Ice Hockey is one of the great American sports that has never properly gripped me and, aside from watching my local team or occasionally seeing it during the Winter Olympics, I have never watched an entire NHL game through to the end. When I do manage to catch a few minutes, I’m only waiting for one of the many hilarious fights or crunching body checks to materialise. However, now I had a copy of NHL 12 to play with, how would it fair for a someone with a passing interest in the sport? Would it convert me into a devout NHL lover, or be too hardcore that I couldn’t even get past the menu?
After selecting your language, you are thrown straight into the Winter Classic match that serves as practice match allowing you to get to grips with the controls and maybe set you off onto winning ways. After the first play of the game, you are asked whether you wish to quit to start the interactive tutorials, which while they are a great way to grasp the basic controls, it feels like they could have been better implemented during the outdoor match.
For anyone with experience with past NHL titles or even EA’s other titles such as Skate or FIFA, controls should be familiar with skating, dekeing (tricks) and passing being sharp and responsive. There are faults however, as auto-switching when passing the puck around can lead to forcing your players to move without the puck causing the opposition to gain possession easily. There’s also the problem of quick line up changes being difficult to perform in the heat of play.
The Winter Classic also introduces you to the sights and sounds of NHL 12. Visually, it is a treat for anyone as player models are accurate and equipment damage is commonplace with sticks being broken and helmets flying off after a big hit. The crowd also seems to have been taken up a notch in both terms of looks and sounds as chants and reactions gain some extra detailing. The hockey atmosphere has been captured wonderfully too with chants, music and celebrations crafted to a great deal of accuracy.
“NHL 12 has hit a sweet spot where games are hard enough to pose a real challenge without it getting so frustrating that a visit to a wig shop is in order.”
Like all other EA Sports titles, Be A Pro mode is probably the first port of call for a lot of players as Hockey fans get the chance to take control of an existing or created player (which can now be female) throughout their career – allowing you to play out that boyhood fantasy. By taking control of a single player, you have to rely on the AI, both friendly and opposing, to create a challenge as well as help you win the game. Fortunately, NHL 12 has hit a sweet spot where games are hard enough to pose a real challenge without it getting so frustrating that a visit to a wig shop is in order.
In accordance with the AI, shooting has also been made fairly tough and, while this may sound like it would become impossible to win a match, it does provide players with a fantastic feeling of achievement when you do manage to get the puck past that stubborn goalie. Also lending a hand to the shooting system is a choice of stick for your Pro. Whilst choosing your model of stick only affects the aesthetics, it’s only when you have to choose the angle of your stick’s blade and how much your stick will flex that stats such as slap shot power or wrist shot accuracy are altered. Both of these, and your player’s height and weight, are important to your style of shooting as they grant different bonuses to wrist and slap shots.
After a quick player setup and five minutes of pop up screens, you will be ready to play your first game. Despite period lengths being locked in at twenty minutes each, matches fly by with players being able to simulate play during shift changes. When you do find yourself on the bench, your coach will give you feedback on how to improve your game and how much of an in-game objective you have completed. It’s a great little feature that will point out where you are going wrong and will encourage you to persist with the match if you’re playing poorly.
You’ll also notice the new impact engine which has been introduced into all EA Sports titles this year. The new engine offers a great and more realistic spectacle when body checking opponents and, depending on weight and speed, you’ll see more broken glass than a Michael Bay film. It also allows tackles to be made when contact is made, whereas before NHL 12 suction and warping would develop rather than producing a missed tackle which could see your player plant his face into the glass.
Once you’ve completed your first game, more pop up screens will notify of your Pro’s milestones – some of these are career long while others are season long. Season milestones help get you noticed by bigger teams and, as you make your way through the CHL season, unlocking more could see you get picked earlier in the NHL Draft. Career milestones are earned throughout your Pro’s life as a hockey player and, if enough are earned, could see him titled as one of the sports’ legends.
At this point, you will also be introduced to the game’s XP system. After a match, you’re Pro will be awarded XP in three categories: Offense, Defence and Athletic. The more actions you perform in each of these categories such as scoring goals, blocking shots and body checking, the more XP you earn in those categories. It’s a solid system that is a good fit for the sport but it could’ve benefited with bringing in parts of FIFA’s Accomplishment system to form a hybrid that would allow players to have some control over their player’s stats as well as allow for natural progression.
“The managerial mode will also offer less hardcore fans more depth in being able to make executive decisions while also being able to play out your teams match schedule.”
Be A Legend is another new feature that has been introduced this year. Like Be A Pro, you control only one player, in this case a NHL legend, as you attempt to emulate their career and earn the same accolades they did. You start off playing as Jeremy Roenick and, as you unlock milestones, you will also unlock the next hockey legend until you reach the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky. It’s an interesting game mode that is great for fans of the sport and will be almost nostalgic as players try to imitate the legends’ match play.
The last of ‘Be A’ modes is Be A GM. Becoming a General Manager allows you control everything your selected team does such as transfers, drafting and team facilities. As to avoid complete boredom of managing simulation, you are able to take control of your team during match days giving you more of a chance to see your supported team lift the trophy. Becoming a GM provides hardcore hockey fans with the thrill of directing their supported team to glory and drawing in only the best players to create an unbeatable team. The managerial mode will also offer less hardcore fans more depth in being able to make executive decisions while also being able to play out your teams match schedule.
“NHL 12 isn’t only one of best hockey games, it is one of the best sports titles this generation.”
NHL 12 also comes with other modes such as Play Now, Season Mode and Tournament Mode. Play Now serves as an easy access into a quick game against the CPU or a friend while Season Mode allows you to play one season as any team from America, Sweden and the rest of the world. Tournament Mode lets players take part in two tournaments: the EA Sports World Tournament and the Mastercard Memorial Cup. The World Tournament serves as a World Championship equivalent where you play as your selected nation while the Mastercard Memorial Cup is a small tournament between four teams that requires players to reach the playoffs of your group and beat the playoffs for the trophy. While they are decent modes, Play Now and World Tournament would probably be the modes that see most play time as both serve as a great local party modes.
Lastly, we move into the online section, and unlike most EA Sports title, not once did I suffer at the cruel hands of lag. Play was fluid and felt more like local multiplayer rather than its internet fuelled brother, but matchmaking was where it fell down slightly with games being played against a far superior opponent every so often. Despite this, it never got overly frustrating when going 5-0 down in the first period as it never feels like you have been cheated. There’s also a decent variety of game modes with head-to-heads, Ultimate Team and Hockey League (Online Pro Clubs) coming up trumps.
NHL 12 isn’t one of the first sports games that comes into the minds of anyone outside of the US but that shouldn’t mean you disregard it because despite having a dated UI, annoyingly blatant advertising and an overwhelming amount information, its gameplay is satisfying, Be A Pro/Legend modes are terrific and the atmosphere of ice hockey has been captured brilliantly. NHL 12 isn’t only one of best hockey games, it is one of the best sports titles this generation.