I’m as hardcore as they are when it comes to video game hockey. I’ve been playing the EA Sports NHL series since its inception in 1991 with NHL Hockey on the Genesis, and previous to that I was playing games such as Slap Shot, Superstar Ice Hockey and Face-Off! on the C64. So I’m definitely more critical about this series than most just because I have an intimate knowledge of all of the features that have been added every year and even features that have disappeared over the years.
EA has been hitting Hockey video games out of the park since NHL 07 with their innovative skill stick control. With NHL 09, they innovated again with the introduction of the “Be a Pro” and MMO-like “EA Sports Hockey League” modes. I played the heck out of NHL 07, NHL 08 and NHL 09 because of the innovations in those games. However, I found myself losing interest with NHL 10 and NHL 11 as the changes made on or off the ice were not nearly as impressive, and I found the difficulty levels to be uneven. Pro was too easy— however, All-Star had been getting harder for me every year and I wasn’t able to have fun in any of the offline modes because of this. Be a Pro was always hopeless as I found my teams being hammered by a margin of 5 or more goals regularly.
I also thought the puck physics in the last few games were starting to get stale and predictable. The most effective way to score was always dangling the puck on a sharp angle within 5 feet of the net. This made online play extremely frustrating. Player shooting animations were awkward as the shot never seemed to flow into the direction that the puck was fired at, and the puck physics also seemed to be canned as you’d see the same types of goals from the same areas time after time. I wasn’t necessarily a detractor of NHL 11, but all of these problems left me apathetic.
NHL 12 has addressed many of these issues. First though, I’ll get the most disappointing note off my chest. Skating physics have not been addressed. You’ll see players floating around without taking strides with their skates, and you’ll still see some impossible to do stops and starts due to the lack of a realistic skating engine. These are especially frustrating when trying to line a player up for a hit but then having them go around you by stopping on a dime and throwing off your hit.
Despite this, the skating does feel a little better than previous years as there is a more momentum to every player’s movement, but it’s still not where I’d like it to be. Where the game does shine though is the revamped puck physics— something which EA barely touched on in their marketing leading up to the release of the game. Now shooting animations do flow into shots much better and reflect where the puck is going. You’ll also have a lot better time performing loose puck one-timers. In previous games, it could get a little glitchy when trying to fire on a loose puck as you’d gain possession of the puck but still miss the shot. It’s something that does not happen nearly as often. The puck also seems to bounce and roll more realistically around the ice and every deflection just looks a lot better because of this.
There is a larger variety in the types of goals in NHL 12. I had one Online League game where I scored two goals off the wing on the rush with Marian Gaborik. In the past few years, I never saw goals like that unless I bumped down the skill level to Rookie. But it’s not as though goal totals have gone up. The Goalie AI has been tightened up for shots in close, but once in a while it seems as though goalies have lapses just as in the real NHL.
The better puck physics also apply to goalie saves. I have not yet seen an instance where the puck ends up lading on the goalie’s shoulder or back and just sits there as it has in previous years. I’ve also seen a lot of cases where the goalie makes a glove or blocker save which causes the puck to go over the net. This is something I have not seen in EA’s games in many years despite it being so common in the real NHL. Goalies also seem to react better to dump-ins as they’ll skate out of their net more often to retrieve pucks— and not just for pucks that land behind the net, but pucks that are rolling towards the net as well; some goalies won’t wait for the puck to come to them anymore.
Anticipation AI was one of the biggest billed features in this game and it definitely delivers in my opinion. Now breakout passes are a lot easier to make as your snipers realistically go on the attack before you pass the puck up to them. Players are also better at retrieving errant passes directed at them. They’ll stretch out to receive them assuming they are skilled with the puck.
I have been having a lot more fun with the game this year because All-Star has been made a little less insane to play. It’s still challenging at times but I never feel hopeless as I did in past years. However, I still think EA needs to ditch these 5 fixed levels of difficulty and go with something more granular, like a difficulty percentage slider, as I’m sure there are people out there who thought All-Star was perfect for them last year, but now are finding it too easy.
Be A Pro has had a massive overhaul this year. One of the things that turned me off from the mode in past years is that you pretty much played most of the game, and the coach was very lenient in telling you to get off the ice. This year, Be a Pro is locked to 20 minute periods, so your player is given a realistic amount of ice time. However, to avoid the boredom of sitting on the bench for 40 minutes out of an hour, you are now given the option to simulate to your next shift. I think this was a fantastic move by EA as now Be a Pro feels like a true team game and doesn’t feel like a facade. Simulation also allows you to skip times you’d usually be forced to sit on the bench such as when you take a penalty. There have also been coaching tasks added to the mode. For example, if you’re making a lot of turnovers, the coach will make it one of your tasks to keep turnovers down. Additionally, progression levels have been broken up further than before, so progressing to your player’s next level feels like less of a grind.
Another new feature which has been added to all of the game modes is the ability to start simulating a game and then intervene. This was a feature that previously appeared in previous generation versions of the NHL series, but was a feature that was dropped when the NHL 07 appeared on the Xbox 360. This is a great way for you to jump into a game and play it even if you don’t have 30 minutes to dedicate to playing a full game. Furthermore, you can also Quit a game at any time and Simulate the rest of it which also helps you save time (especially if you’re in a situation where you are winning or losing by a large margin). Madden 12, which I recently reviewed, also had a similar feature, but it also allowed you to jump into simulation in the middle of the game, and intervene again at any time, something which is lacking here.
Another feature, which has been lacking from NHL games for a long time now, is saving games in progress, and this is still absent. It’s something that I think is a must have for games nowadays. Gamers are getting older now and have families and responsibilities, and need to be more flexible. Also for the social gamer, a feature like this would allow them to jump in and out of online games pretty seamlessly. I can already count several instances where I wanted to play someone an online league match, but they were in an offline game in progress. Or I’ve even found myself sitting at the menus in anticipation of another’s game ending, as I know that if I started a game, by the time I would finish it, my opponent would either be in another game or offline.
Online leagues are bare-bones as ever in NHL 12. The max limit for teams in NHL 11 was conspicuously only 10, but now it has been bumped back up to 32 teams. There is no schedule in online leagues in NHL 12— instead you have a certain amount of games to play against other owners and can play them in any order. I appreciate the lack of a schedule because that’s an arbitrary limitation but the mode needs to have features such as Line Editing, Stat Tracking, Injuries, Trade Block and more to be even close to on par with the offline Season mode. Also, you can feasibly play all of your games at home as the game does not decide who would be playing at home. Instead, whoever sends the invite for the league game gets to be the home team during the regular season. A web based manager, integration into social networks and a spectator mode would also be much appreciated to help the experience of playing in an online league. There is also a lack of tools dealing with disciplining of delinquent GMs. I’ve run leagues in the past where some GMs would get busy for weeks at a time and there would need to be a way to keep the league moving. Allowing a CPU to take over for them or having an option for the commissioner to forfeit the delinquent GM’s game would be much appreciated. It just seems as though EA themselves don’t play the Online League mode as they’d quick realize what a nightmare it is from a User Experience perspective and how badly it needs to be streamlined.
NHL 12 also has a lack of options and customization in Online Leagues. In fact, there’s a lack of options and customization in most Online modes. I’d like to have the same options that I have when playing a friend sitting next to me on my couch as I do playing someone across the world from me. This means having the ability to use Custom Rosters and Custom Sliders online, allowing fantasy drafts for online modes, having online Playoff & Dynasty modes (where CPUs fill out the rest of the spots in the league), the ability to use Custom Teams in any of these modes, and allowing me to party up with friends and play cooperatively in modes such as Dynasty, Playoffs, and even in Online Vs. there’s an arbitrary limitation in Online Vs. mode where two people sitting beside each other can play together in Ranked Online vs. matches but two people playing on the net can only play in competitive modes.
There has been some more goalie customization added to the game in terms of options for goalie masks, and Female players can now be created. Winter Classic is also a nice addition to the game, but is limited as it only features last year’s game and doesn’t have any years previous to that nor does it have this season’s Winter Classic between the Rangers and Flyers. Also a word of caution, the Winnipeg Jets, St. John’s Ice Caps (AHL) and Blainville-Boisbriand Armada (CHL) are missing their jerseys. EA has said they will be offering an update for Winnipeg Jets jerseys but we haven’t heard about the other teams yet.
Graphically, the game is very similar to previous years, which isn’t a bad thing as the NHL series has consistently had some of the best graphics in sports games this generation. Some faces do look a lot better, others are unchanged. There has been a strange sheen added to player jerseys though. I’m not sure why this was done, its distracting and makes the jerseys look plastic in cutscenes. Also, cutscenes have been changed to show shots of the crowd after goals. However, crowd animations are terrible and it’s a jarring transition. There’s also a lack of excitement in goal cutscenes now as players aren’t shown immediately after scoring goals now. In a producer blog, EA said they felt it was jarring because at one moment you’d see a player diving on the ice using a custom celebration, and the next moment they’d be hugging their teammates. I think that the real issue there is that they probably shouldn’t have unrealistic custom celebrations such as diving on the ice and instead they should have worked on blending the post goal celebration with the cutscene that came afterwards.
Again, I’m very critical of these games because of my history with the series. But I really can’t recommend this year’s game enough. The new puck physics, rebalanced All-Star mode, and new Be a Pro mode have really breathed new life into the series for me. If you like hockey, there’s no reason you shouldn’t get this game. And if you’re a fan of good sports games, this is also a game you should be adding to your collection.