One issue with EA Sports franchises is that from year to year the games donít change a whole lot. Indeed Madden NFL 12, which we reviewed recently, was marked down a few percent because in many ways itís still the same game as it was a few years ago. However, seeing as I havenít played an NHL game in a decade and a half NHL 12 wonít have the same scrutiny applied to it in this regard. Thatís not to say weíll let it off scot-free because we can look at the list of new features for this year and make a judgment on that, but itís impossible to spot subtler differences, like AI improvements or lack thereof, without playing last yearís game. Anyway enough about that, letís talk about the game.
One thing EA donít scrimp on in their sports games is the sheer number of different game modes. NHL 12 is no different in this regard and you can play exhibition, season and playoff modes, create your own plays and go straight to a shootout. Thereís also Be a Pro mode where you can create a player or take control of a current NHL player, playing exclusively as that player in every game. If youíre good enough youíll earn time with the first line (starting team), but if you donít meet the coachís expectation youíll be demoted to the second (or worse) line. New this year you can create a Canadian Hockey League (CHL) pro in Be a Pro mode. Iím not sure how many people this will appeal to here in Australia, but itís a neat feature if youíre into Canadian hockey.
Be a GM, the seriesí franchise mode, returns too. Here you get to control pretty much every aspect of your team as you attempt to take them to Stanley Cup glory. Youíre responsible for the roster, including individual training, you tell the scouts who they should be scouting, and hire supporting staff like assistant coaches and team doctors. Throughout your GM career youíll be given guidelines by the teamís owner, such as winning a certain number of games, or reaching a particular stage of the playoffs. Meeting these guidelines will ensure your job for another year, while failing to meet them will leave you in jeopardy of being fired.
You also have specific GM tasks to complete continually throughout your tenure. Tasks such as hiring ten free-agents, engineering a two-for-one trade or winning five games in a row will all earn you Task Points that are used to upgrade your staff. Earning Task Points also improves your overall GM rank from amateur all the way up to legendary status. Making your way to the top will take multiple successful seasons, giving you another reason to keep plugging away with your job.
Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) returns too. For those of you unfamiliar with this, itís a card game that determines the team you have at your disposal. When you first play HUT youíre assigned a starter pack of cards containing a bunch of not very good players, rated around 60 to 75. These players comprise your team and the only way to improve them is to earn 'pucks' by competing in online of offline games with your team. Each player has a starting contract length and once that contract is up theyíll be gone for good.
On the ice the game plays exceptionally well and with multiple different control schemes to choose from everyone should find something to suit them. By default the analog sticks do most of the work Ė you move with the left analog, while you deke, shoot and check with the right analog. For me this felt perfectly intuitive after just a couple of minutes. If youíre not a fan of the analog controls though, you can choose a more button-heavy control scheme, or even revert to the NHL 94 controls.
With the push of a button (R1 by default) you can poke check in an attempt to take the puck away from your opponent. You pass with R2, holding it down if you want more power. There are a host of other moves you can learn with a bit of a practice, but the only other important one for people like me is how to fight. If you push triangle during the game or after the refís whistle youíll get into some good old fisticuffs.
During games every big hit, shot and goal are recorded and can be watched at any time via the action tracker. Itís a neat feature and the game makes use of it by showing highlights during breaks in play. Itís great to watch a series of big hits youíve landed during the game, not to mention the goals. At the end of each period youíre given a rundown on what your team (or player in the Be a Pro modes) has done well, and where they need to improve. The advice it gives isnít always helpful, for example I was told to get to the Ďdirty areasí more often, but given I have no idea where those areas are I couldnít work on it, but itís still handy to get some feedback on your performance.
If reading isnít your forte you can play through an interactive tutorial that shows you how to perform certain skills. I didnít find the tutorial explained things perfectly, but it does a good enough job to give you confidence on the ice. During games youíll get on-screen control hints, reminding you how to win face-offs, how to check and even how to pass.
Online play in NHL 12 is excellent, which is quite a feat considering the game has sold in record numbers and thus the servers are likely very busy. Whether competing in a quick one-one-one game, playing an opponent through HUT or playing with friends via the EA Hockey League, the game ran smoothly in my time with it.
While NHL 12 is a lot of fun it does have a few issues. The most serious issue is that the game is prone to freezing. A quick look at the EA forums suggests Iím not the only one who experienced this while playing the game. It only happened on three occasions in my time with the game, but each time it was frustrating. The first time it froze on me was also the worst time. After simming a full 82-game season I started playing the first playoff game before it froze. When I restarted the game I discovered that auto-save hadnít saved at any time during the season, so I was back to square one. Spewing!
While the many different Be a Pro modes have a lot of potential I quickly got bored of them because games take too long. If you play with Ďauthenticí settings each period lasts twenty minutes. The upside here is that you can skip the parts youíre not on the ice, but even so each game takes ages. If you opt to shorten the periods to something like five minutes you canít skip the parts when youíre on the bench Ė you have to watch. This becomes especially tiresome when youíre on the second or third line and only play a small part of each period.
Graphically NHL 12 is impressive. Players (based on their photos on roster pages) look like their real life counterparts Ė something games often struggle with. They move realistically on the ice, from the way it takes a few steps to accelerate to the way they go flying after a crunching body check. There are plenty of neat features too such as broken sticks, goalie fumbles that turn into goals and the variety of different deke moves. Apparently you can also break the glass with a powerful body check but alas, despite a lot of trying on my part, I never got to see it.
The sound effects, both on the ice and from the crowd add great atmosphere. Crowds react believably to every big hit and goal. As the away team if you develop a bit of a lead the home crowd will go quiet, but give the home team a sniff and the fans will go nuts. Body checks, puck slaps and even the noise of your skates are all very well done. The commentary is interesting and varied but sometimes the use of certain descriptions doesnít fit the action, like the time I committed a turnover and the commentator said "that's only forgivable if they win, and that seems unlikely" at a time I was leading 8-0.
Overall NHL 12 has a lot to offer to both veteran players and ice hockey noobs like myself. Like every EA Sports game there is an abundance of different modes to keep you busy for months, even if, like me, you dislike one or two of them. There doesnít appear to be a big difference between this yearís title and last yearís so if you own NHL 11 you might want to give this one a miss. For anyone else with a passing interest in ice hockey NHL 12 is an entertaining game thatís definitely worth checking out.
Review By: Mike Allison