NHL 12 Review
Developer: EA Canada / Publisher: EA Sports / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Mild Violence) / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99
I have to be honest here: I didn’t quite know what to make of NHL 12 when I first started it up. I had been accustomed to playing the franchise a certain way over the past two or three years, and all of the tweaks in this year’s version threw me off. There are still several facets to the gameplay and AI that irk me, but on the whole, NHL 12 is a great replication of its real life counterpart, almost eerily so.
I’m going to spare an in-depth enumeration of all the various modes. Fans of the franchise play the game enough to understand what’s new and what’s not; the real meat of people’s inquiries will be the gameplay flourishes that define your experience on a game-to-game basis.
So let’s start with the most obvious: new skating and goalie animations (finally!). This year’s skating animations really give a good sense of weight and physics to the flow of the game. Real hockey is about momentum and direction changes, and NHL 12 captures this very subtly. The effect, however, is anything but subtle. This is a hard concept to describe accurately, but there is a flow to hockey that videogames very rarely adhere to, and this year we finally have a game akin to reality. The way weight shifts by the puck carrier inform the direction he’s about to skate and the way you can see a play develop from the corner to the front of the net as you cross the blue line are just a couple of small examples of how the reorganized game structure is approaching a crossover with what you see on TV.
As for the goalies, their new animations have less impact on the overall game [than?], but they do provide a couple of new angles to examine. Goalies are now full contact, meaning they can be run, and the net can come off the moorings. You will see the associated penalties for ramming the netminders (though not as often as I would like), but the first time you score a goal while the goalie is on his back because your power forward was pushed into him while fighting for position in the crease, you’ll find yourself with a smug smile of satisfaction. Additionally, goalies challenge the shooters a little more aggressively than they have in years past, which makes for some easier goals now and again, but also reflects a more true-to-life style.
The AI is also spruced up accordingly this year, and this goes hand-in-hand with the animations. You’re now be able to tuck pucks around goalies (provided your player has high enough stick handling skill), which is a huge change from the miracle toe save that plagued breakaways in NHL 11. The animation blending between skating and shooting also has some new looks, which alleviates some of the weird spins and gravity-defying one-timers you’ve seen in the past.
Defensemen will now pinch down the boards when you’ve got the high-pressure offense cranking, and the chase AI for the dump and chase is a lot smarter in terms of where the puck is going. My one major complaint from last year’s game, however, still exists, and that is the offensive neutral zone AI. Your own players still just stand around, get in your way at the blue line, and don’t make themselves open for outlet passes, especially if your defender is breaking the puck out of the zone. And while the AI for the CPU offense is much happier to shoot the puck and move it around, it still gets caught at the red line doing nothing when it has no open players to pass to. NHL 08 and 09 had decent neutral zone AI that should be examined for next year’s title.
The biggest visual change is the “new” checking system, billed as physics-based dynamism. I can’t quite agree with all that, but the game does feature two-on-one checks, the possibility that your checking player might also fall over (or be the only player to fall over from the collision), and other crunching variations (like falling into the bench). We’re not at NaturalMotion levels here, but it’s serviceable. The new checking system does allow for bigger players to truly dominate down low; Dustin Penner and players of his ilk are absolutely impossible to knock off the puck below the hashes.
What I’m getting at with all this is that the gameplay is tied directly into the visual look of the game’s pacing, and this is very, very awesome. If you’re getting back into the game of puck after a long hiatus, chances are you won’t notice any of these small details (you will, however, get a fun and accessible game), but for longtime fans of the sport and its virtual equivalent, I wanted to take the time to truly appreciate these additions and say job well done to the development team.
My other huge gripe last year was the presentation. So let me get this out of the way first: you’re still looking at the same cutscenes and team intros you’ve been watching for the past five years. That said, the highlight reel system has been overhauled for the better. Now you can play back any hit, goal, or save from the entire game from the pause menu. You even get a handy rink chart showing you the location of each highlight, which players were involved, and when it occurred. There’s also a net diagram that shows where your shot placement is, and how you’re doing on faceoffs at every dot on the ice. From here on out, this is the standard for hockey videogames. I’ve spent as much time recording highlights as I have playing actual hockey.
Improved player presentation means you see highlight reels of specific players who’ve shined during a game between whistles.
Every arena now has accurate jumbotron placement. And if your favorite team enters the rink through some kitschy prop or inflatable animal (ahem, San Jose Chokers), that’s in the game, too.
Visually, that’s all well and great, but what about the commentary? Well, there’s some new quips this year, mostly around the new modes, but for the most part, you hear Gary Thorne talk about “anticipation!” every two minutes. It needs an overhaul, and bad.
Also, the menus are ridiculously sluggish this year, more so than usual, and it’s really annoying, especially in menu-heavy modes like Be a GM.
Speaking of modes, there have been some changes to Hockey Ultimate Team, more than I could possibly get into here, but I’m not a fan of the mode anyway, mostly because I feel it progresses too slowly, though this year’s suite of online features are nice. You can challenge other players’ teams online whenever you want, and the AI controls that team. Players online can do the same against yours when you’re not actually playing the game, and you earn pucks (the HUT currency) if that happens, which is a cool bit of game environment persistence.
You now have the opportunity to play the Winter Classic (outdoors and in the snow), which is neat.
Be A Pro mode now allows you to start your career as a teenager in the CHL and work your way up through the minors to the NHL. And because of the new AI systems that affect game flow, BAP mode this year is entirely too compelling, so much so that I might play it more than Be a GM for the first time ever. Seriously, playing a single position is so rewarding now that your offensive teammates can score in more dynamic ways (or conversely make mistakes so you have to cover for them). Add to that the fact that you no longer call your own shifts, it means you have to make the most of your ice time to really become a superstar.
All in all, I really like NHL 12. The more time I spent with it, the more the new changes to the formula grew on me. The AI routines are less predictable and scripted, meaning every game feels like anything can happen. There are still some areas that need refinement, but if you own NHL 11, I would still recommend you pick up NHL 12.
9 / 10