A swirling snowfall cascades down onto the gathered crowd, milling around and humming with chatter in anticipation of the coming showdown. Lights flare to life all around the ice rink as two squads of skaters file in. The outdoor location is Heinz Field, home of the 2011 NHL Winter Classic. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will face off in this outdoor matchup, an annual pro hockey event that happens on New Year’s Day.
This is the first thing you see when you load up EA Sports‘ NHL 12 for the first time. It’s as if the developer is reminding us that, in the midst of the game’s many highly detailed modes of play and reams of player stats, you’re here to play hockey at the end of the day. Everyone has the option of simply quitting the Winter Classic and opening up the main menu–the Winter Classic is also among the options, waiting to be played again–but why do that when you can smack a puck around an ice rink in a quick one-off game?
Once More into the Breach
The task EA Sports faces each year of delivering new annual releases for its licensed pro sports franchises is both an easy and a difficult one. Easy because, more often than not, each new game is built on the same basic framework of the previous one. And difficult because when you’re dealing with year-to-year releases that are fundamentally the same, it’s a challenge to offer fans anything fresh outside of a basic roster update. The question we’re considering today is whether or not EA Sports managed to one-up what was by most accounts another great pro hockey simulator in NHL 11 with this latest release.
For the most part, the answer is yes. The fundamentals that have turned the EA Sports series into the only worthwhile virtual NHL contender on the market (license exclusivity helps) are still there, but they’ve been improved upon where it matters the most: On the ice. The artificial intelligence governing your squad is smarter and more capable now, working together as a unit much more efficiently than they have in past games.
This extends to the goalies as well. In the past, NHL series goaltenders have tended to feel a little robotic and not entirely there. Shrugging off skaters with ease, they’ve typically felt like they exist in their own little bubble of (virtual) reality. NHL 12 goalies can be smacked around, and do some smacking themselves, and the net they’re protecting can be knocked off its moorings when hit hard enough. If you’re a fan of this series, the improvements made to team AI alone are enough to merit signing on for the latest season.
There’s still more in the way of new features, however. The basic mechanics of skating and shooting have been improved, though that’s pretty standard stuff. More exciting is the newly refined EA Ultimate Hockey League. This returning mode from last year’s game still sees players purchasing and earning card packs that can be used to build out and train a hockey team. New to the mode this year is an enhanced layer of online functionality called EAUHL 24/7.
Every time you go to play an EAUHL game in single-player, an assortment of teams built by other EAUHL players is downloaded for you to select an opponent from. You get a pretty even mix of challenges, from moderately less/more talented teams to almost evenly matched ones. You can also take your EAUHL game online to play against a friend for bragging rights. What’s more, multiple team lineup configurations can be saved (up to 15) using cards from your collection. All along as you play, EA Pucks are earned which you can later spend on card packs (these packs can also be purchased as microtransactions).
Be a GM mode returns, unchanged from its appearance in NHL 11 for better and for worse. The RPG-like Be a Pro mode–in which you cultivate a single player’s career–returns as well with minimal changes. You’ll now receive Coach Tasks (read: objectives) on a game-by-game and day-by-day basis. As with last year’s release, the problem of being able to see what’s happening on the ice in Be a Pro remains. Since the camera always focuses on your player, it’s easy to lose track of the puck. This can result in the occasionally frustrating missed or stolen pass, simply because you don’t know it’s coming.
There’s also Be a Legend, which is an outgrowth of Be a Pro: you’ll still focus on just one player, but the player you’ll be using is a known quantity in the NHL world. Guys like Jeremy Roenick and Wayne Gretzy. Your Legend can join any team, and the mode in all other ways resembles Be a Pro.
Overall, the changes made in NHL 12 create an improved experience overall. The core changes to the way your team plays around you are the most noticeable, and the most welcome, of them. The Legend mode will hopefully see some tweaks, as its first outing feels a bit too grounded in Be a Pro, with not enough to distinguish the Legend angle. The Pro and GM modes could also use some tweaks, but there’s no question that both promise hours of entertainment even in their current form. If you’re a fan of the series, NHL 12 is yet another great showing from EA Sports that you won’t want to miss.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by EA)