EA's NHL reviews are starting to read like constantly updated smartphone apps' expanded release notes, with changes that can be summarized as, "numerous bug fixes and incremental enhancements." This game has maintained a superior quality level for several years; it's almost inarguably the best sports franchise on any current-generation console. It's also the only hockey game for HD consoles. Really, as a developer, what are you going to do with that? Fool around under the hood too much, and you'll make it worse than prior editions. So the art guys create new and updated play models, as well as any required revisions to arena architecture. The roster guys update the rosters, tweaking players' associated skills and traits. The music supervisor picks some of the liveliest tracks from a selection of classic and currently popular bands. The programmers tie it all together. There's your new version of EA's NHL 12.
Perhaps the highest commendation for developer EA Canada is that it brainstorms refinements and upgrades to the existing game, implementing where it feels appropriate, without muddying up the experience. EA Canada could spit out a new NHL title every year according to the same blueprint. Putting any effort into enhancing a one-and-only title for a release every late summer is praiseworthy. Not only is it more work than is required to sell the game to constant players, but it also runs the risk, to some small degree, of introducing issues with the gameplay.
In NHL 12, EA Canada does it again, poking, prodding, tacking on and subtly bettering its baby. This year, like recent years, it does so without cracking the golden egg. Unfortunately, no matter how sincere the effort, it doesn't much change the experience. New players won't notice because everything is new to them. Even veteran players will be hard-pressed to pick up on real differences, aside from a few new options in online and offline play, the Be A Pro mode and the EA Ultimate Hockey League modes. The hardcore fans will try to dig up dirt, watching hard for mistakes and quirks not found in last year's game. They'll pine in gaming forums for the good old days, but most of these alleged slights will exist only in their imaginations.
One of the most significant gameplay changes comes with a revamped physics engine, which EA is calling the Full Contact Physics Engine. Part of the new engine is the Balance Control System, which takes into consideration the strength and balance of players as they make or take hits. Full Contact also seeks to enhance the game by introducing more varied results in player collisions, like players falling to their knees instead of always going spread-eagled on the ice, and "helicopter hits," which send players spinning round and round. With time, these nuanced additions will integrate into the player's total perception of the simulation. After many hours with the new game, you'd certainly notice something amiss if you went back to playing NHL 11.
There are also additions to real-time simulative events that will make you scratch your head, if notice them. For example, nets sometimes become detached from the goal pipes. That'll look cool in an instant replay, but we've long had goals coming off their moorings during frenetic play in the crease. How much more mayhem around the goal do we need? How much more will we notice while actually playing? In NHL 14 or 15, will the nylon fibers of the net sometimes fray ever so slightly over the course of a match?
Some of these enhancements to EA's NHL franchise must be born of the developers challenging themselves to make the game look and behave as much like the real world as humanly possible, whether or not the franchise's fans can tell the difference. No doubt, this brand of self-motivation makes for great game developers, yet I can't help but wish that some of this enthusiasm and obsessive attention to detail were channeled into stunningly fantastic, revolutionary features or modes. I have no idea what these could be, but I'm not a hockey simulation developer.
One example of EA Canada's tightly focused nitpicking of its own game is something a lot of franchise fans won't even notice. However, I'm notoriously bad at face-offs, so it immediately caught my eye. In NHL 12, though I'm no more skilled at grabbing the puck, my results seem more balanced against AI-controlled opponents by face-off stats; they're less reliant on my weak skills at capturing the puck from the drop. There also seemed to be more pitched battles and tight wrangles for control of the puck than in previous versions of the game. Occasionally, the two opposing players taking the face-off duke it out pretty well over puck control. In earlier games, face-offs were more either-or propositions: Either you directly passed the puck to a teammate, or the other guy did; there was nothing in between.
Another fine trait of EA Canada's design pros: Whether you're the kind of sports gamer who'll be spend eight hours a day with NHL 12 or eight hours a month in Play Now, you're not given short shrift. There's a lot here, as usual. You can build EA Ultimate Hockey League teams and play as a team GM. You can try out the new Winter Classic event or the less-than-spectacular Be A Legend mode. You can improve your Be A Pro player, taking advantage of enhanced CHL play and more realistic, but still flexible, player shift control. Whether you dive deep or wade in the shallow end, it's a fun, engaging sports simulation.
Like last year, graphically, the game looks great, from any camera angle and in instant replays. Presentation has been enhanced with more authentic game-opening sequences. Arena- and team-specific effects and high-tech showmanship have been added into the TV-style introductions.
Again like last year, the licensed pop/rock soundtrack is good; it's perhaps a bit better and more evenly balanced for a greater variety of musical tastes. (Somebody tell me why ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" keeps turning up in everything I've played or watched this summer.) Sound effects are, as expected, realistic and pleasing, too. However, the downside of being king of the world is that when your crown is a tiny bit askew, people will notice. There are some significant audio dropouts between scene shifts. They're very similar to the dropouts I discovered reviewing Madden NFL 12, but I think even more frequent and annoying in NHL 12. These don't affect gameplay, but it's a notable flaw in an otherwise excellent audio production in a game that prides itself on presentation.
The broadcast announcers, while still largely context-appropriate, say some goofier things than last year, like, "Up by two goals and it's only the third period." There are only three periods in an ice hockey match, so the use of "only" makes it sound like being up by a couple of goals in the sixth period of an NHL match is so very, very run-of-the-mill.
Online team and versus play modes via Xbox Live are smooth, easy to jump into, and almost entirely free of lag, slowdown, frame skipping and other networked gaming hobgoblins. The only hiccups I detected were when I willingly connected to versus opponents displaying lower connection quality indicators, and even then, the issues were few. Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) gameplay has some nice integration with the new EA Season Ticket service, but you have to pay extra for the Season Ticket subscription. With so many good games, meager spare time and even less mad money, it's only worth it if you're the kind of hockey fan who pays his or her television programming provider hundreds of dollars for the premium, all-inclusive NHL season packages.
NHL 12 is a very good hockey simulation offering a full year of up-to-date sports gaming. Certainly, there's nothing here to put anyone off the series. Lamentably, there's not anything to convert pro hockey simulation abstainers to the fold, either. The game is incrementally better than last year's game, but this year, like no other since EA remade NHL into a top-tier sports franchise, I'm starting to sense a pall of ennui descending over the experience. Soon I'd like to see EA Canada take some bold steps, courageously facing the risks involved. Go ahead, break the game and tear it apart. It's only one year. You can always roll it back in the next revision to the stable, if staid, game we have today.
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