Over the past few years EA has proven to be the dominant force in the hockey genre. Forgoing the arcade stylings of the competition, the NHL series has strived to deliver an on-ice experience that is rivaled in realism by none. NHL 11 was thought by many fans of the franchise to be the best game in the series. With a wealth of new features, a brand new physics engine, and all of the trimmings that brought the action to life, the game was without a doubt the best offering that EA had ever put to market. On the heels of such a great game, how does NHL 12 stack up against its predecessor? Quite well as it turns out.
Going down a checklist of the few complaints that were levied on NHL 11 was a good place for EA to start, when trying to one-up themselves in NHL 12. As EA has shifted away from the arcade feel of hockey, many changes have been made to make the game feel more like a live hockey game, than a virtual one. The new Anticipation AI and Full Contact Physics Engine tweaks added into NHL 12 make this most realistic game to date. Revamped puck physics and shooting animations give a much better flow to the action than they had in previous iterations. Loose pucks and the struggle to collect them, whether on offense or defense, feels more natural, as a puck rattles around to find its home.
With the Anticipation AI cranked up in NHL 12, player flow plays more true to life. Players anticipate the path of the puck, instead of gravitating to where the puck is, or was. As the transition occurs from offense to defense, breakout passes become much easier to pull off because these players will anticipate the shift and go on attack before you start the pass. It’s a big stride for the game and its pulled off exceptionally well. I never found a point where it didn’t work as advertised, but an errant pass can put you somewhat out of position. These better puck physics and anticipation differences are also noticeable in the crease. Dynamic Goalies are another of the game’s big additions that add more to the realism than ever before. Knocking goalies down, putting them out of position, and even knocking the net off, are all possibilities as attackers crash the net. What I didn’t see are the awful animations of years past which had a puck rolling around on the goalies back as he struggles to find it, and at times, putting it in the net himself.
Hockey being the dynamic sport that it is, with any team consisting of players who specialize in multiple facets of the game, EA has also included a new feature that assigns these traits to the players. The end result is that players play like their real life counterparts, and the result on ice is staggering. Not just displayed by a faster skater, these new players can perform actions that other players on the ice can’t do. For the players on the team that aren’t under your control, they’ll act as they should. These new attributes will determine where a player will go, and what they will do, depending on the game situation and orientation of the puck. Shooting mechanics have also been tweaked to give players with specific player traits more room to pull off skill shots. The end result of all this fine tuning to the back-end gives the game a noticeable difference on the ice, in terms of how a game flows depending on your players and their traits.
To hammer home the realism, there has also been plenty of new animations of the more superficial type. Broken glass, flying helmets, hit animations, and over the board checks, all add to the experience. Whichever game mode you decide to play in NHL 12 the overhaul on both the back-end and front-ends of the game are enhanced. Speaking of game modes though, NHL 12 has a more robust offering than any sports fan is going to know what to do with. The new “Be A Legend” mode puts you in the shoes of some of hockey’s most revered players of yester-year. The mode lets you play with the likes of Roenick, Gretzky, Lemiuex, Yzerman, and others. Be a Legend is very familiar for those that have played the Be a Pro mode, offering you no historic moments to recreate, it does feel a little dry if only for the fact that the only real difference between it and Be a Pro is that your player has a fully maxed out stat sheet. To unlock the new legends you’ll also need to be completing objectives in the Be a Pro mode, most of the legends are locked at onset and you’ll need to tackle other modes to play with them all.
The Ultimate Hockey League is probably the most engaging of the new offerings. Allowing players to create their perfect fantasy hockey team by earning EA pucks, purchasing card packs, and assembling a super team, it’s a downright fun and addictive experience trying to create the perfect team dynamics. Deeper if only for the different attributes that players have now, your team boils down to much more than just speed and shooting stats this time around.
It’s easy to overlook some of the smaller tweaks to the game because it looks similar to the offerings of not only last year, but the year before that. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, because the NHL series has a great presentation no matter how you view the action. That being said player faces and crowd animations have long been the Achilles heel of the NHL franchise, and they are again bringing up the rear in the presentation department for NHL 12. Cutscenes will give you the biggest reminder that little has been done to the overall graphics of NHL 12, but on the ice, it has never felt more alive.
For the online gamer that was hoping for EA Sports to expand on the online offering of NHL 12, you’ll be sad to hear that the online leagues are still as dry as they were in NHL 11. EA has a huge opportunity to incorporate more social aspects into their sports titles with so many players enjoying the online franchises and leagues that they offer. Perhaps that’s getting ahead of ourselves though. First, they need to offer some more customization options in game to fully flesh out the mode for those that like a personalized management system for their team. After they have that in place, it would be nice to have an online presence where league members could interact, share content, and manage their teams. In my opinion its a huge area where EA has dropped the ball this generation for their sports titles.
EA has made big strides with NHL 12. While some might think that beauty is only skin deep, EA has proven once again that small refinements can pay big dividends when it comes to yearly sports titles. NHL 12 offers one of the best packages in all of the virtual sports world. Usually when a developer sets out to increase the realism of a game, the gameplay suffers. In NHL 12, EA has done what it set out to do without sacrificing one iota of fun in the process.