Admittedly, it has been a while -- like, a couple of years -- since I last sat down with EA’s NHL series, so I was a bit nervous that I might make a fool of myself when I got my hands on NHL 12 at EA’s Summer Showcase. After getting into a game, however, I was rather surprised to find a lot of the core tenets from EA’s critically well-received series were still in place, and the game felt rather familiar.
While that may read as an indictment on the game, the series hasn’t been almost universally praised for several years now without reason, and the reason is that the core gameplay is strong, allowing the team to work on more minor tweaks between iterations, with the aim of delivering a more realistic NHL experience.
NHL 12 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed])
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
To be released: September 13, 2011
Naturally, I picked up the game and donned the uniforms of my local San Jose Sharks, leaving a fellow attendee to pick the Detroit Red Wings. The ensuing game was a bit more anticlimactic than the matchup sounded, however. It ended up somewhere between an exercise in futility and a nail-biting thriller, as we both proved rather inept on offense, though each of us made a handful of rather exciting plays on goal. In typical Sharks fashion -- that is, disappointing me -- I (Niemi) let up the only goal of the game with 30 seconds to go, eliciting cries of elation from my opponent and a bit of surprise from the crowd of one that was watching our game.
While a number of gameplay tweaks have been made -- 300, according to NHL producer Sean Ramjagsingh -- anyone who has played the NHL series before should know what to expect, which is a hockey game with a lot of depth and complexity that’s also simple enough to not be too intimidating right off the bat.
The biggest point that was emphasized regarding NHL 12 is its hat-trick of gameplay improvements: Anticipation AI, Dynamic Goalies, and Full Contact Physics. Anticipation AI is aimed to have players react dynamically to what is happening in the game. For example, if the puck is going to change possession, the AI recognizes this change before their teammates actually take control of the puck, thereby eliminating the wasted time in transition from defense to offense.
An extra wrinkle to this system is that players with certain tendencies are supposed to react in different ways. For example, when a loose puck is about to come into his team’s possession, Alexander Ovechkin will break away and try to put himself in prime scoring position.
Dynamic Goalies represents the removal of goalies as stalwart, immovable forces. Goalies are now fair game to be knocked around -- you can even knock their masks off -- and the net can be dislodged. So, knock the mask off Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas’s face and don’t like the look of it? Well, go shove him around. More importantly, goalies will defend the net more realistically, which should include covering angles better and making desperation flails on shots they don’t have a chance at, which could lead to some exhilarating, close saves.
The Full Contact Physics Engine is meant to give appropriate weight to players. In past NHL games, a hit would result in a fall, in a direct, causal relationship. In NHL 12, however, a “balance control system” has been implemented, by which a good skater like Sidney Crosby is better able to maintain his balance on a drive in through heavy traffic and towards a guarded net, allowing him a chance to get a shot off. Similarly, small players attempting to deliver a crushing blow to a player that has 80 pounds on them might actually knock themselves off balance, and bigger, stronger players are more effective at clearing and dominating the area in front of the net.
One other notable change to the game is its revamped Be a Pro mode. “What we found out in [NHL] 09 was that sitting on the bench and watching the AI versus the AI wasn’t a fun experience, which is why most people put themselves back out on the ice, giving them unrealistic ice time,” Ramjagsingh admits.
“So this year the whole concept is ‘earn your ice time.’ So, basically, you’re given tasks and the better your play, the more ice time you get.” Additionally, if you’re not playing particularly well, you can now fast-forward to your next shift, at which point the game will update you with the current situation of the game and then put you back on the ice, eliminating time spent watching AI play.
While I wasn’t able to gauge the full of effect of these supposedly key gameplay additions during my brief hands-on time with the game (I did watch Niemi’s mask pop off at one point, though), they sound good in theory, and the strong core gameplay remains. It may not be the dramatic evolution that some fans of the series are hoping for, but NHL 12 is looking like it will be strong, refined iteration of the consistently well-executed series.