NHL 12 Hands-On Preview [X’11]

One of the first games that I played when I arrived at Microsoft’s X’11 Preview Event was EA Sports‘ upcoming hockey title, NHL ’12. As a huge fan of the National Hockey League and its Toronto Maple Leafs, I’ve been addicted to the series since its 1993 iteration. Additionally, the last entry in this fast-paced, hit-filled series, was one of the best sports games I’ve ever personally played. Due to those reasons, I was extremely interested to see just how much better this outing would be, given its new additions and tweaks.

In the additional mode department, the series’ biggest new addition is Legends mode, where armchair superstars can lead their team into battle against a mixed roster of all-star players from the League’s past and present. Players like Patrick Roy, Jeremy Roenick and Borje Salming feature on a roster that is close to what most fans would say is a dream team.

Of course, each individual has his or her own favourites, with mine being Mats Sundin (I’m unsure as to whether he’s in the game or not). With its great roster of heavy hitters, brick wall goaltenders, bullseye snipers and creative playmakers, the Legends mode is something that many longtime fans will feel right at home with. It’s great to see some of the retired superstars return in digital form.

The other big addition to this year’s entry is the Winter Classic, featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals. A game that was played outside amidst some flurries, which make their fluttering way into the game in addition to a detailed version of that well-known ice pad. Though I didn’t go hands-on with this new mode, I stood and watched others play it for a while. Being able to take to the outdoor ice, amidst an amazing amount of extra fans in the stands, seems like quite a thrill – even if it is only a virtual game. It will surely be a popular option for those who want to relive the event, perhaps wishing they could rewrite the final score or a certain event that occurred on the ice that day.

During the four periods of hockey that I played within NHL ’12 and its virtual arenas, I was impressed with the minor improvements that were made. The game plays a bit better than its predecessor, which is saying a lot. Of course, the big name items include the fact that you can now fight with a goalie, witness desperation saves and duke it out for position in front of the net. I witnessed these new enhancements and liked what I saw, especially when a goaltender dove to stop the puck and his helmet came off. We’re even closer to utter realism in a sports series that has already amazed me with how immersive and realistic it’s become in recent years. I personally cannot even imagine what this series’ games will look like on next generation consoles.

Those who grew up idolizing players like Wendel Clark and Eric Lindros will be happy to know that the hits are even more electrifying this year. Instead of just hitting a player into the boards, bruisers can now punish their foes by knocking them into the team benches. Or, they could go with an even more visceral and punishing route: putting a guy through the glass. No matter which route you decide to go, prepare to be impressed with the shock value, bone crunching intensity and staggering prowess of these special hits. Of course, they don’t happen all that often, so it’s nice to see them when they do. Just like in real life, the glass doesn’t shatter a lot.

As the time I spent with this much-anticipated sports game increased, the more difficult the wait until September 13th became. The version we played seemed to be final (or at least, close to it) because it had achievements that unlocked at certain points. The demonstration portions felt very polished and the game seemed to be an easily noticed improvement over its predecessor in some ways. Sure, it’s still quite similar in many ways, but there are a some new features and tweaks that make this virtual hockey rink erupt with even more realistic gameplay.

When NHL ’12 launches during the mid portion of this calendar month, you can bet that I will be there day one, glued to the television as I take on the world with my team of digital superstars.