Blazing Across Familiar Ice – NHL12 Review
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
Skating around the rink is EA Games’ most recent title in the popular NHL franchise. Celebrating the series’ 20th anniversary, NHL 12 provides a plethora of new or enhanced features, but is it enough to let it stand out from last year’s title?
My first crack at NHL 12 was, well, a little overwhelming. After being prompted to input a code to activate online components, I was brought to the main menu. From here, I took the time to browse through the in-game instruction manual and look over the large number of game modes. One hour and a headache later, I was familiar with at least some of the game’s offerings. The amount of content packed onto the disc is borderline crazy, so any type of hockey fan, be they casual or hardcore, will have something to keep them interested.
Gametypes span from the usual simple modes to more advanced, longer types. There are single matches such as season plays, tournaments and simple shootouts, each with an online version so you can take on friends or strangers over Xbox Live or PSN. Some of the more advanced modes include Be a Pro, Be a GM, and the Ultimate Hockey Team, which allows you to create your own team to compete in monthly online tournaments against other players world-wide. One may also relive the 2011 Winter Classic, portraying either Pittsburgh or Washington, or create custom teams should you desire to live out your own outdoor hockey fantasy. Among my personal favourites were Be a Pro and Be a GM, but I’ll talk about them a little later.
After sifting through the mountains of selections, I opted for a quick single play. This led to an array of options, such as: home and away teams, which team to play for, which jersey to wear for each team, and a various difficulty options. The difficulty settings include the A.I.’s learning ability, shooting aim assists, and period lengths. However, there are presets varying from Rookie (easiest) to All Star (hardest) that do most of the choices for you, in case you just want to get into play. After randomizing my teams (I was Detroit against Colorado) and picking easy, I got started.
The first thing I noticed, after a conveniently short load time, was how great the game looked. The entrance cutscene sees both teams taking a warm-up skate around the ice, showing off the graphics engine. Once you start to play, it’s evident that care was put into making the game look as good as it possibly could. Players look impressive and move fluidly, with skating, shooting and contact physics (you can now make contact and fight with goalies as well) on par with their real-world counterparts. Even the audience has a degree of polish to them, physically reacting to in-game plays, which is nice to see as they’re often overlooked. However, some in-game replays seem choppy, which I noticed while watching a goal recap. It seemed as though the game attempted to use slow motion, but it just resulted in a large loss of frame-rate. Other replays have good use of slo-mo, showing your goal or save gracefully, but they’re few and far between. This takes away from an otherwise gorgeous graphic experience, and could have used some extra attention.
The audience and the rest of the game sound fantastic. The audio experience is an accurate representation of a hockey game: Fans will cheer for goals, or near misses, and hard body checks, as players are slammed into the boards with a good, solid thwack. Even the small things, like the sound of the skates on the ice, are engineered well and add to the overall realism. Play-by-play commentary is covered by ESPN’s Gary Thorne, with colour commentary provided by former NHL star, Bill Clement. All of the sounds involved help bring players into a true hockey experience.
While the game looks and sounds great, the gameplay is a little complicated. The controls are smooth and responsive, but there are a number of commands per offence, defence, and goalie positions, leading to a massive learning curve. Luckily, there is an interactive tutorial that will run you through each aspect of gameplay. Couple this with the game’s practise mode, where you can run your own custom scenarios, and you’ll be a pro in no time.
If you’re still struggling after all that, there is an option to use a control scheme called NHL94. This takes all of the controls you would normally use across the controller down to two context-sensitive buttons, with passing and character change on one button and shooting and checks on the other. This setup can be helpful to new or casual players, but at the same time it takes away from your strategic choices, pretty much playing the game for you. Once everything is figured out or settled, the game plays very well with no glitches or programming errors in sight.
The controls may be a little complicated, but when you master them, the game becomes very accessible to play, allowing you to tackle the many game modes with ease. This is where my personal favourite modes “Be a GM”, “Be a Pro”, and the new feature “Be a Legend” steal the spotlight; while they may not be creatively named, each brings something to the table.
Be a Pro allows you to create a player from the ground up, picking a position, and customizing your character. Your options include things like facial structures, skin tone, hair styles and dyes, and your gear and its own colours. After creation, you live the NHL life, or strive to by starting in the OHL, through your virtual player. Female players even have the choice of creating a woman, breaking hockey’s gender barrier, although excluding most of the above-mentioned choices. There are only two default female faces that cannot be changed. You may select an eye colour, and there ends your options. Some lady skaters may feel left out or excluded because of this. Why include a gender and then limit the amount of personal expression?
Regardless of gender choice, your character will have a certain amount of ice time per game, depending on how well you perform. For hockey newbies, there is an option to have a shadow arrow point to where you should be, based on your position on the team, if you’re unsure of how to play effectively. Play well and you’ll be first line with plenty of game time; Play poorly and you’ll be warming the bench. While on the sideline you have some choices: watch the game from your seat, have a simulated text play-by-play, or have all the events until your next playtime simulated all at once allowing you to jump right back in.
Be a Legend mode allows you to do everything mentioned above, minus the customization. The reason for this is that you play as one of many hockey legends, as though their career were in the modern-day. Initially, you can only select Jeremy Roenick, but as you reach or pass certain milestones in Be a Pro (such as completing a Gordie Howe hat trick: one goal, one assist, and one fight), you’ll unlock new ones including Wayne Gretzky and, of course, Gordie Howe. While it’s fun to play as a legend, the mode seems kind of tacked on, feeling like a rehash of Be a Pro. Perhaps making it more of a historical retelling of the legend’s career would have made the mode stand out a little better.
If the aspect of being a single player for an entire season isn’t appealing, or you’re just not one to be in the spotlight, you may play in Be a GM mode. In this gametype, you play from the eyes of a team’s General Manager, calling all of the behind-the-scene shots. This is a great mode for those who wish to partake in the business side of hockey. Your duties include things like drafting players, making trades, and making sure your team never hits bankruptcy. Also, should you deem your team incapable, you may jump in mid-game and take control of the players to help bring home a win.
When the final horn sounds, NHL 12 is a well-rounded experience offering immersion into the world of professional hockey. Controls aren’t so much an issue as deciding whether to take the time to learn the full suite or use the overly simple control scheme. A little more variation to some game modes wouldn’t hurt, but there is something for everyone. If you’re a hockey fan then this is the game for you, EA Games shoots and scores with NHL 12!
Final Score for NHL 12: 4.25 / 5.0
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