It’s time to lace up your skates and tape up your sticks, hockey season is just around the corner and as with every year, EA Sports has NHL 12 primed and ready to take the puck on a breakaway. With a new game coming every year, it leaves a lot of people wondering just how many changes can be made in such a short amount of time. With a couple of new features and improvements across the board, read on to find out if NHL 12 scores on the breakaway, or if they get stoned by the goalie.
In NHL 11, the big changes came with some upgrades to current features and a brand new feature, but in NHL 12, the majority of the changes come under the hood, with refined physics and improved AI teammates and opponents. With these new physics, you will no longer see smaller players like Martin St. Louis upending guys like Zdeno Chara, making it where Power Forwards in the game truly play powerful and smaller forwards will play more to their strengths as a quick guy who can evade contact easier. This new-found strength really comes into play with net battles, another addition in NHL 12. These net battles allow you to fight for your ice in front of the net as the attacker or defender, making scrambles in front of the net a lot more intense. The new physics also come into play with the hitting, which is much more varied this year, as I often went to hit someone, only to get knocked on my rear. You will also be able to check guys into the benches and knock off their helmets with a huge body belt. Goalies are also in the field of play as if you get too eager in crashing the net, you will often knock over the goalie and spend the next 2 minutes in hockey jail. Also added, is the ability to drag your toe at the blue line, look around on the bench, make the boards shake, and even remove the net from its moorings.
The other big addition is the much improved AI, which takes a huge step up from previous years but still makes some fairly bone-headed plays here and there. This new AI has under-the-hood signature traits that help determine how an AI-controlled player should react, like Non Physical, Set Up Man Low, and Drives the Net to name a few signature traits. Meaning if the player is an offensive defenseman, he will be more apt to join the rush, or a center with his eye on assists will look to pass, a sniper will find areas to shoot. This also comes into play with goalies, who now fight through screens to find the puck and react more realistically to rebounds off their pads. This is even more noticeable in modes where you will play as real NHL stars and see that passers want to pass the puck and shooters rarely ever pass. The computer will still frustrate you at times with their decision-making, but more often than not, they will play smart and you can actually count on them to make the right choices. AI defensemen are still the weakest link, like they were in NHL 11, as they are slow to react in many situations, such as wrap arounds or hard charges to the net.
Where this changes really show up the most is the Be a Pro mode. In this mode, players will be able to create a pro of their choice from scratch, selecting looks, stick, skates, gloves, position, and pretty much anything else you can think of. In past years you could enter the draft or select a pro team, but this year the CHL is added, letting you work up from the CHL, to AHL, and then NHL. If you don’t feel like creating your own character, you can always play as a current NHL or CHL player. When you play in this mode, you will play only as your character, taking shifts like a regular hockey player, however this time around, you are able to skip your time at the bench and pick up at your next shift. This is a much-needed feature, as it can be boring sometimes to sit on the bench and watch. After each shift you are graded on how you did, with a letter grade in Stats, Position, and Team Play. As you improve during the game, your letter grades in the area improve, or if you are on the ice for a goal, they decrease. My big issue here is that I played one game where I was out there for all 5 goals against, but scored one and assisted on two. So, instead of a middle of the road letter grade for stats, I received an A+. Adding to the depth of this mode is a new in-game task system, where coaches will give you tasks during the game that are optional to complete. These tasks can be things like do not allow a goal in the first 10 minutes or keep them away from your net. Completing these tasks will give you added experience at the end, which experience is used to upgrade stats on your player. While you move up the ranks in Be A Pro, you will unlock nine legendary players such as Wayne Gretzky and Patrick Roy. You can then play as these individuals in the Be A Legend mode, which allows you to see just how these great legends would do against the stars of today.
My biggest gripe about the improved AI in Be A Pro mode was some of their decision-making, which made me question the improved AI talk. For instance, when skipping to my next shift, the computer AI defensemen I was changing with decided to go ahead and make the line change, even though the other team had the puck in our zone, which is not a smart decision. This caused my team to be short-handed for a second and before I could make it into the play, they scored, giving me a minus for the play. Another issue I found was that while the goalies are more active in playing the pucks, they also take way too many penalties for playing the puck in the corners, something that rarely happens in real life.
Be A GM mode makes a return this year, allowing players to take the reins as an NHL General Manager, shaping and molding the team of their choice. You can make draft day trades, sign free agents, and draft your up and coming stars. However, just like previous years, AI-controlled GMs make no sense with the kind of trades they make or the players that they stick in the minors. It is really hard, as someone who likes authenticity, to love this mode as the computer GMs will make trades that don’t benefit them, yet deny trades that look like they would do both teams a solid. Add to this the fact that ageing players don’t receive much of a drop-off with their stats and new players improve immensely from year to year. What this does, it make you end up playing with teams that have 4th line players rated above 80, which shouldn’t really be the case that often, that’s why they are 4th liners. However, with a great farm management system and improved sim results that take into account your player’s signature traits and stats, this could be a mode perfect for those who like to be the boss.
We saved the best two modes for last, as the EASHL and Hockey Ultimate Team or HUT, make their returns. HUT, is a card collecting game where you start out as a rather weak team and, through your wins, you can earn EA Pucks (currency) to buy new cards, ability boots, and contract lengths to improve your team. The big key in this mode is to build your team chemistry and create not just a winning team, but one that has great teamwork. This year it is now easier to match off against your friends in HUT and a new position card allows you to change one of your overstocked but good LW players into a much-needed RW. Also new this year is a EAUHL 24/7 mode, where you will download 4 teams, with 1 being a top 100 to play offline. Multiple lineups and stars of the week are also added this year, giving players up to 15 different lineups to create for just the right game and stars of the week will provide improved versions of real life players every week.
The EASHL is an online mode where user-created teams can face off against each other, work their way up to higher leagues, and compete in playoffs. Seasons last a month in this mode and then a playoff if you qualify.This mode sees a mammoth boost with the ability to now have a skill set configured for every position on the ice, meaning that if your team needs a RW for the game and you usually play D, then you can easily switch to your defenseman build instead of rebuilding your character. In this mode there are still 6 main cards that you are trying to unlock; Amateur, Rookie, Pro, Veteran, Super Star, and Legend. However with this year, EA Sports has added 3 ranks for each level, such as Amateur 1, 2, and 3, giving players a total of 18 levels. This new addition makes it easier to see results quicker as with each rank, you gain XP, meaning more chances to improve your player.
NHL 12 didn’t add much in the way of new modes but it really is the tiny things added that make the biggest difference. The new improved AI still has its issues but really shines when you see a computer forward coming hard at a computer defenseman who has gone back behind his net to get a dump in. No longer do the computer players allow you to freely skate out of your zone, they now attack you behind the net and force you to work your way out of danger with smarts and poise. Presentation also sees a huge boost this time around, with all new team intros featuring authentic props and effects, and the ability to now view almost any replay from the game at anytime during the game. If you want to check out the hits from the first period, just pause the game and navigate to the first period hits and watch them all unfold. In-game replays are also added, where the announcers will highlight a player who is having a good game midway through, with a highlight reel of his hits, goals, and assists for the game. Heck, even the Jumbotrons received a major update, now posting live totals of the shots and hits during the game.
The new full contact physics engine, improved AI, and Dynamic Goalies will give players a more complete NHL experience, and one that can be enjoyed finally with the computer, though the computer AI is still not where it could be. However, the game is not without its faults. AI-controlled players still make a few too many bone-headed plays, there are still issues with mics in online play for the 4th year in a row, and the game still freezes a few times too many. In the end though, this is a hockey game that you will not regret picking up if you are a fan of the sport, and one that makes solid improvements to the core gameplay. If you are a sports fan and even remotely interested in what hockey can offer, you can’t go wrong with NHL 12.
PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score
+/-AI Takes a Big Leap Forward, but Still Stumbles at Parts
+/-Be A Pro improves again, while Be A GM and Be A Legend could use more tweaking