Game Rant’s Andrew Dyce reviews NHL 12
If you’re a hockey fan, then there’s a good chance that your calendar has already been marked for the release of NHL 12 for months now. While some sports franchises leave fans wondering if each year’s installment changes enough to make a purchase worthwhile, that’s never been the case with NHL.
EA Sports has made a habit out of advancing and innovating with each passing year, and NHL 12 is no exception. But with changes to gameplay an inevitability, the question fans need to ask is whether the developers’ adjustments take a step forward, or a step backward. Read our review to find out.
The tweaks made to the hockey formula this year are great in number, with EA claiming over 200 – which seems like an accurate amount. While they may not be as immediately obvious and game-changing as those witnessed with the jump from last gen to current platforms, it’s clear that EA Sports has created their most realistic and ground-breaking hockey title in years – and considering the quality of last year’s game, that’s really saying something.
From the very first screenshots of NHL 12 it was clear that big changes would be coming, both in terms of the game’s physics and presentation package. The basic gameplay is still the same as fans will be expecting, but it won’t take more than a few seconds for even the most seasoned player to realize just how much the game has changed under the hood.
An even closer approach to realism has been the goal every step of the way, with physically accurate battles in front of the net, to the incredibly satisfying ability to muscle goalies out of the crease. The improvements do a great deal in making the moment-to-moment gameplay closer to the real thing than any hockey video game has ever achieved, and as a result, it compels players to start re-thinking their approach to digital hockey.
There’s nothing better than a sports simulation actually forcing the player to simulate a real player’s actions to achieve success, and nearly every seemingly-slight adjustment to NHL 12‘s physics does just that. We knew, for instance, that for the first time ever the puck itself would behave realistically, no longer magically glued to the player’s stick. But in practice, having the puck slide away from the attacking player as soon as their stick breaks contact means that one of the franchise’s main conceits has gone out the window. No more rotating around the puck with spinning slapshots that would make a real NHLer dizzy, or faking a shot for so long the goalie might fall asleep. With one simple change, the player’s position relative to the puck before, during, and after the shot is taken must be properly controlled.
Hopefully that one example has conveyed just how much of an impact a small change on a years-old mechanic can have, as that seems at least partly the case for nearly every tweak made. Dynamic goalies mean that pucks can be driven through them by powerful forwards, just like in real life. Goalies being able to leave (or be helped) out of their crease means they may be out of position for the next shot, just like in real life – and the number of new animations awarded to the AI-controlled goalies means that on breakaways or shoot-outs, offensive skaters won’t need to simply slide the puck around the netminder, but up and over – just like in real life.
In case you don’t notice, there’s a trend developing here. With hitting, skating, and scoring falling closer to reality than ever before, players will immediately recognize that this simulation is the best one we’ve seen so far – and having realism on your side doesn’t just make the game more impressive, but more fun to play. As much fun as gaming a simulation’s various glitches and glaring shortcomings can be, it ultimately results in a less satisfying experience. Who wants to spend hours outplaying a broken AI?
With this vast catalog of changes, EA Sports hasn’t made the game more complicated, but given the player more tools with which to shape and control their play style. Trust us, nothing is more satisfying than using your forward’s size in front of the net, the livelier puck, or out-smarting the AI’s anticipation to achieve success. While this goes a long way in mitigating the troublesome rubber-banding that the series has employed in the past, that doesn’t mean NHL 12 isn’t without its problems.
The player is given far more ways to outplay their opponents this time around, which makes goals harder to come by. Unfortunately though, if you do turn the game’s momentum in your favor, the rubber-banding returns in full force. The satisfaction that comes with each successfully-executed play goes a long way in making the AI scoring bursts easier to stomach, but there is simply no reason the opposing team should score on every third shot on the second-lowest difficulty. This continues to be the most nagging issue that nearly all EA Sports titles struggle with, so hopefully the developers will address it next.
The gameplay itself isn’t the only aspect of NHL 12 that’s seen its share of improvements, with the revamped ‘Be A Pro’ mode getting a substantial expansion. The player now takes their created skater through years in junior hockey, the NHL entry draft, into the American Hockey League, and hopefully having their hard work rewarded with a call up to the big show. So for those who love to create a player in their own image with which to take the hockey world by storm, there’s even more hours of gameplay than before.
With the tagline of NHL 12 challenging players to ‘Become The Next Great Legend,’ we can’t leave out the all-new ‘Be A Legend’ mode. EA Sports has brought back a star-studded line-up of NHL greats in more than a few game modes, letting today’s stars go toe-to-toe with a veritable dream team of hockey greats, or see them drafted onto the team of the player’s choosing. To unlock Howe or Gretzky will be a tall order though, as the player must work their way up the ladder of greats, lacing up each Legend’s skates and attempting to accomplish some of their most logic-defying records. The path to greatness is certainly not easy, but also one promising hours and hours of gameplay for completionists.
The ‘Be A Pro’ modes still deal with the same camera issues as in the past, and while EA has attempted to remedy the problem of 45-minute shifts, their solution isn’t perfect. Once your shift is completed, the player can skip to their time on the ice instead of being forced to watch the proceedings. Unfortunately, all the methods of skipping forward require slow and clunky load screens, and will surely become irritating over an entire game. We understand that running a simulation and jumping forward in time requires processing power and loading screens, but it doesn’t make the delays any less frustrating.
Those of you hoping to create and master a forward or defenseman will have more tools than ever with which to carve out your place in the NHL, and aspiring goalies will get a much better idea of the kind of athleticism and toughness the position requires. But for those of you who prefer to pick up and play with friends, you can count on NHL 12 offering yet another stunning simulation, with gameplay and mechanics even closer to the real thing than you may have thought possible.
The developers may still have a few issues to pursue in the future, but we wish every developer would take note of EA Sports’ ongoing quest for perfection. The studio is already receiving the kind of praise the series has become known for, and it may be enough to say that as good as last year’s game was, NHL 12 is better in every way.
NHL 12 is available now for the Xbox 360 and PS3.
Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce, and stay tuned for an announcement when EA Sports finally updates the game with the roster, logo, and uniforms of the Winnipeg Jets.