Like many hockey fans, I had extremely high hopes for EA Sports' latest hockey game, the much anticipated NHL 12. The past few iterations were very well received by hockey fans and gamers alike. This year's game should be no exception, right?
I spent quite a bit of time playing NHL 12 to accurately gauge the changes and, in doing so, decided that I would split the game into online and single player reviews. It's only fair to do so as they feel like vastly different games. Do the additions of net play and goalie collisions make a difference in the new game?
The single player versions of the NHL series are generally what I spend most of my time playing. I thoroughly enjoy the Be a Pro mode and have taken some of my pros 5 or 6 seasons into their careers, playing every game. I have not yet, however, played Be a Pro mode in NHL 12 as the roster update has yet to drop. The addition of AHL teams and CHL teams in years passed have gone a long way to alleviate some of this aggravation, incorporating a lot of players into the game that would not have been available otherwise. Rookies coming out of college have to play at least one NHL or AHL game in order to make EA Sports’ in-game roster; kind of weird seeing that the Madden series is able to have rookies out of college in their games without an update.
This was always one of my biggest pet peeves with the NHL game, delaying my Pro mode until around two or three weeks into the NHL season (usually the end of October). For review purposes, I decided to give the similar Be a Legend mode a test drive instead. In Be a Legend mode you play as NHL legend players and try to achieve the same career milestones those players accomplished during their tenures. It's essentially be a pro mode, but with a much better starting player. The beginning Be a Legend player is Jeremy Roenick, and as you hit some of his career milestones you unlock the series of pros, making your way up to the great one, Wayne Gretzky. I can't see myself really spending that much time with this mode. I usually only like to play as a defensemen and JR is a center. EA also added the ability to play with your pro in the CHL as well as being able to pick your own CHLer and play through his career in Be a CHL Pro mode.
Be a Legend mode did give me my first chance to experience the “net play” addition to the game. If you are just playing a single player mode or Be a GM mode, you're generally too busy as the person with the puck to pay much attention to the battling in front of the net. As JR in Legend mode, it is much easier to get in front of the net and battle for rebounds; with the right thumbstick you can check, elbow, stick check and make room for rebounds and tip-ins. Power forwards like Dustin Penner and Tomas Holmstrom are much more effective in NHL12 due to the addition of net play, which allows them to get in front of the net and screen the goalie or battle for position. The same goes for defensemen who also use the thumbstick to battle for position and box out forwards. Big D-Men have the advantage of being able to clear out the crease with their size and strength. The most positive change in Be a Pro/Legend/CHL Pro modes is the ability to simulate until your player's next shift when they come off the ice. Rather than unrealistically playing the ENTIRE game with your pro, or boringly watching from the bench, the game will sim right up until you step back out onto the ice.
Also new this year is goalie collisions. Battle too hard in front of the net and knock the goalie over and you’ll be called for goaltender interference. You can also plow into the goalie while driving the net, or on a breakaway to be called for interference. Goalies are not defenseless however, and are newly allowed to drop the gloves with skaters and the opposing team's goalies.
One thing I noticed with the goalie collisions is that the referee is pretty inconsistent with the calls. I've been called for tapping the goaltender while out of the crease, and not called for plowing the goalie inside the crease, allowing for a scoring opportunity. You also will rarely get called for hitting the netminders after the whistle, very unrealistic. For me it's an issue that will have to be resolved with a patch or even in the next game.
The new “full-contact physics engine” also appears to be very flawed. In a game that touts its own realism, one should not be able knock down the biggest player in NHL history, (the 6'9” 260lb) Zdeno Chara, with smallish (6' 200lb), non-hitting sniper Sergei Kostitsyn. Take, for instance, a clean body check along the boards, with Chara picking up the puck in the corner and Kostitsyn coming in at half speed and CRUSHING Chara into the boards, leaving him in a heap on the ice. Being aware of the size mismatch and Kostitsyn's lack of desire to really hit someone hard, this is a bit hard to swallow. I did this test a few other times with the same result, a smallish player having no trouble leveling a much larger player with a shoulder to shoulder hit sending the larger player sprawling. Not too big of a deal until online play comes in.
I spent most of my offline time in NHL 12’s Hockey Ultimate Team mode, where you are given a deck of cards with players on them, which makes up your team. By winning games and tournaments and competing online you can win EA Pucks, which are used to purchase more cards with players, power ups, contract extensions, uniforms, logos, coaches, and even cards that shorten the length of certain injuries. I’m having a blast building my team from bottom-of-the-barrel talent to a nice mix of veterans and promising young players. Growing your players through the skill power ups is a very rewarding and worthwhile process as most of the young players have long careers allowing you to play more games with them than the veterans.
With some tweaking, the new changes are going to have a very positive impact on the NHL series. The single player modes are getting more varied and the favorite Be a Pro mode got much better with the ability to simulate to your next shift.
Single Player Score: 8.5
Yikes! Last year's game was a blast to play online. Most people I know had and played NHL 11 right up until the release of NHL 12. Long after Be a Pro and Be a GM got boring, people were still regularly competing online. NHL 12 is a completely different animal however, and for me, sucks to play online. Talking to the fellow Thumbstick Athletes hosts, we believe it's mostly due to the improved computer AI. Usually an improved AI is a good thing, and in single player it is, making the game much more difficult and realistic. But online the computer players are so good at taking away space on the ice it allows your opponent to focus right on the person with puck. You have very little time to do anything with the puck other than passing it really quickly. Even trying to create separation with dekes will usually result in a turnover with either your player losing the puck, the puck being pokechecked away, or your player just being crushed by defenders.
The poor hitting physics really stand out while playing online. At least three or four times a game in my thirty or so online matches I had managed to skate past slower defensemen around the outside only to be checked very lightly in the back and sent sprawling. Even bigger, stronger players who in real life would have no trouble keeping the puck and staying on their feet would crash dramatically into the boards and sprawl onto the ice in a pile, losing their stick and helmet for good measure.
Hip checking, while one of the most fun things in hockey to watch, should be taken out of NHL 12 completely until collision detection gets a lot better. I played against a few people who as soon as you would skate into the offensive zone would hip check, even if you weren't close. If you even slightly touched the hip checking defender, you would flip over them as if you had skated right into it at full speed. Usually the way to combat being stood up to at the blue line is to dump the puck into the corner and chase after it (known as dump and chase hockey). Dump and chase has never worked in a videogame and probably never will, so creating offense is more about luck than anything.
Poke-checking is overpowered, stick lifting is underpowered, garbage goals seem to make up 90% of the goals and the list goes on. Even winning online isn't too much fun, you just feel like you out-garbage-goaled your opponent. Gone are the days of the across-the-blueline dangle, give and go, deke the goaltender out of his pads and highlight-reel goals; in are the lucky, bad angle, off balance corner shots that tip in off the defensemen's skate goals.
More realistic? Absolutely! More fun to play? Not a chance in hell! Give me NHL 11 to play online any day. I swear to god if I play Vancouver or Buffalo one more time online I will shatter the disc in the driveway. Thank Christ Gears of War 3 is so good; I need something to tide me over until Skyrim comes out, and it won’t be NHL 12.
Online Score: 6.5
Overall Score: 7.5