Review: NHL 12 (PS3)

Title: NHL 12
Format: Blu-ray Disc
Release Date: September 13, 2011
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: E10+

Gameplay:
So what’s really changed this year and is it worth the annual upgrade? I’ve mentioned several times on the podcast that EA sent along a seventeen page document detailing the changes and updates for this edition and there’s a mix of subtle and not so subtle changes.

Here’s what stood out to me while playing the actual game. Right off the bat you’re dropped into the Winter Classic at Heinz Field between the Penguins and Capitals. They really nailed the atmosphere with the lighting, snow falling and even players breath. Unfortunately, this is a stand alone part of the game and it’s not integrated into the season or franchise modes no matter which team you pick.

The physics engine has been refined and everything on the ice is live now. What does that mean? Well goalies now have to deal with traffic in front of the net like never before. While playing as a goalie, you have to establish position against players that won’t move out of your way. The puck is much more true to life as well, rolling on end, coming off the stick of a careless player and more realistic rebounds off of goalie pads and blockers. Nets will come off the moorings just like the real thing, players can be dumped over the boards, glass can be shattered, players on the bench react to pucks and players coming their way and more.

Just having the Winter Classic is a great start... but I want more

The AI has been improved to give you more realistic teammates. I’ve actually watched them drag a toe to stay onside when coming into the zone. They’ll skate into passes (most of the time) instead of just watching them go by. You can even get a pretty good cycling game going down low. Your defenders now push and shove forwards away from the front of the net in a more dynamic and realistic way. It all looks and feels great. The developers at EA Canada have put together some fine improvements this year to make (once again) the most realistic game of hockey available.

One other great addition this year is the Action Tracker. You no longer have to pause in the middle of the game to grab a screenshot or video of that amazing shot or save. Every single shot and goal are tracked and made available in the menu between periods or when you pause at any point. You can pick any shot and see an immediate replay of it in the Action Tracker window. If you want to use it, you can then go into the Replay menu where you have all the standard replay and screenshot options. It’s a tremendous addition that really helps keep you in the game without having to worry about grabbing that last replay.

That’s not to say everything’s perfect. You’ll still get sticks that pass right through players legs and bodies at times. Every now and then your AI teammates will turn away from the play for no reason. For the most part though, any negatives in gameplay tend to be few and far between.

Dump a guy over the boards and watch his teammates duck

Be A Pro mode has been tweaked so you can now play a full career starting as young as 15 in the Canadian Hockey League. Create your player, pick a team and you’re on your way. New this year is the ability to create a female character at any position if you want. It’s a pretty cool idea since there’s nothing explicitly in the NHL rules stating that a woman can’t play. If they ever did break in to the game it would most likely be in goal since agility and reflexes are usually more important here than size. In fact, Manon Rheaume had a career as a goalie with stints in the IHL and ECHL and played in two pre-season games for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and 1993, so it is possible.

If you don’t want to spend all that time in Juniors, you can jump right to the draft or just pick a team and start your career there. It would seem that EA Canada has been playing a lot of MLB The Show since they’ve added in some tweaks to Be A Pro that seem very familiar. Don’t worry, they’re all for the better.

When you’re on the bench between shifts, the coach can give you more specific goals to attain during the game. My coach wanted me to play a puck possession game, keeping it away from the other team as much as possible. It adds another dimension to the game as you’ll have a coach on the bench giving you clear instructions and you’ll be rewarded for them with XP at the end of the game. You can also skip ahead to you next shift in two different ways, seeing a text play by play or just a quick jump. It’s a nice touch and can help you move through your career a bit quicker while always keeping you in the action.

JR is back with the Sharks in Be A Legend mode

A new Be A Legend mode has been added as well which is essentially Be A Pro with actual hockey legends including Roenick, Bourque, Chelios, Lemieux, Gretzky, Howe and more. The only downside is that Roenick is the only player unlocked at the start. To play as the rest of them, you’ll need to attain Legends Milestones in your Be A Pro career, which is no small feat. Essentially, you’ll have to beat the real life records of many of the Legends to unlock them, ugh. If you happen to play most of the time as a goalie, you’re out of luck because there’s no goalie that will ever score even 10 goals in a season, let alone 92. I’m guessing at some point all these players will be available for purchase on the PSN store. For now, you’ll have to be content with playing a quick game as the Legends Team and matching them up against one team at a time.

Outside of the created player modes, you can still play a one off Season, but if you want more, you’ll have to be content with the Be A GM Mode and all that comes with it. Changes have been made to make things more realistic during simulations. According to the booklet I received, among other things, the simulation engine takes into account all the statistics of every player on the ice to determine whether they’ll pass or shoot, wrist shot/slap shot, left or right handed, zone targeted on goal, quality of defenders and whether they’ll harass or block, quality and skills of goalie and more. What it all adds up to is more realistic simulations based on the players and line combinations you set for the game, and it shows.

As the GM, you can see player’s specific actions for a game with a search afterwards to see who’s performing and who’s not. You can track shots and goals on a net chart to see where your goalie needs more training to shore up any deficiencies. It really gets deep, but that’s where my problem lies. It’s an incredible set of tools that you’re given to run an entire team from the draft through the playoffs, but for someone like me, it’s a bit too much. I’d love to have more control over what I’ll take care of and what the computer can take care of. Either that or give me back the simple Franchise Mode where I don’t have to worry about every little detail and I can go back to playing as my favorite team in a multi-year quest for the Cup.

A broken stick can wreak havoc on your shot

Visuals:
With a new version coming out every year it’s the details that matter and the details here are better than last year. When the players move to the bench after warmups you’ll always get the same camera angle, but never the same players, and it makes a difference. You can see the stitching in the names and numbers on the jerseys. Details, details, details.

Snow on the ice in the Winter Classic, sticks breaking, goalies sprawling for desperation saves, it’s all here. Taking another page from MLB The Show, the scoreboards are live, reflecting the score, shots, penalties and time left in the period. It’s one more small touch adding to the atmosphere.

The Legends players stand out as well with Gretzky, Lemieux and Gordie Howe all instantly recognizable. Player faces have more detail overall and look better than last year. When you create a player you have a ton of choices with your equipment. Real skates, gloves, helmets and sticks each with a unique style let you make the player your own. It’s all in the details and NHL 12 gets it right.

Just like last year’s review, every screenshot you see here was taken directly from my own gameplay so take a look at the full size shots in the gallery at the end and judge for yourself.

Gretzky's looking for Gordie Howe down low.

Audio:
While there is some new dialogue in the commentary, too much gets recycled which brings things down a bit. You still have the ability to customize your music experience on a granular level which is awesome but a bit tedious. It’s also proved to be a bit buggy for me this year. At times the game will start up with no music at all and when I go to the Media area to fix it, the whole PS3 will lock up.

You can import your general settings this year but not the custom soundtrack settings. This is something I’d like to see changed. With entire websites dedicated to collecting and distributing mp3 files of every team’s authentic entry song, home goal song, goal horn and more, a lot of people are putting a lot of time into getting things set just right… and then they have to do it all over again next year.

The general sounds around the ice are, as always, spot on. The sounds of skates, sticks, bodies crunching into the boards, pucks booming off of goalie’s pads, everything you’d expect at a real hockey game, even the chatter between players. Crowd noise and arena announcers all sound great and your imported music is even tweaked to sound like it’s playing in the large arenas during stoppages. This is something they’ve always gotten right with the NHL series and this year doesn’t disappoint.

That's right, Whalers-Jets baby! Relive the glory of the 80's

Online/Multiplayer:
The Hockey Ultimate Team mode is back again, and why wouldn’t it be? As another potential revenue stream for EA, don’t expect this mode to go away anytime soon. Improvements have been made here with the ability to play friendly matches that don’t count against your player’s short careers. You can also create and save up to 15 different lineups which can be pulled out depending on your opponent. The other big addition is called EAUHL 24/7. When playing, you can pull 4 different user teams from the servers, 3 in your general team skill range and one in the top 100 teams, you’ll also be awarded league currency in the form of pucks if you make your own team available for download. All great additions but still not a mode for me.

The other big online mode is the EA Sports Hockey League. You can create a team, recruit players, practice and take to the ice in full 6 on 6 play. Each season lasts a month and includes playoffs for amateur, pro and elite divisions. One of the most important changes this year is the ability to create five distinct players, a center, left and right wings, defenseman and goalie. Each are fully customizable as their own individual player with unique styles and equipment. Change the length of the skate blades for better acceleration or agility, change the curve of your stick blade for better accuracy or a heavier shot. You’re no longer stuck with the defensive defenseman and all the skills you built up for him to fit into that role being dropped into a game as a center because all the other slots were taken. It makes a huge difference, allowing you to choose several different play styles and grow each of the players as you play.

It’s great to use the Drop In feature to join a quick game and build up each of your players. Team creators can check your stats in the Pause Menu to see what kind of a player you are and whether they might want to recruit you for their team. It all lends itself to a great experience. Every game I played ran smooth as silk whether it was four human controlled players or the full twelve. It’s been a real treat and I’m going to be spending a lot more time in the EASHL games than ever before.

Yup, that's Langford back there on left D at the start of a glorious career

The quick game option is still available to join a ranked or unranked match and play a simple game against one other person. Those games worked just as well with no lag or voice problems throughout all the matches I played.

If you’re looking for something quick, there’s also a Shootout Mode which pits you against another player online in a standard shootout. When you’re not shooting though, you have to play goal so you should probably get familiar with that before jumping in. It’s a quick and fun little diversion that’s nice to have.

The last new addition is called the EA Sports Arena. Included in this year’s Madden and FIFA as well and run by Virgin Gaming, you’re promised the ability to play online against friends and people from around the world for cash prizes. When you select this mode, you’re told you have to sign up with Virgin Gaming, making you leave your PS3 for the nearest PC where you’ll be required to give an email address and all of your personal info, name, address, birth date, so you can play. To win money, you’ll have to make a deposit with a credit card or PayPal and then you’re matched up head to head or in tournaments. It’s essentially a sanctioned wagering system. The only problem I have is that cheating tends to be rampant in online gaming and when you bring money into the picture, you can bet that people will do just about anything to find that edge. Virgin Gaming guarantees Fair Play with a reputation system, skill rankings and automatic result verification, but it’s just not something I’m comfortable with.

The shooter was covered so the other defenseman was looking to tie up the open man

Conclusion:
There’s enough here to keep you busy for years to come. Of course, EA is going to want you to upgrade to NHL 13 next September so they’re going to have to up their game again.

The refinements and improvements to the physics engine alone make the game a worthwhile purchase for anyone who owned NHL 11. You’ll see some differences right away, but others will take some time to notice and appreciate. It’s definitely a solid upgrade and worth the money for any NHL fan.

Score:
9.0

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  • the game is fantastic…when it actually works. i haven’t played a game as unstable as this since, well nhl 10.

    • Huh?  The game has been rock solid for me in all modes online and off.

      • Every other game of be a pro has frozen on me and all my friends. We’ve have similar experiences with the EASHL. It would just randomly freeze mid game for half of us while the rest of the team would keep going. 

        They’ve released two patches already but neither has solved this issue. Reading around the internet it appears to be a problem that is running rampant on the PS3 version of the game.

        • That’s the first time I’ve heard that.  My entire experience with the game online and off has been awesome.  I’ve also played a few people on my friends list that never brought this up.  I’ll have to research this a bit.  I wonder why it’s affecting some PS3 users and not others.

  • Great review, I just had a question: The last NHL I got really deep into was NHL 09. How does the online lag on NHL 11 compare to NHL 09?

    • Its vastly improved in that department. I have some pretty slow internet, varies from 3 to 5 mbps, and in previous years games i would get lag in the EASHL every now and then especially in NHL 09 and 10. So far through about 70 games in the EASHL I’ve been virtually lag free. Versus play has been the same results. 

      I guess I should also note that I do play with a wired connection.

      • I’d agree with that.  Connections for my online games have been solid with good voice chat and no lag.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm even though you sell the game well.  I’m still convinced that an upgrade every 3 years gets you the best bang for your buck.  So I have one more year to go 🙂

    • A good choice.  I have to say, each game I play leaves me more and more impressed with the physics.  It just feels so much like a real hockey game.  They still have room for refinements and improvements but I’m absolutely thrilled with what the game is this year.

      I have a laundry list of things I’d like to see in next year’s edition and I’m hoping some, if not all, get implemented.

      • I just want them to add college hockey to the game. Let me be a pro by starting my career in the NCAA or the Swedish League. Ok so to things I want them to add. haha

        Also the GM mode is in need of another overhaul. I know they changed the sim engine this year but all the other stuff needs to be redone as well. I mean the whole concept that I somehow for whatever reason lose a phone because I don’t make any trades on draft day is baffling. Or when I lose a phone for declining the CPU’s awful trade proposals. Also why am I always losing phones in the first place? Am I an irresponsible person? Does the owner get angry at me for spending too much of his money and cancels my phone service? 

        • Wow, i hadn’t ever thought of college hockey! That’s an awesome idea! But I think if EA ever implemented NCAA hockey, it would be a whole new game.