Now that summer has exerted her last breath, a chill has hit the air. Although this noticeable change is an obvious precursor to a lengthy and cold winter, it also brings with it some great news. Hockey season is about to begin, which should keep us warm, excited and interested throughout the dreary, snow-filled months to come.
There’s a lot to look forward to, including the return of a past superstar in Jaromir Jagr, the emergence of high draft picks like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and hopefully a better performance from my Toronto Maple Leafs. With the release of NHL 12, armchair sports fans can make these events magical, as they interact digitally with their favourite league.
You’ve surely guessed this by now, but I’m one of those who follows the sport with a fine-toothed comb. I try to watch every game my favourite team plays, during both pre-season, the regular season and (hopefully) the playoffs. There’s also a lot of time spent playing EA‘s NHL series of video games, which has stolen countless hours of my life since the mid-nineties. The start of each season is like Christmas, full of intrigue, interest and anticipation. Though, as a Leafs fan, the final days of each campaign tend to be pretty bleak, though I hope that will change soon.
With the real life product being so dynamic, it’s a great thing that its video game interpretation is the same way, delivering a staggering amount of content with a thick coat of polish. Not only is NHL 12 a great game; it’s the best sports game I’ve ever played, improving over last year’s version which previously owned that title.
It doesn’t rewrite the book, adding polish and new content instead. That’s okay however, as there weren’t many things to complain about with its predecessor. What’s good is that this entry feels like a better game, with a much more television-esque presentation style and even more realism. That’s what I was hoping to see, and it’s there.
The game begins in a new way, foregoing the advanced tutorial in favour of showing off its biggest addition: the Winter Classic from Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. It begins almost immediately upon the disc’s concluded loading cycle, presenting something new to the series, being that it’s the first outdoor event to be included.
Players can rewrite history by playing as the Penguins, as the event serves as a bit of a refresher or tutorial. The amount of detail found within the snowy weather, makeshift outdoor ice pad and the venue itself, is staggering. Announcer keynotes sound different than they do in the league’s interior spaces, echoing more due to the open air and larger space. This is a great way to start the experience off with a bang, with the tutorial mode becoming an optional addition.
From the get go, it’s easy to notice that refinements have been made in all areas of the game. Its controls have been refined a bit, with new dekes added to the amazing skill stick mechanic. Boardplay has been sped up and improved with realistic dig-outs. However, the most notable new changes are related to physicality. Players can be sent over the boards from a big hit, their helmets can be knocked off and glass shattering hits make their presence known. It’s a rare event like in real-life hockey, but it does occur the odd time. These inclusions aren’t going to make the earth move, but they make the game feel even more like its inspiration.
Goalies are now available for contact, with running the goalie and goalie fights becoming an option. Get in the goalie’s face and move him around a bit, though the defenders will try to have their way with you as they push you away from the crease. Be aware that a penalty could emerge as goaltender interference minors are a lot more prevalent.
Tenders of the crease are also much more alert, trying to make more spectacular desperation saves as last-ditch efforts. In some ways, they’re almost too good, as it can be tough to score at times. That’s one of the only negatives I can find in what is such a polished game, so newcomers must know that it’ll take a while to become a superstar sniper.
All of the aforementioned tweaks, additions and enhancements come packaged in with an improved version of the dynamic physics engine which made its debut last year. The way that the game unfolds on ice is eerily realistic; so much so that immersion is an understatement. Hits are thunderous and varied, written based on the type of collision and the momentum of its participants. Players will move, fall and dive based on these aspects. What’s great about the system is that every hit, deke, save and game feels different.
When it comes to the amount of modes and gameplay options available, there’s almost an overwhelming amount to choose from. Buying NHL 12 at its sixty dollar price tag unlocks an unlimited amount of replay value, over many modes. It’s the type of game which will keep fans playing for a year or longer, without becoming stale or uninteresting. There’s an exhibition mode, a general manager campaign, season challenges, a playoff only option and the ability to jump online to participate in a shootout or one-off game. EA Sports Hockey League and online team play (for up to six players per team) return to let fans create their own rookie for play as part of a user-based online unit, with improved levelling and statistical tracking systems employed. Take your team to the playoffs in a few different division stages.
Past NHL legends such as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemiuex and Gordie Howe grace this year’s entry in a brand-new Legends mode. Progression within other options allows different members of this Hall of Fame team to become unlocked for play in Be a Pro mode, which also includes new options such as CHL seasons and the Memorial Cup.
Superstars can be added to any team of your choice, allowing for fan dream scenarios to occur, such as Wayne Gretzky joining the Leafs to lead them to the Stanley Cup. Their inclusion can allow fans to relive their childhoods, playing as their favourite player in a much faster league, essentially acting as a hockey sandbox. Though, those who wish to see if they can defeat an all-star team of past superstars can decide to take on the team as a whole.
For the uninitiated, Be A Pro is a mode which allows players to pick or create one player to use throughout his or her digital career. While it used to require a relatively boring wait between shifts, new simulation options rectify that situation. Of course, you can choose to play it in a less realistic way, letting the same line stay out for the entire sixty minute match. NHL 12 allows for immense amounts of player customization, and this is just one minor facet of it.
Regardless of what option is decided upon, the same type of gameplay is presented. Play well and you’ll be rewarded. Do poorly and you may be relegated to a lower line or your team’s farm system. The CHL is used as the beginning, leading up to the ever-hopeful NHL call-up. Though NHL Be a Pro is available for those who would rather not hone their skills in junior.
A year ago, NHL 11 boasted Hockey Ultimate Team as being one of its biggest additions. This mode, which was migrated over from the Madden NFL series, is essentially a digital version of the popular hockey card collecting past-time which many of us enjoy. In NHL 12, HUT is a tour de force. There are tons of new cards, including Legends players, healing cards and ones which allow for a player’s position to be altered (thus leading to more chemistry?) Lines can become fatigued and players can get injured, making healing cards a useful tool to get that all-important superstar back into your deck-based lineup. Stars of the week cards, a play a friend option and the ability to download other teams also combine to create an incredibly immersive experience.
Needless to say, there’s a ton of content to play through in NHL 12, which should keep any hockey fanatic busy for a long time. New additions, notable changes and enhancements all combine to make the on-ice action a much more realistic affair. The ability to bump goalies makes a much bigger difference than one would think, as it’s easy to forget how much that can factor into real-life games. Whether you attempt to get position, bump the goalie a bit or shoot from the point, it can all be done in a great amount of modes. Every option is fully fleshed-out, feeling like its own game. What all of this combines to become is the best sports game I’ve ever played.
Presentation is an area where Electronic Arts‘ hockey games have always excelled. NHL 12 is the pinnacle of that aspect (thus far,) presenting an exceptional amount of polish and lifelike television-style delivery. The commentary duo of Bill Clement and Gary Thorne are much more colourful, using more interesting anecdotes and some comical one-liners to keep the experience lively and informative. They go the extra step to profile great performers during breaks in the action, showing highlight packages. These highlights and the added ability to watch selected replays from the pause menu (which also shows the location of goals and shots by period,) make the experience feel so much more robust.
Superstar players tend to look almost lifelike when close-up shots are shown. Team jerseys also show in a similar fashion, with individual stitching and incredible details visible. Though the overall look of NHL 12 isn’t a big change from its predecessor, there are some minor improvements which I noticed. Everything looks a bit better; especially the Leafs‘ jersey, which has an added amount of shine and detail around its numbers. Other jerseys seem improved visually as well, though this was the most notable upgrade I glimpsed. What’s great is that the game is able to look this lifelike without any performance issues.
The great commentary mentioned above is enhanced with very realistic sound effects, including but not limited to bone crunching hits and ferocious slap shots. Audio-wise, this game mimics its real-life inspiration to great detail, creating so much atmosphere that you actually feel like you’re sitting inside of an arena or taking part in a match. There are some added announcements regarding team promotions and ticket deals, as well as some excellent licensed music from popular rock bands. Judas Priest, Anthrax and Billy Idol are the three which come to my mind first.
This is an easy game to recommend, considering the fact that there’s an unlimited amount of replay value, which is spread out over many different modes. The varied list of enhancements found within, have all combined to make this year’s entry feel even more lifelike than ever before, which is quite a feat. Hockey lends itself incredibly well to video game action, which is evident upon inserting this disc into your console of choice.
This review is based on a copy of the game which we received for review purposes.
With their release of NHL 12, EA Canada has threaded the needle with yet another great shot. Not only is this year's iteration a noticeable enhancement over its amazing predecessor, but it's also the best and most complete sports game I've ever played.