This year’s EA Sports brand seems to be more about refinement than advancement. Every title I have reviewed seems to make strides to improve last year’s already stellar performance with some work under the hood. These are the years that make the standout titles, well- stand out, and that is nothing to scoff at. NHL 11 was honestly the best hockey game in ages, and now, with EA having the license pretty much to themselves, it gave them time to tweak what was already an outstanding game to appease the more hardcore fans of the sport. NHL 12 definitely has plenty of new additions to make it worthwhile; they just aren’t always in your face.
First, let’s discuss what is new here. The Be a Pro mode has been enhanced to now feature a Be a Legend layout. Here, you can take one of the Hall of Fame stars from their youthful beginnings up through their legendary career. This is much more interesting for gamers not interested in developing a scrub, because all of these legends are packed with incredible stats. It is much more fun to control someone you have heard of and know how good they are instead of fighting your way up the ladder; at least it was for me. My biggest gripe is that this mode is kind of shallow. The selection of legends is pitiful and missing some rather large names in the hockey world. It is also worth noting that you will need to unlock almost all of them before being able to take them through the trials.
As with most of the EA Sports line this year, the rest of the big additions feel more like fine-tuning. You can now play the Winter Classic at Heinz Field, which is a nice change of venue, and you can opt to take on the career of a player in the CHL. Both additions are nice touches, but nothing that will sell the game to newcomers. Most of the on-ice additions are really what will stand out to fans though, even if they are just refinements.
For instance, the player spotlight, which focuses on specific players and their accomplishments during the game, is a really nice touch. These can be for any player and are reminiscent of highlights from actual games. I love seeing which players performed the best during any said game, and this feature works fairly well. The game also boasts a new physics system called Full Contact Physics Engine. It is more of a cosmetic feature that shows off players being checked into the glass and little things such as helmets flying off. It adds some realism to the action, and makes your players feel more like actual players as opposed to pawns on an ice rink.
More refinements include defense receiving a much needed bump and goalies now working harder to block incoming shots, although the swatting pucks into the goal is still in the game. The puck has a more realistic feel when deflected and everything on the ice just feels more like real hockey. The AI has been improved to work harder on drives up and down the ice, as well as sticking to their assignments. A lot of penalties are still called on your AI partners, but not nearly as many as in past games. Everything just feels smoother than in previous games.
Controls have always been a big part of the NHL series, and this year continues the mix of face buttons and analog stick controls. It takes some getting used to if you have never played a game using the analog stick to shoot, but once it clicks, you realize it truly is the best way to play. Everything else falls into place and the game just feels right. Controlling your characters, switching around and passing between players is never an issue. The one area that continues to dominate once again feels supreme.
As I mentioned, the Be a Pro mode has been fleshed out to feature legends, but there is plenty more for hockey fans to dive into. The game is packed with enough content to keep you occupied for hundreds of hours, if you want. The Be a GM mode returns with the same issues from the last few years. Things like drafting and free agency are in desperate need of an overhaul, which I suspect will come before the next major upgrade. The game also feels like it doesn’t want to hurt any players’ feelings with ratings. Almost everyone on the ice holds an 80 or above, and over time, everyone feels like a superstar. This makes for some lop-sided games the longer you play franchise mode.
Of course, the game supports all the standard online functionality and our sessions were pretty much lag free with little issues finding games. You also have the Ultimate Team modes to play around in, as well as some special Season Ticket modes that are a nice touch for those that invested with a subscription to that service. The game gets it done online, and not much else. If you are not a die-hard hockey fan, a lot of this will go to waste, but those with time and dedication will find even more to dig into once you connect.
The game looks and sounds great as usual, with just some minor enhancements to player animations and of course the new physics system. Much like Madden, the TV style entrances and celebrations have been added, giving it a more appealing look and feel. The licensed soundtrack honestly just felt lackluster, featuring music that felt more like background noise than anything else. Commentary is decent, if not a bit derivative, and overall, the presentation takes some steps forward, but mostly feels like it is sitting in neutral.
It is always hard to review these incremental sports releases because they mostly spend their time tweaking things the fans are going to appreciate. NHL 12 continues that trend, and remains the best hockey game on the market, by far. If you are a big fan of the sport, then it is a no-brainer. You need to own the latest version. If you are like some, who simply wait for the major iterations, this is certainly not it. If you fall anywhere in between and are looking for some hockey action; you cannot go wrong with NHL 12.
Review copy provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.