It seems like just yesterday we were playing hockey video games that didn’t even have an official license, using colors instead of legitimate teams, but things have definitely changed. When it comes to hockey titles, there is no denying EA Sports‘ supremacy in the genre, and while other titles are occasionally accused of coasting for a year or two, the NHL series has used every new iteration to improve on a mechanic of some type. NHL 12 is no exception, and after EA put the game on display at E3 2011, it’s clear that hockey fans have even more to look forward to than usual.

EA has used this year’s E3 to roll out details on all of their biggest sports titles, from FIFA 12 to NCAA Football. But for hockey fans there is really only one sports game that matters, and from the early look, it seems that the developers of NHL 12 just might agree.

From skating to hitting and everything in between, it seems like the developers at EA Canada have some new feature to talk about every year. We’ve already given you some details on the newest changes being introduced with NHL 12, the most significant being the inclusion of the goalie into the larger battles for pucks and body contact.

But there’s really nothing like playing the game for yourself to get an idea of what tweaks and changes have been made, and we got the chance to do just that. The game mode available was the NHL Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, and the effects of an outdoor match aren’t lost on the development team.

As explained by EA Sports Line Producer Sean Ramjagsingh, the inclusion of snow and an outdoor setting manifests itself in more bouncing pucks and more difficult puck-handling as the game progresses. The outdoor mode is a nice addition, and is just one part of the new presentation package that the developers have cooked up. Long time fans of the series would likely agree that the highlight and menu layouts of the game haven’t received an overhaul in years, and will be delighted to hear that’s one of the most redesigned aspects of NHL 12.

NHL 12 Preview Action Tracker

The same team that has worked on ESPN’s visual assets has been hard at work developing a new streamlined presentation package for NHL 12, called the Action Tracker. The system was demonstrated for us at the end of the first period, where a new highlight menu allowed players to scroll through data to take note of the areas of the ice where shots, goals, and even hits took place. By scrolling through each dot on the scale-model of the rink, players can even access a video clip of the event, and upload them online directly¬† from the menu.

It would be an understatement to say the highlights and stats package of past games has been lacking some style, but now it seems it’s a thing of the past. Finally getting around to fixing stubborn issues seems to be the motto for this year’s incarnation, with the Be a Pro Mode also being given a face-lift. The developers had previously mentioned that more realism would be brought to the player’s rise from minors to majors, and Ramjagsingh was kind enough to clarify the system further.

Since the system’s implementation in NHL 09, players have been given the opportunity to embody a draft pick or real life player on the ice, and work shift by shift to increase playing time and performance. The philosophy this year is that playing time will be earned, with expectations and results tailored to each particular type of skater. It’s unrealistic to expect a fourth-liner to put up points every time they step on the ice, and while Ramjagsingh wouldn’t go into great detail, it was implied that hits, forechecking, and other non-scoring statistics would be more important for grinders and power forwards.

The one drawback that the added simulation brought in the past few years was the sad realization that sitting on the bench isn’t the most satisfying experience. This year, players will be able to trigger a quick sim of non-playing time, with text scrolling across the screen updating the player on events taking place on the ice as opposed to having to witness them yourself. If you’re really chomping at the bit, you’ll even be able to simply hit a button to skip to your next shift. Playing a role as opposed to a selfish scorer has become a much deeper and richer experience in recent years, and focusing on your own shifts as opposed to the entire season could add even more.

NHL 12 Preview Winter Classic

The biggest improvement that the series has undergone in the past few years is the addition of real physics to skating and hitting. NHL 11 brought all new realism to body contact by factoring in the size, weight and momentum of players when collisions took place, but EA Sports is ramping things up this year. With the all new Full Contact Physic Engine, “everything is live” from the players, their equipment, the nets, the pucks, the boards and glass and yes, even the goalies.

It’s one thing to say that the goalies are able to be run into and players can be forced out from in front of the net by a larger opponent, but to actually see it in gameplay is something else. Sending tumbling pucks towards a goalie who is actually moving free of any invisible bonds to the net, all while players jostle in the crease is something that has to be witnessed to truly grasp how all of these small changes result in major change. And seeing two players collide and both go tumbling to the ice is just one example of an even closer attempt at simulation, but fans will recognize just how large a step is being taken by NHL 12.

Fans of hockey are just as likely to have money already put aside for the next installment of the NHL series as football fans, but rest assured that the number of changes and depth being brought are going to make the purchase more than worth it. We’ll keep you up to date on any and all new details on NHL 12, and feel free to leave any comments or questions you have in the comments, and we’ll do our best to answer them.

We’ve been given just a taste for now, but the full game will have to wait until NHL 12 is released on September 13 for the Xbox 360 and PS3.

Follow me on Twitter @Andrew_Dyce and stay tuned to Game Rant for all the latest games on display from E3 2011!