It's pretty remarkable that year after year, the EA Sports NHL series finds ways to innovate and take the franchise to new levels of ice hockey realism. Even though this year the game runs totally unopposed by any other hockey game, NHL 12 makes improvements across the board, both in gameplay and modes.
Plenty of noticeable tweaks have been implemented into NHL 12's gameplay, which add to the title's overall sense of NHL realism. Goalies are now live within the context of the game, meaning they can be bumped and interfered with. Overall CPU player positioning has drastically been improved, which all but eliminates unnecessary off-sides calls due to out of position computer-controlled players. Wingers and defensemen skate logical tracks up and down the ice and are usually in the right spot to anticipate a rebound or one-time pass.
In addition, there are handfuls of aesthetic tweaks to the game. Nets can come off their moorings, players can get checked into team benches, and the full-contact physics engine has been retooled to react appropriately to players of all different strengths and sizes. Player face re-creations also seem more accurate this year.
NHL 12 also marks a significant tweaking to the overall physics of the puck in game. No longer does the puck seem to unnaturally hover like in years past. Instead it now rolls on end, pops in and out of the net organically, and overall has a much more realistic presence. Fans familiar with the franchise will also notice that game speed has been increased just a bit from NHL 11.
In terms of game modes, NHL 12 delivers an impressive package. First off, players can now take their favorite team to the Winter Classic, a new NHL tradition that hosts an outdoor game each year on January 1. Honoring 2011's Winter Classic, players can skate outdoors at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Another major component introduced in NHL 12 is the Legends mode. Players can now play as some of hockey's greatest athletes including Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe. In the Be a Legend mode, players can follow these NHL legends from the start of their careers, and even place them on the team of their choice.
Modes like Be a Pro and Be a GM have been significantly updated, too, and now include a totally revamped simulation engine. The Ultimate Hockey League mode will give players a chance to create their own fantasy team and compete online in various seasons.
There are, however, a few items that may want to be looked at for NHL 13. Some loading instances continue to dampen the overall experience and need addressing. The start screen and other menus are notorious for hanging in addition to entering instant replay mode (as we experienced playing on Xbox 360). For whatever reason, the instant replay interface loads up quickly, but doesn't give the user control for around 15 seconds. Speaking of replays, in-game instant replays aren't always contextually appropriate, but we did like the ability to quickly cycle through big moment replays in the pause screen thanks to the new Action Tracker set of features.
Perhaps it's also time to re-examine the voice of the NHL series. It's impossible to overlook what Gary Thorne has done for the EA franchise--let alone the sport of hockey in general. But while his voice is an iconic hockey staple, it's also a bit dated in terms of relevancy to the sport in its current state. While Thorne continues working with the Frozen Four tournament, his play-by-play recalls a time when the NHL was on ESPN, which it no longer is. Furthermore, it doesn't appear that his commentary track has changed or updated much in a few seasons. Maybe it's time for EA Sports to recognize the evolution of the game and embrace someone like Mike "Doc" Emerick, a veteran announcer who handles almost all of NBC's NHL coverage and has earned the title as the "voice of hockey" in the U.S.
Even when faced with zero adversity by way of competition, the EA Canada team continues to push forward. For a game that deals with plenty of its own adversity in the world of professional sports, it's comforting to know that its video game counterpart is at an almost untouchable level.