By J.J. Miller
Even the casual fan knows that physical play is one of the NHL’s biggest draws. Come for the fights and stay for the hockey game.
EA Sports made it a point to try and capture the physics and brutality of professional hockey and the result is another winner in its latest console adaptation, NHL 12.
The NHL series has always looked great and that doesn’t change this year as the game opens up by throwing the player into the beautifully recreated confines of Heinz Stadium to replay last year’s Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. And while it is fun trying to pull of finesse goals with Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, the game really hits its mark with its physics engine.
No longer do players just run into each other and fall down. The game factors in size, strength and balance when you go for the hits; big and small. Little players can still throw their bodies around, but are now more likely to just stumble or slow down bigger players unless everything is lined up right. The game’s bigger bruisers, meanwhile, can flatten any player on the ice, but going for the big hit comes at a price. If a big defender like Chris Pronger takes a full-stride run at a forward, both players are likely to land on the ice from the impact and leave the puck up for grabs.
Not only has EA introduced the partial falls and stumbling, but goaltenders can now get into the action for the first time. Players battling for position in front of the net -- another new feature that adds even more realism -- can come in contract with a goaltender, often drawing a penalty, but sometimes disrupting just enough to lead to a clean goal. Get in the face of a netminder too often, though, and it could lead to the goalie dropping his gloves and defending himself.
NHL 12 makes almost everything on the ice hittable. Glass can be broken by shots and hits, helmets come flying off when the physical play heats up and players can also be dumped into the benches on big hits. Another bull’s-eye feature that captures life in the NHL is the ability of the nets to come loose, stopping play and preventing players from constantly crashing the goal without risk.
Presentation is also key to a good game, but it is here that NHL 12 sometimes stumbles itself.
One issue is with commentators Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, who are fine overall but when they aren’t repeating a lot of the same lines from last year, they are busy plugging the NHL’s website and television network.
While the crowd looks great and adds to the atmosphere, they often mimic the same movements on camera and it is kind of weird to see 1/3 of the crowd doing the same exact clap or cheer in unison across the screen.
EA did step up in other areas, including replay packages. When a player is having a big effort, the game will eventually cut to a series of replays showing what the player has done. Score a hat trick and get rewarded with a montage of your goals; same goes for a player who has dished out hit after hit.
The Winter Classic is also a great new feature that allows users to either recreate last year’s meeting or plug in two separate teams at Heinz Field, with the game adjusting the crowd’s colors and loyalty to follow suit. Hopefully EA can expand on this feature for next year and give us the ability to play some of the older editions, including games at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.
Once a player gets the hang of the game, several game modes present itself, including the return of Be A GM and Be A Pro mode.
The ability to take over as general manager and guide a team for a number of (hopefully successful) years has been around for a while, but remains the game’s most useful mode. For those who want to move their seasons at a fast pace, the game introduces an Action Tracker to the sim intervention, which gives the player several different speeds to follow a simulation and allowing them to jump into the game if wanted.
Be A Pro mode also goes deeper by letting a user create a player that can start out in the NHL on a team of his or her choosing, a 20-year-old trying to make a name for himself in the Memorial Cup before getting drafted or, new to this year, a baby-faced 16-year-old making his way through the CHL. Letting a user start his career at such a young age gives the game some excellent long-term value.
(For you lady games out there, NHL 12 allows you for the first time to create female skates after 14-year-old Lexi Peters from Buffalo sent a letter to EA Sports asking them why she couldn’t create a woman skater.)
NHL 12 also features a Be a Legend mode that eventually allows games to play as nine of the game’s all-time greats, including Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Gordie Howe, but the list could be bigger and is little more than a novelty.
That also holds true for the returning Ultimate Hockey League, an unappealing mode in which a player builds a team through earning packs of player, legend, logo, arena, training and other cards and battle other clubs in the EAUHL. While the randomness of building a team through the art of opening a pack of cards is interesting, its more fun just to play online as a regular team.
While some flaws remain -- some hiccups in presentation as well as repetitive commentary and game introductions as well as a thin legends roster -- the depth of the GM and Be a Pro modes even makes the game appealing for those who own last year’s version of the game. Overall, NHL 12 is another great addition to EA’s hockey lineup and is a must-buy for any hockey gamer out there.