Sport simulation titles are an interesting thing. While some video game developers spend their time trying to craft compelling stories, or come up with new and innovative gameplay mechanics, a sports title only has to mimic the real thing, and leave it to the player to create their own drama. NHL 12 is bringing more than a few new tools to the table to do just that, and the latest producer videos show how artificial intelligence and more realistic puck behaviors could change the game in massive ways.

NHL 12 is certainly breaking the common view that sports titles are perfected art forms, with little more than roster changes or graphics boosts differentiating one year’s release from the next. From the new physics engine to net battles far more realistic than in the past, EA Sports is pushing the gameplay closer to reality even more than usual.

But there are a few qualities unique to hockey that have been nearly impossible to translate into gaming, especially without the more dedicated fans noticing. Football players all behave in specific ways once the ball is snapped, but are fundamentally following the path defined by the play chosen. By changing a player’s stats to reflect their actual skills, the artificial intelligence is capable of providing a passable imitation of that athlete’s actual playing style.

But for hockey, it’s much more difficult to do the same thing. From the moment a player comes off the bench to the time they leave it, they’re behaving in a unique way. Offensive forwards will react in completely different ways to a quickly-developing play than defensive ones, and to ask any game’s AI to keep up, and do the same for ten players at once just hasn’t been possible.

Until now. We know that NHL 12‘s AI can anticipate the play as it develops, but now EA is introducing a brand new system called ‘Signature Traits.’ They’ve put in the time to make sure that players behave in the same way they would in real life, at least part of the time. Check out the developer video below:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEsqfqUOlcM

Having certain players and lines behave the same way they would in a real game is a massive change, even if it is noticed only by serious hockey fans. It’s hard to say if the traits will only be assigned to a handful of the game’s biggest stars or will be shared among the entire player base, but we can hope.

The Sedin twins would be the first pair to be given unique AI, since near-telepathic playmaking is their trademark. But NHL 12‘s new commitment to realism where the puck behavior is concerned will be making several new plays possible. From the latest gameplay demo, it looks like the days of pucks being magically glued to players’ sticks may be coming to an end:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3Op1gy5NJ0

Sure, having the puck slip off a player’s stick may be a much smaller tweak than tailoring AI for specific players. But in EA’s defense, there are fewer moves more satisfying than a well-executed drop pass. the feat was nearly impossible in the past, so even giving players the opportunity to hotdog is something fans can appreciate.

Blending a mix of huge changes and small refinements seems to be the order of the day for NHL 12, and fans of the series will certainly not be complaining. Especially now that we know the kind of hockey legends that will be returning to the rink this time around. And for those of you who have remained on the fence with past NHL titles, we’d recommend that you take the plunge before even more adjustments are implemented.

NHL 12 will be trying to replicate the real thing when it’s released for the Xbox 360 and PS3 on September 13, 2011.

Let me know what you think of the changes on Twitter @andrew_dyce.

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