Hockey is a big part of my life right now. I work from home and live with my girlfriend, so I don’t really get out of the house much. The one thing that does get me out every week is playing defense for my hockey team, the Crystal Lake Slasher, every Monday and Thursday night. As a defenseman I have to understand the game at a relatively high level. I have to know positioning, how plays develop, how to break out of our zone, how to keep the puck in their zone, etc. I’m even considering taking a class on coaching with USA Hockey so I can help out kids who want to learn the game. I feel safe saying that I know hockey better than most videogame reviewers.
With that in mind, I’m confident in saying that NHL 12 is the most faithful representation of hockey ever made. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the franchise boasts over twenty two sports game of the year awards, and it has improved with each new iteration.
While the gameplay has essentially been left unchanged from NHL 11, there are a few new features. The big draw for NHL 12 is the new physics engine. Hits are now more than scripted animations. When you put someone into the boards they react like it’s real life. EA wasn’t kidding around with their tagline “size does matter.” I was amazed when, in the opening tutorial (which is actually the 2011 Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals), I put a massive hit on a player and actually sent him over the boards and into the bench. To top that, the hit was so hard that it actually knocked my own player off his skates.
Skaters aren’t the only players affected by the new physics engine — goalies can get in on the action, too. In previous NHL games, goalies were essentially untouchable. Sure you could get in their way and try and screen them, but that’s as far as it went. Now in NHL 12, you can actually run into the goalie knocking him out of position, and in most cases, drawing a penalty. While this may seem like a burden if you’re not playing goalie (it is easy to lose track of your player in the heat of the moment and run into the net) it does allow for another new feature; goalie fights. While it doesn’t happen too often in real life, it is nice to have the option to make the big man in pads drop the gloves and lay down the law.
Another important change from NHL 11 to NHL 12 is that the puck no longer does the work for you. In NHL 11 you could pass in the general direction of a player and 90% of the time they’d receive it no problem. In NHL 12, where you direct the pass is where the puck goes. This means you need to actually practice where you place your thumbs while playing. Sure it adds a new level challenge to the game, but it also makes it feel that much more real.
To go along with this point, another thing I noticed is that the puck drifts when taking slap shots. If you’re not quick on the stick, the puck will drift away causing your shot to be much less accurate or even roll off the heel of your stick. While this adds a level of realism to the game, I wish there was a way to stop the puck drift. When I’m on the ice playing real hockey, I’m able to settle the puck down so it stays in place. There should be some mechanic in the game that allows you to do something similar.
The game also boasts “newly improved AI”, i.e. computer controlled players will actually react to how you play the game. In theory, if you’re taking shots from the point with your defensemen, the AI will try and get a forward in front of the net for a screen or a rebound. However, in reality, I’ve had mixed results.
When playing by myself, the AI does a pretty good job of adjusting to my style. When playing with my roommate in co-op, the AI just seems to get in the way. For example, if I’m taking shots from the point with a defense-man, my roommate will try and get in front of the net to set a screen and get a rebound. Almost every time I’m in this situation, the AI will pull another forward in front of the net, meaning my shot has an even smaller chance to get through and I have one less player to pass to. If my roommate decides to sit back and look for a pass, the AI is nowhere to be found in front of the net. It seems like the AI can’t adjust to multiple people playing. This isn’t a game breaking feature, but rather a minor annoyance.
One thing I really like about NHL 12 is that grinders now play a major role. In hockey not everyone is as fast and dexterous as Alexander Ovechkin. There’s a whole host of players who’s job is to get in the way and tie up defenders. These players are called grinders. In NHL 12 you can actually tie up defenders by running into them, allowing your finesse players to skate around and look for a shot. It’s a fantastic step taken by EA Canada to help bring a more realistic representation of hockey to your home console.
Other additions to the game include an improved “Be a Pro mode”, where you’re given mini-objectives every time you get on the ice, and the new “Be a Legend mode.” Legend is essentially the same thing as Pro, the only difference is that you don’t create a skater, but rather select one of the 9 “legends” — players like Jeremy Roenick, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. What bugged me about this mode is that it’s the exact same thing as Be a Pro. You don’t even play on the correct teams that made these players legendary. I was expecting something like playing for the 92 Penguins as Mario Lemieux, not the 2012 roster.
For those of you who are into online play, all the same great game modes from NHL 11 make a return. There haven’t been any massive changes, but the new game mechanics do make for some interesting online battles.
All in all, NHL 12 is the best iteration of the series, which isn’t too surprising considering every new version has improved on the last. EA Canada has made the most realistic and faithful representation of hockey to ever hit consoles. It’s so nice to finally have a hockey videogame that actually rewards players who play real hockey.