Beyond a shadow of a doubt this has been one of the worst summers ever for the hockey community. Over forty players, coaches and staff have lost their lives in this tragic off-season, a mark that will surely be felt in the tight-knit hockey world for years to come. So before I get into this review I would like to invite all our readers to spare a thought for Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL team, all of whom had their lives cut short much, much too soon and also to wish the sole survivor of that horrible plane crash a speedy recovery.
The leaves are turning orange, the air is getting crisper and the kids are, begrudgingly, making their way back to school. Yep, it’s a great time of year for everyone (well, maybe except for the aforementioned students) as, soon, the ponds will freeze, the skates will be sharpened and once the again aforementioned students are finally let out of algebra class to head down to those frozen waterways and indulge in the national pastime for those of us up north, only stopping to come inside to watch their favourite team take on their least. Yes, hockey is back, and it’s bigger and better than ever.
Now, I’m in my third season reviewing the NHL series from EA Sports and I'm definitely not a rookie when it comes to the game of digital hockey, so if there's one thing I’ve noticed over the past few years it's that these games have found a way to consistently get better without ever changing much. The graphics are largely unchanged. The gameplay arguably remains the same. And all the bells and whistles you would expect from a top tier sports game are there. So what is it that makes NHL 12 the best hockey experience in recent memory?
As I mentioned before, the core gameplay in NHL 12 remains largely unchanged from past seasons. The major differences come in the form of gameplay tweaks and new modes. For starters, the position of goaltender has now become a whole lot nastier. Goalies will now knock players out of their crease and even drop their mitts if they feel so inclined, which definitely adds to the realism of the experience, although I wish it wouldn't happen so often. Speaking of realism, EA Sports has gone a long way to ensure that 2012 is the most life-like hockey sim to date. In addition of the goalie’s new found attitude, players can now be instructed to stand in front of the net to form a screen.
Other smaller, but nonetheless important changes include a puck that is no longer magnetically drawn to the nearest player, forcing you to make precise passes and take accurate shots. Additionally, the computer’s A.I. has been greatly improved. No longer will your teammates just stand around waiting for you to carry the play - now they will jump into the play, set up screens and forecheck, all based on their real-life personalities. One very nice addition is the new player characteristics index, which gives all the players in the game attributes based on their real-life skills. So if someone has a booming slapshot on the ice, his virtual avatar will have an equally big shot on the virtual ice. It’s a combination of all these little improvements and touches that really make NHL 12 feel like a whole new game from the one we were all playing just one year ago. Couple this with the tried and true gameplay that the series has become known for and you have one of the tightest, most realistic sports simulations across the board.
New to the series is the ‘Be a Legend’ mode, which allows you to play as some of the greatest men to have ever put on a pair of skates, which may seem like a good idea on paper, but in reality it's a rather shallow experience. Sure, stepping into the shoes of Wayne Gretzky and taking on the new Winnipeg Jets may seem like a good idea, but the whole mode just feels so... boring. It basically removes all challenge when you can skate around the ice as a player with maxed-out stats, easily finding a way to put the puck behind the goalie.
Thankfully NHL 12’s other new mode - the 24/7 Ultimate League - is a blast to play. On the surface it may seem like just another card trading fantasy league, but it distinguishes itself in that now you can pit your card collection of players against others in online fantasy games. This allows you to earn more cards and continue to build your line-up. The game even gives you the option to play against someone ranked in the top 100 worldwide, to see if you are as good as you keep telling everyone.
Now, if all these new fangled modes aren’t your cup of tea, the game still features its in-depth ‘Be a Pro’ mode, which lets you start from the junior ranks and work your way up to NHL superstar. The ‘Be a GM’ mode is also back for another go, bringing with it the most in-depth manager simulation mode to be found. Add to this the standard fare of modes like shootouts, practices, seasons, playoffs and the new addition of the Winter Classic on top of a slew of online options and you have one of the most complete and in-depth sports games of all time.
NHL 12’s presentation has received a slight overhaul from the previous instalments. This time, the game has been designed to be as close as possible to the actual television presentation. With cut-away graphics, TV timeout breaks between periods and even in-depth player by player in-game analysis. This focus on realism extends to the small details as well, as helmets will go flying after a big hit and the players sitting on the bench will actually be the next players going on the ice, not just fake cardboard stand-ins.
While these changes go a long way to help make NHL 12 feel much more like the real deal, it’s clear that the graphics are only slightly improved over NHL 10 and 11 which, while still very nice and detailed, in the present day are starting to show their age. But the charm in any NHL game is that the sum of all its parts - the graphics, the atmosphere, the small details - all come together so masterfully to make a game that feels (almost) like actually being in an NHL arena (well, any of the ones north of the border at least).
Year after year, the NHL series has always excelled in the sound department, and 2012’s edition is certainly no exception. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return once again to deliver their world class color commentary which features the most varied dialogue of any game in the series to date, so you will rarely hear the same phrase repeated more than a few times in a game. The in-game sound effects are also well made, making you feel like you are actually standing at center ice alongside Sid the Kid and Alex the great.
There is, however, one issue I had with the sound design in NHL 12 and it lies with the game’s soundtrack. This year’s soundtrack is a bit on the short side. It may sound like an issue of personal taste, rather than an objective problem with the game itself, but I did find that the tracks, while head-bangingly heavy, aren’t as good as those in years past. Maybe my dad was right, maybe rock music is getting worse and worse.
As far as sports games go, you would be hard pressed to find one more jam-packed with content than NHL 12. The sheer number of modes that the game offers means that there's more than enough to ensure that the game will keep you busy while you wait for NHL 13 release, and the ‘Be a Pro’, ‘Be a GM’ and ‘24/7 Ultimate League’ options will keep you coming back for more and more. Add to this the staggering number of teams that you can play as (from the junior ranks, to the professional leagues, the NHL and international leagues), as well as the fact that you can create your own players and teams, and you are left with a game that has more content than you could possibly experience.
I know I have been saying it all through this review but NHL 12 delivers the most complete sports simulation game in existence. Everything is here; from gameplay and modes that can truly consume all your time, to the sheer fun of just picking up a couple of controllers and going head to head with a friend. It is impossible to find a more robust and fun sports game. The graphics could use a minor upgrade and the ‘Be a Legend’ mode is pretty much just filler, but NHL 12 is still one of the best sports games of all time.