, joining No. 2 Al MacInnis, No. 3 Bob Gassoff, No. 11 Brian Sutter, No. 16 Brett Hull, No. 24 Bernie Federko and his brother, No. 8 Barclay Plager.

Bob and Barclay Plager join Maurice and Henri Richard (Montreal Canadiens) as the only brothers to have their numbers retired by the same team in NHL history.

Plager played 10 seasons with the Blues, then transitioned to a number of front office and coaching roles within the organization.

In a unique twist, his No. 5 was never taken out of circulation and subsequently worn by another staple of the Blues organization — Barret Jackman, who recently retired after spending 16 years in St. Louis, appearing in over 800 games.

Prior to the February retirement ceremony, Blues fans will be able to recognize Plager this Saturday when St. Louis hosts Los Angeles at Scottrade.

Flames can get back to .500 with win over Sens

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 24: Matt Stajan #18 and Lance Bouma #17 of the Calgary Flames congratulate Brian Elliott #1 after a shootout win against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on October 24, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Flames defeated the Blachawks 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Calgary Flames have won two in a row, but they’re still a losing hockey club heading into tonight’s home game against Ottawa.

That’s the message head coach Glen Gulutzan has been preaching after encouraging back-to-back victories in Chicago and St. Louis.

“We’re still below .500,” Gulutzan said. “We can’t rest at all. We haven’t accomplished anything yet. We’ve played two good games. That’s what we’ve accomplished. You need to get on a roll and you need to keep pushing. Keep the focus and keep pushing.”

The Flames (3-4-1) did not just get lucky in their last two games. They were especially good Tuesday in St. Louis, outshooting the Blues, 30-24, in a 4-1 win. Meanwhile, goalie Brian Elliott has bounced back after a tough debut for his new team; he’ll get a third straight start tonight.

Suffice to say, the mood around the team has improved considerably.

“My lips were getting sore from sucking on the exhaust pipe,” GM Brad Treliving jokingly told the Calgary Sun. “It was never as bad as it seemed, but it’s a stark change to how we played. … It’s a relief to stop the bleeding. We were disciplined, the power play worked, we limited chances, we didn’t turn the puck over and the goalie found his groove.”

Related: The Flames are still learning their new system, and it shows

Goalie nods: Kinkaid makes season debut for Devils

New Jersey Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid (1) watches a shot on goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in Newark N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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There’ll be a new look in goal for New Jersey this evening, as backup Keith Kinkaid gets his first start of the season as the Devils host the Blackhawks.

Kinkaid will give Cory Schneider the night off, after Schneider started New Jersey’s first six games of the year.

This promises to be a game worth monitoring. Kinkaid spent last year as Schneider’s backup — going 9-9-1 with a 2.81 GAA and .904 save percentage — but, this year, had to beat out Scott Wedgewood for the gig during training camp and the exhibition campaign.

What’s more, Kinkaid is being thrown into a difficult matchup, taking on a Chicago team that’s averaging 3.43 goals per game this season. The ‘Hawks are busting out new lines tonight, too, as Patrick Kane will skate alongside Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik.

Corey Crawford will start for Chicago.


Cam Ward will start for the Hurricanes, who are playing their first home game of the season. Henrik Lundqvist goes for the Rangers.

— It’s Michael Hutchinson versus Semyon Varlamov as the Jets take on the Avs in Colorado.

Andrew Hammond, now Ottawa’s No. 1 with Craig Anderson away dealing with a personal issue, gets the nod in Calgary. He’ll be up against Brian Elliott, who has rebounded from a poor start to win both of his last two starts.

— The red-hot Cam Talbot goes again for Edmonton tonight in Vancouver. The Canucks will counter with Ryan Miller.

— No confirmed starters in Anaheim yet. Sergei Bobrovsky played in last night’s loss to San Jose, and John Gibson has been carrying the load lately with Jonathan Bernier out injured.

Marchessault, Pirri providing great bang for buck

SUNRISE, FL - OCTOBER 13: Jonathan Marchessault #81 of the Florida Panthers celebrates a goal during Opening Night of the 2016-2017 NHL Season against New Jersey Devils at BB&T Center on October 13, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

This summer’s free agent class was highlighted by a number of big-money deals.

Yet through the first month of the season, the real highlight has been the guys that came on the cheap.

Nowhere is this more true than in Florida, where Jonathan Marchessault — signed to a two-year, $1.5 million deal with a $750,000 cap hit — has been a revelation. The undrafted free agent, who spent time with the Rangers, Blue Jackets and Lightning, has five goals and 10 points through seven games with the Panthers.

Marchessault is playing on the club’s top line with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr, and leads the Panthers in scoring.

“It’s been a wonderful find for us,” team president Dale Tallon told Sportsnet. “He’s real tricky and good down low. Sees the ice well. He’s not the biggest guy. Some guys slip through the cracks. Some guys are late bloomers.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing to not get drafted.”

In New York, one of Tallon’s ex-players is providing equally good value.

Brandon Pirri, who went most of the summer without a contract before signing with the Rangers in August, is off to a terrific start. Inked to a one-year, $1.1 million deal, Pirri has four goals and six points in seven games, and leads the team in power-play markers.

“I’m glad we’re the ones who got him,” Derek Stepan said, per the Associated Press. “He’s got a knack for the net. It’s not easy to score goals in this league and he seems to be in those areas to score.

“That’s a difficult thing and, to me, that’s a skill. If you have it, it’s special and it’s rare.”

Some other under-the-radar signings that have stood out:

— The backup goalie position in Montreal was a disaster last season, so full credit to GM Marc Bergevin for solving it on the cheap. Al Montoya was brought aboard for $950,000, and all he’s done is go 3-0-1 with a .955 save percentage and 1.47 GAA. He also provided crucial stability at the start of the year, too, when Carey Price was sidelined with the flu.

— In Dallas, Adam Cracknell has capitalized on the opportunity provided by all the club’s injuries at forward. Signed to a two-way deal with a $600,000 cap hit, 31-year-old has two goals and three points through seven games, appearing in every contest for the Stars this season while averaging over 10 minutes per.

Patrick Wiercioch, who didn’t even get a qualifying offer from Ottawa, signed with Colorado for $800,000. The 26-year-old d-man has been great offensively, with five points through five games, leading all Avs blueliners in scoring.

— Speaking of Ottawa, GM Pierre Dorion did well to sign Tom Pyatt out of the Swiss League. Inked to a one-year, two-way deal worth $800,000, Pyatt returned to the NHL after two years abroad and “has been really good for us on both sides of the ice,” according to head coach Guy Boucher. Pyatt has three points through six games and is one of the club’s top penalty killers.