The NHL series from EA Sports has become one of the tent pole franchises for the company. For the last several years, starting with the introduction of the Skill Stick in NHL 08, this series has reigned as one of the most critically acclaimed sports titles to release…ever.
But with each passing year, EA Sports has less and less to improve upon in this already incredible title. The old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra rears up and challenges developers to find a way to make best even better.
And that's a scary concept for gamers. Will their game be left untouched, save for roster updates, and served up as a piping hot re-release? Or, even worse, will it be crammed with gimmicky nonsense that detracts from the quality of the previous entries?
Thankfully, NHL 12 finds a way to retain its previously installed glory while performing maintenance and polish to the rest of the game's features. Sure, we get a few unnecessary modes and additions that do little to the experience, like The Winter Classic and Legend features, but they definitely don't hurt the product. It's great to lace up as Lemieux in the snowy air, but it doesn't make this the best NHL yet.
Instead, the improvements happen in two places: on the ice and in the menus. And, quite honestly, those are really the only places where the game could have used tweaking.
First up, the menu interface. We're calling everything that happens off of the ice "the interface." So, when you need to tweak your pro's appearance or see your performance report, we mean those types of things. In NHL 12, these are the areas that feel most improved.
For instance, instead of having one set of attributes for your Pro in the EA Sports Hockey League, regardless of which position you wind up playing in games, you have a set for each play possibility. You can predetermine your left winger's attributes while retaining your center's, etc. So, should you like being a playmaker from the center position, but a more gritty skater from the wing, you can do that. They'll have to share the base stats of your selected player-type, but you can redistribute the experience points across each position independently.
Player progression, another feature handled in the game's menu system, feels better here too. Before, you'd have to physically check your player performance growth by entering a completely unique menu. Now, after every game, you'll see how your player has progressed with a new window that pops open and actually charts his or her (yep, female hockey players) stats. You get visual confirmation of your success on a game by game basis, rather than having to receive it manually.
As a way to blend us into the on-the-ice portion of this year's pros and cons, I want to compliment EA for electing to add a way for players to sim until their next shift. Before, in Be a Pro, players had to hop onto the bench after a shit and physically watch hockey play out in front of them. For a skater who only plays around 20 minutes every game, this can be extremely boring. Now, however, you can sim directly to your next shift once you hop on the bench. No more waiting, if you don't want to.
Before we get into gameplay, understand that we like what this game has offered in terms of interface polish. There are still snags present like sticky menus, convoluted nesting of features (like not knowing which pro you're editing when you're in odd branches of the menu paths) and an awkward hockey shop. However, the overall interface portion of this product feels better than it has in the past.
Physically, goalies feel much better this year than any other. I don't necessarily mean their skill is stronger, I mean they feel more realistic to play against. You can bump into them (oftentimes incurring the goalie interference penalty), you can jostle them, you can knock their net off its moorings, you can bump their mask off and you can even fight them. They are a real part of the game and more than just that computer controlled wall that likes to bobble the puck.
But, and this is a gripe, they seem to have a mind of their own sometimes. They'll cough the puck up after nearly freezing it without you asking them to. They'll think they have more friendly jerseys in their crease and decided to dish the rock out into enemy hands. I've had a bunch of goals scored on me this way, and it is damn frustrating.
Net-front battles have been added as well. Rather than just sitting in front of the net and occupying space, players can actually lock up and jostle for position. It can be a little bit of a bitch as you'll often get sucked into unbreakable contact as your trying to get free above the circles, but it mostly feels more realistic than just playing bumper cars in the crease.
Finally, the big thing I want to hit on as far as on-the-ice play is concerned pertains to the new player AI. Computer controlled players no longer seem like their operating on a more idiotic level of intelligence. They still make bonehead moves, like icing the puck while on the power play, but they perform more realistically in most situations. They anticipate puck movement and transition to offense or defense more readily this year, and that allows for more breaks and odd-man situations. They'll actively try to cycle the puck in the offensive zone rather than pass it between the same two dudes over and over again. They'll actually try and play intelligent hockey now. Will you hate them for their mistakes? Yes. But they won't seem like complete morons.
While things like Season Mode, GM Mode and Play Now may feel largely unchanged, this reviewer thinks that's a perfectly fine fact. There's no need to reinvent series staples that already work. This modes are tried and true, as they have been for the last several years, and there's been no reason to overhaul them.
Yet, the subtle tweaks done on the online and Be a Pro modes add up for a much, much more enjoyable user experience. Is this a completely new brand of hockey? No; but it didn't need to be. It is still one of the best sports franchises in existence. In fact, it's the best sports game we've played so far this year.
But, honestly, the others haven't been too stellar.
Reviewing sports games these days can be tough. The honest truth is that there are so many minor tweaks to consider from a year to year basis that your review can stretch for miles and you'll feel like you're leaving so much out. I've done that here, and I do want you to know that I recognize that. I didn't cover the fact that the CHL is here this year, or that playing as an official Winnipeg Jet feels awesome. I didn't touch on the well-made Hockey Ultimate Team or new physics engine (which can do really weird stuff from time to time).
However, I do hope that I've given you the sense of subtlety that this game brings to the table. If you boot up NHL only once or twice a year when you're with friends, you may think like this title feels exactly like it did last year. And, in some regards, you're right. But for the core fans, the folks that have been playing almost every day for the last decade (mostly true in my case), the changes are apparent.
If you're okay with the fact that this isn't as much an overhaul is it is a polishing, you'll love this year's entry of NHL 12. I still contend that a little tweaking was all this baby needed.
Full Disclosure: CraveOnline was sent a review copy of NHL 12 from EA Sports that arrived several days after the game launched. We've since spent multiple late nights grinding bitches down (Bylsma fans, what up?) in every mode the game has to offer across all difficulties. We brought our online players past the Pro level, made a club team that's been performing atrociously, completed two seasons as a GM and made it to the Cup Playoffs as our offline Be a Pro. We've also played in the HUT and Season Modes as well as the Winter Classic.