NHL 12 Review
Written : Wednesday, September 14, 2011
By: Lee Abrahams
Ice hockey is a pretty weird game when you think about it, with a myriad of rules and line changes that can seem baffling to the uninitiated. And it is one of the few sports that seems to celebrate the fact that players get into brawls on a regular basis. Still despite all of that - or more likely because of it - ice hockey is supremely popular even outside of its North American stronghold, with leagues in countries all over the world and the best players from any number of homelands flocking to the NHL to prove their worth. For years EA has provided the strongest, if pretty much only, representation of the action on ice and with a glorious twenty years of heritage already on the books this years offering should be the best yet.
Opening with the spectacular, and blustery, Winter Classic match between Pittsburgh and Washington things are off to a great start. Quite how players can compete in such conditions is a mystery, but the intuitive controls and player handling is top notch as ever. If the analogue stick handling is not your cup of tea then feel free to switch to the classic scheme and make life easier on yourself. Either way you can expect tight controls, swift counter moves and a whole range of dekes, blocks, shots and saves. The realism feels better than ever with a host of little touches that make it feel even more like watching an actual game, rather than merely playing one.
The crowd goes wild.
As with most EA Sports titles this year the collision engine has been given an overhaul, meaning that small nimble players can be hustled off the puck by their larger contemporaries. Obviously smaller players have the advantage when it comes to sudden bursts of speed and changes in direction, and the balance here feels spot on. Having a balance of stronger guys to dominate space, hold up the play and block defenders as well as smaller faster players for quick breakaways and sniping duties, is now a necessity. Instead of all players having the same tackling prowess and speed being the overriding factor behind your team decisions, now it makes sense to actually come up with a roster that has the best of both worlds.
The gameplay changes are subtle to be honest, and the game plays just as well as it has done for years with just minor updates here and there. There are also some of the same old problems too, with wrap around goals coming a touch too easily and A.I players drifting out of position every now and again. The major additions generally revolve around the modes on offer, with the biggest of them all being the chance to Be a Legend. This sees you unlocking classic NHL heroes, from Gordie Howe to the “Great One” himself, Mr. Wayne Gretzky. You can then insert them into a team of your choice and play out a full career in their shoes. It is a neat idea but one that would have surely been better if you had a chance to step into the moments of history that made them great, rather than just playing them alongside current teams.
If all else fails then a good shove will do.
Of more interest will be the general Be a Pro mode where you can take a fledgling player from his rookie seasons, through to an NHL pick and onto greatness. You can easily lose hours of time and effort here alone, as you strive to gradually improve your player and make him a standout performer for his team of choice. At times though the A.I does seem to ignore your progress, as even with a superb goal scoring rate you never seem to be trusted enough to lead the line when you should do, or you may find yourself dropped for seemingly no reason. Also you may find yourself on the fringes of play even when you hit the ice, as the A.I players sometimes hog centre stage for themselves. They are minor niggles really though, and once again NHL does the career mode option almost to a tee even compared to other EA titles.
As ever you can also hop into franchise mode and steer a team to collective glory or choose to be the GM and manage things from behind the scenes in your quest for trophies. The NHL series has never been short on options and ways to while away a few hours in relative bliss, and the same is true of the latest title with the chance to build your own team and play in each and every game of an entire season almost too good to pass up. Our own quest to keep a clean sheet in as many consecutive games as possible was sadly ended in game seven – though the mitigating circumstances of dinner being ready helped ease the pain.
The trading card game that has become a staple of EA Sports titles also makes a comeback, and the HUT mode is compelling stuff as ever. This time around you can snag a couple of free packs before you start and also use cards to alter player positions and stats, so that you are never overburdened with too many players in the same position or with players that cannot be trained to greatness rather than having a reliance on snagging a lucky 90+ pick from a card pack. You can then take your teams up against friends or random rivals, as well as beating up on the CPU if you feel so inclined.
Time for the keeper to earn his money.
The rest of the online offering is suitably sizable as well with the regular slew of quick matches, shootouts and tournaments perfectly complemented by the all-encompassing EASHL League that allows you to form entire teams and rosters from likeminded friends. As ever you can then battle it out with other teams to enhance your reputation and rating, with the playoffs being your ultimate goal assuming you are good enough to mix it with the big boys. Though it is now a more gradual learning curve in terms of player development and the opposition you’ll face, so you no longer feel like you’ve been tossed in at the deep end.
NHL has always been the EA game that hates you and wants to make you suffer for wanting achievements. Remember that Top 50 player achievement in 08? How about that Online Legend card in 09? Heck, last year was just a beating stick covered in tricky online tasks for the foolish and unwary. This time around is no different with a host of tasks attached to the Be a Pro mode, such as scoring high numbers of points in one game and record breaking amounts in a season to boot. Then you will have to reach Legend status in EASHL, as well as making the playoffs with your team, not to mention becoming a Versus match Veteran and pulling off trick moves in ranked Shootouts to name a couple of others. This is a time, team and skill intensive list that will take a lot of effort to get to the full 1k. Good luck with that.
As ever this is a well presented game of hockey with all of the modes and options you could ever hope for. The core gameplay is pretty much untouched though and other than the Be a Legend mode there is nothing here that you will not have seen in years gone by. A few minor alterations and tweaks have done little to shift the core modes and quality of the game, and don’t get us wrong, NHL 12 is still one of the best sports titles out there, so it may well not be essential for regular fans who have a copy of last years offering, although it'll certainly be a must-own for those that have skipped the series for a few years.
Decent commentary and the usual array of rock-style backing tracks make for a competent, if repetitive aural experience.
High speed action that is only spoiled by the occasional animation hiccup and sometimes confusing collisions between players.
Easy to pick up and play with a perfect learning curve, control set up and tutorials for even the greenest newcomer. Plenty of modes and online options are provided to lose hours of time to as well.
Another top notch package, though one that is only marginally different to those from the last few years with most of the alterations occurring behind the scenes to create a smoother overall experience.
A list that encourages long term play across a variety of game modes, though you will have to be pretty good to snag all of the online points in particular. Still the challenge is a welcome change from most sports titles.
NHL 12 is yet another great ice hockey title that will appeal to new fans of the sport as much as it will to the old guard. The only quibbles tend to be minor ones, but the main issue is that this game is yet another in a growing line of updates rather than sweeping revolutions. Still that doesn’t prevent NHL 12 from being one of this years stand out sports titles.