NHL 12 (Xbox 360) Review

It’s getting to that time of the year again and you can you feel it. Kids are heading back to school, the days are getting shorter, and the start of NHL hockey training camps is just around the corner.  Most fans here in Vancouver are still shocked and disappointed by the game 7 loss against Boston.  Of course this time of the year also means that EA Sports is readying their new hockey game, NHL 12. EA’s NHL games have seen little change in the core game play over the past years and while this years version is the same, there are a lot of tweaks to existing features.  With no other competition, does NHL still have what it takes to be considered the true king of hockey?

Somthing I really enjoyed was how NHL 12 went into a game straight away upon firing it up. The game is between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Captials at the winter classic, and once you finish the match you can then head off to whatever you would like to do. EA hockey games have always been about realism and true to life gameplay. NHL 12 is no different as the sheer amount modes are almost head spinning. Here are a few of the key features that have been included in this year’s rendition.

There is a new Anticipation AI. This allows players to now go to where they think the puck is going to be, not to where the puck is. Depending on the player defense or offense, this mode will determine how hard the player will chase the puck. I’m reminded of The Great One, who always said he thought 3 or 4 steps ahead of the game and used that to pick apart defenses on all teams.

For the first time ever in the NHL series, players can knock the net off and make contact with the goalies, knocking them down or out of position, as they crash the crease. This results in penalties more often than not, but seeing the scrum is something we’ve all seen in any NHL game. EA has also made the goalies fully interactive; they cover every angle, make desperation saves and stonewall the opposition, replicating the pressure of being a real NHL goalie. The fighting mongers out there can now also fight with their goalie; it makes for some interesting gameplay.

EA has also implemented a brand new full contact physics engine. I like this new feature; no longer can little players take out big players, at least not without some sort of repercussion. The strength and size of a player now matters. Mismatched players colliding provide many different outcomes. A player like Martin St Louis hitting Zdeno Chara usually results in St Louis falling by the wayside or just bouncing off the monster of a man. The agility and positioning of the player also matters in this year’s game.  Smaller guys can use agility to their advantage. If a small player lines up a big player properly he can knock him to the ice, it takes some practice though.

Everything on the ice is “live” this year too, from the players to the environment, meaning everything is interactive and in play. Mind you, you still cannot run into an on ice official. Believe me, with some of the penalties they call you will want to hammer them. I ended up cranking down the penalties slider to minimize the effect. For many years you have not been able to break the glass, this feature is now included and for me one of my favorites things to happen. Other things include helmets popping off, nets being pushed or jarred off, and players can hit their opponent into their own or opposing benches.

EA has also included player’s signature traits in NHL 12. This one makes a ton of sense as virtual players play like their real life counterparts. So the Sedins, while not imposing in their stature, can wheel and cycle in the zone, and from my playtime with the game this is true. I hemmed in a team or two as these the twins from Vancouver worked their magic. Signature traits also apply to players without the puck as well as attributes will determine where a player will go and what he may or may not do, depending on where the puck is. I really like this feature as lets the gamer think the game rather than just play the game. Signature player traits include such things as driving the net, finishing hits, joining a defensive rush, and whole lot of other gameplay traits.

A new RS mechanic is used to engage in the net battle for defenders. The mechanic will only work when the offensive player is a scoring threat close to and around the net. When engaged, the LS will push the offensive player in that direction (based on attributes) or behind depending on initial positioning. This brings significant value to, be- a-pro-players who are big and strong and can be very valuable for EASHL and OTP clubs.

Hockey Ultimate Team is back and not without tweaks and updates. The mode carries on with the card-based system that allows gamers to create whole teams of players that they have fostered throughout their career. The mode is extremely deep and can be confusing, but once you get the idea it’s difficult to put down. I constantly wanted to buy more and more packs to assemble the best team possible. Keep in mind that the mode does have a salary cap and you must do your best to manage it.

You are given an expansion team in the EA Ultimate Hockey League and are vying to become champion. The EAUHL consists of preseason (Demo), regular season, Playoffs, and Offseason. You can earn a free pack of cards for your Hockey Ultimate Team once you play and complete the demo. The Regular Season consists of the whole calendar month and this will be what determines what playoff bracket you will be in. At the end of playoffs champions will be crowned in each division and divisional champions will have a banner raising ceremony every time they play a home game to let the other users know they are playing an EAUHL champion. Serious bragging rights I must say. I also loved that as champions, your hometown rink will have a championship logo on the ice stating you are a current champion in the EAUHL. There are many customizations the gamers can utilize, but they are going to have to spend some serious time in order to figure them all out.

There are over 3100 player cards from 10 different leagues in the game to collect and use in creating your Ultimate Hockey team. Some new ones include Legends Cards, Healing Cards and Change Position Cards. Legends cards allow you to collect ultra rare versions of some of biggest legends in hockey and put them on your ultimate team. I can’t wait to open up Gretzky. Healing cards are what their name describes.  Just like in real life, virtual players can get injured in the EA Hockey Ultimate League and to help counter injuries you can use healing cards that will allow you to reduce the length of the injury and heal your player faster. Finally, the Change Position cards allow you to change a player’s position to get the best chemistry out of your lineup.  Once again huge tinkering is required to help you find your ultimate team.

When you play an EAUHL single player match you will download four opponents off of the EAUHL servers giving you a fresh opponent every time you play. Three of the opponents will be in your level range and you will be shown a top 100 team to choose to play against if you want to test out your skills against the best. This mode is good way to earn EA reward pucks, as well as testing your skill for quick online game. Other new modes in NHL 12 includes play a friend, Multiple Lineups and Stars of the Week. NHL 12 will challenge your skill not only in terms of actual gameplay, but in your managerial skills as well.

Finally, one of the new additions to the NHL series is Simulation Intervention. The action tracker lets you follow every important event that happens in the game through a visual display on the 2D ice and running play by play text down the right hand side. The mode is confusing at first, but it allows you to look at every aspect of the game they are playing in, namely your player. With the new sim-engine, you can simulate the game at different speeds, and it also lets you pause the sim if you want to check out stats at anytime. There is search functionality so that you can focus on a particular player’s actions for that game. For those that love stats this mode is going to be right up your alley. Your player cannot call his own shifts now in this mode as your coach will end up balancing the lines; although you can sim through and get to your next shift. Interesting I must say, and quite realistic, as most NHL players do not go out whenever they like. I found you could stay there for as long as you like, depleting your energy bar as you go, just as long as there is no stoppages in play.

Most will agree that the NHL series has looked pretty much the same for the last several outings. I like that EA has steadfastly stood behind its very solid engine, while tweaking the esthetics as they go. This year EA has added a number of new additions that add to the gameplay, visually speaking. You will notice some of the hits have been tweaked, you can now shoot off your knees, sometimes a smaller player will fall down when attacking a much larger player, and one of my favorites, the helicopter hit is in this years game. This is when a player gets hammered so hard; he can end up flying through the air spinning like a helicopter.

EA has also added some new player and goalie animations on top of the over 200 animations from last year. Players can back right in or over the goalie (although you may get an interference penalty for it), and with the adaptive AI you can really end up with huge scrum in the crease. I also noticed I had knocked off the goalies helmet or mask, which is also new. Actually, you can now knock off any player’s helmet and they just keep playing on, another small but realistic tough. The goalies also can lunge at loose pucks, making unbelievable saves, and if he makes one save to many for your liking he will fight you if pushed enough. There are some new celebration moves for the forwards after a great play or scoring a goal too. Each of the controllers face buttons corresponds with different celebrations, from a simple fist pump to actually riding the stick.

On a side note, one of the new visual touches is also one of my favourite; it is the ability to break the glass. It was a common fixture in the vintage NHL titles on the Sega Genesis, but it has not been included for a several years. I began tweaking some of the games sliders so I could break the glass, but I have been unsuccessful thus far.

All the NHL’s arenas are well defined and colored, with fans looking at their interactive best. You can see the wave in some shots as it moves around the rink. Team jerseys are also all well implemented, with the basic ones available right off the hop and third jerseys being something to unlock. It is interesting to see how they have incorporated a fighter jet overlaid on a Canadian maple leaf for the new/old Winnipeg Jets. Look for a download once the new jerseys have been revealed, but I do think the old Jets jerseys will be part of their third ones. EA’s rendering of its hockey’s players has always been head and shoulders above everyone else; each one looks identical to their real-life counterparts, although the coaches and GM’s still seem more generic then the players.

Technically speaking, as with the past few years, the game’s graphic engine allows the frame rate to remain as stable as ever with no signs of clipping throughout the game.  Crank the sliders all the way up and players move speedily around the rink.

Once again the game sounds just as good as it looks. Right off the hop I noted a new soundtrack in NHL 12. The musical selections range from staple hockey melodies to some great heavy metal riffs. Something I like to do is add my own custom music off my Xbox playlists. Hearing Metallica, Slayer, and even some Beethoven in one’s favourite hockey team’s house is interesting to say the least.

The commentary team of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return from last year. They do an admirable job, portraying the games action, but a minor gripe for me is that their script is once again very predictable. I’m beginning to think it may be time to change the crew to perhaps Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson. I thought maybe EA could include commentary relative to national broadcast teams. In the west Hughson and Simpson do Oilers, Flames, and some Canucks games; it would add to perhaps the realism to the broadcast presentation. I do know that the PC versions of the game have included the pair, so how about it EA, can you include them in the console versions? That being said there is absolutely nothing wrong with the current pair but it does however get a bit annoying to hear the same stuff over and over again.

The general sounds of hockey in NHL 12 are still top notch. The in-game experience is entirely encoded in Dolby Digital Surround, which gives you an aural experience that rivals the live games. There really is nothing like cranking up the game with roaring fan, the sounds of a puck ringing off the goal post, to the heavy hits. Anyone with a subwoofer can also feel the music pounding and the heavy hits booming throughout the rink. I also like how loud and interactive the crowd is as they protest bad calls and roar if the home team scores a goal.

Something that stood out for me was that as my player was sitting on the bench, while I was in Be-A-Pro mode waiting for my shift, I was amazed how the sounds changed to accurately reflect my position in the rink. The bench would scream encouragement or give me the goose for giving up the puck in my end. The sounds are quite loud on the bench where-as in the broadcast booth you would hear more of the crowd or pucks clanging off the boards and or posts.  It is these little esthetic additions that make the game a very true to life experience.

How does the game play you ask? Well the game is pretty much the same as it has been for several years now, but now with the new tweaks and enhancements. NHL 12 moves well on or offline. EA has seemly gotten rid of the hiccups that used plague their online games. The game has an excellent frame rate, although I do still find some of the animations a bit stiff. Players still seem to have a the minion attitude which makes them do funny things at times, mind you with all the new customizations and improved gameplay mechanics the stiffness seems a bit softer. The AI can learn and can be cheap if they want to, almost stifling you at times. I really liked the online stuff, testing my might with others out there. The games ran pretty well, although there was only 12 other players online when I played. The buttons have not been moved or changed, which makes for a pleasurable experience, but some moves can be tough to pull off at times.

Players of the mighty EA hockey series have a lot to look forward to in NHL 12. EA has focused on the esthetics rather than the core gameplay given that the latter is pretty solid already. The sheer amount of optimization and customization is astounding. It should take gamers a little while to figure out all the games intricacies as EA has melded a great playing game, a great looking game, and an immensely deep gaming experience all into one. The realism is off the chart here, and I’ve got to applaud the effort.

The Good


The Bad