EA Sports has nailed another hockey game this year. At this point in the NHL series, it’s getting hard to improve upon the solid gameplay and plethora of modes, but somehow EA Canada manages to make enough tweaks to previous installments to warrant yet another purchase. And in NHL 12, you’ll get just enough updates to keep diehard hockey fans cooped-up for the next several months. Improve A.I., tighter on-ice action, and a slightly richer presentation are welcome additions, but some of the new features fall a bit short. Still, NHL 12 is yet another terrific hockey game, and well worth the attention of any puck fan.
The majority of the key improvements are under the hood, but there are some easily noticeable changes, including greater action around the net. You’ll now be able to knock the net off and interfere with the goalie like never before. These are pretty substantial changes around the net, and it helps create a more frantic feeling for your defenders to fight for the puck. On the other end, this tighter action on offense allows you to create more scoring options—if you play your cards right, you can block the goalies vision. There are far less calls for goalie interference than in NHL 11, but at some points I found it a bit unrealistic.
Some of the best changes in NHL 12 are a little more subtle, but add up to a much more realistic game. Take the physics engine, for example. Sure, it’s extremely similar to last year’s iteration, but the Full Contact Physics Engine makes players feel even more lifelike. Check a player against the boards, and depending on his strength and size, he may be able to hold himself up, while weaker players will crumble. But that’s not to say the smaller guys can’t get their hits against bigger guys. The smaller guys are generally faster and more agile, allowing them to quickly maneuver around the stronger, slower players. In general there is more detail put into physical contact between players, and you’ll see this in little bumps and nudges, but expect players to stay on their skates a bit more than in the past. You can also slam opponents into the benches, and you’ll see benched players actually react to the action, and not just sit like cardboard figures.
The puck is also no longer tied to a player. Yes, when on offense you can hold a button to maintain control, but if you line up for a big slap shot and hold your stick too long, the puck could slip away. Similarly, fighting for control against the boards is more realistic than in the past, largely because the puck is no longer automatically attached to the player closest to the boards.
This extends to the greatly improved A.I. Your teammates have real anticipation for the puck. EA touts that there is more gray area between playing defense or offense, and while you may not notice this at first, the longer you play the more you’ll see this in action. If you fight for the puck on defense, your teammates don’t just stay on defense, as they also start to make offensive runs. It’s something that, again, adds to a more whole experience. Players’ strengths works alongside the strong A.I. , meaning your stronger defenders will clear some room for your more agile center.
Taking a stab at the superb use of Michael Jordan from NBA 2K11’s offering last year, NHL 12 brings about its own legends into the Be a Pro mode. Here, you’ll play as the greats from hockey, like Wayne Gretzky among many more. Progressing through Be a Pro unlocks more legends and plays identically to its non-legend counterpart. Sure, it’s fun to have a stars’ jersey and skates on, but the mode is actually boring and quite slow. There’s no drama like there was in NBA 2K11 and, even though you can simulate your time off the ice, one game is quite the time commitment. Everything else in Be a Pro mode is as solid as past installments, and the in-game tasks—for instance, scoring a certain amount of goals or assists—makes it all a bit more interesting, and it’s still fun to level up your rookie and progress him through your team’s ranks. Nonetheless, I found the camera needed a bit of work, but it just takes some getting used to.
Be a GM could have used a bit more upgrading. You’ll see the benefits of the player traits in trading, but the automated trading side of the equation is a bit weak. There is little consistency to negotiations and trading, and as the years go by, player skill levels get a little out of hand. This is the one mode that needs a bit more refinement. The other standard modes, including playoffs and tournaments, are relatively unchanged but still quite solid. Rounding out the other modes, the online EA Sports Hockey League and the Hockey Ultimate Team card modes are slightly improved. For instance, you can now play against user-created teams when an opponent is offline in HUT. You can also change skills, relying on your instincts before each game, in EASHL. The changes are relatively mild, but they work quite well to continue to refine these modes. Be a GM and the online modes could use even more work, but they are still solid.
The presentation is good, but not outstanding. The animations are terrific and the reactions from the crowds in the arena are again superb. I will say that the players don’t look as good as other sports games, but they certainly don’t look bad. One of my personal favorite additions in NHL 12 is the Winter Classic, which allows you to play outside in the snow. It looks fantastic, but after a few run-throughs, there isn’t any reason to play it again.
Overall, NHL 12 is a great step for EA Sports, and a solid improvement upon last year’s installment. While the upgrades are mostly under the hood, they will be noticeable to diehard hockey fans, which will get a kick out of continuing their ultimate fantasy teams online and playing in a Winter Classic. But for anyone that has taken a break from an NHL game in the past year or two, NHL 12 deserves your attention. With rich, responsive gameplay, robust modes, and a polished presentation, NHL 12 wins yet another faceoff against the (lack-of) competition. It will be hard to top NHL 12 as sports game of the year, but we see to say that every year.