NHL 12 is great. This assertion is not the result of any big, game-changing feature introduced in this, the 20th iteration of EA's hockey franchise. Nor does it stem from some long-ignored element finally getting its proper due this time around. Rather, NHL 12's success comes from a million little things all coming together at once. The minor tweaks, basic adjustments, and new features all come together into a play experience that is wonderfully competitive, perhaps more so than any other hockey game before it. This is no big leap forward for the franchise, mind you--comparatively, it's almost less of a leap over NHL 10 than NHL 11 was--but for those who just want to tool around with their favorite franchise, build up a pro of their own design, and hop online against the masses of like-minded players, NHL 12 shan't disappoint.
Again, where NHL 12 shines brightest is on the ice. The biggest change you are likely to notice over NHL 11 is in pertinence to goalies. Once built as monolithic, immobile beasts you couldn't cut through with a burning saber, goalies now behave as real players do. They can be pushed out of the net, they can be crashed into, and my lord, they can even be fought with. They're human beings now, with all the encumbrances that sudden mortal status entails. Much of this has to do with the new "full contact physics engine." While that sounds like a meaningless marketing buzz term, there is an appreciable difference in how players move and interact on the ice this year. Pinning players to the boards, engaging in tight battles in front of the net with agitated defensemen, and yes, again, crashing that infernal goalie actually feels realistic, and damn good as well.
Another change involves player styles and roles. Let's face it: these games have always lived and died by their playmakers. The power forwards, grinders, and other lumbering puck jockeys not specifically tuned toward scoring plays have never been as useful as they are in real life. Now, subtle AI tweaks have fixed a lot of that. Offensive defensemen will push closer to the net and do their best to stay in position for a one-timer. Power forwards will make it a point to stay in front of the net and challenge defenders in order to pick up rebounds and garbage goals. Essentially, it's the way it ought to be.
While this does fix a lot of the stiffer, more robotic issues that sometimes permeated previous NHL titles, it also has occasional flaws, especially with scoring. The shot stick mechanics are as tight as ever--though stick-based faceoff mechanics need some fine tuning--but some of the AI behaviors occasionally break down into predictable patterns that can be exploited, especially when it comes to scoring chances. The wraparound goal is one that borders on Madden Money Play territory. It ain't a 100% guarantee, but all it usually takes is one d-man a hair out of place to put an easy wraparound past a bewildered goalie. Getting past that defense can still be a challenge, hence why it's not quite a money play, but goalies just don't seem quite as adept at defending against that far side wraparound shot. I also found it a tad too easy to just blatantly interfere with goaltenders, and also that my defenders would take a lot of really boneheaded interference penalties for no good reason. It's one of those balance tweaks that, hopefully, EA will fix up somewhere down the line.
One other mechanical tweak EA made is to fighting. This is one of those sticky wickets that hockey games have never successfully tackled, and while this year's version of it isn't perfect, it feels tighter, and more reasonable than any game that's tried before. Strangely, this is one of those features I discovered largely on accident, as it's not really promoted anywhere in the game outside of a brief tutorial. That said, considering the sheer volume of hockey enforcers that have been found dead this past summer, perhaps EA can be forgiven for not wanting to make a big deal out of this.
The on-ice presentation is tighter, too. EA hasn't quite reached the sort of indecipherable comparative broadcast quality that 2K Sports has with its NBA series, and the commentary is, by and large, pretty similar to last year's NHL game. That said, the overall tightness of that commentary, the addition of streak call-outs by the announcers, and other minor tweaks here and there make this one of the better attempts at a broadcast style of presentation EA has ever put together. It's certainly several cuts above Madden, to be sure.
Another thing NHL has always done much, much better than Madden is the notion of player creation. NHL's Be a Pro mode has typically been a shining beacon of how to do this kind of thing right, versus the relatively dull, passionless efforts of the Madden series. Changes to this year's mode are slight, but generally good. Mostly, the mode has been tweaked in such a way as to help avoid any moments of idling. You can opt to sim through any on-ice action not involving your created player, ensuring you don't sit around, waiting for the coach to call your number. The weird trade-off for that is that now, apparently all Be a Pro games are simulated to 20 minutes in real time (or, at least, I couldn't figure out how to change that setting in the game's admittedly sometimes befuddling, ill-explained interface), meaning you're still going to have to dedicate a fair amount of time to each game, especially if you're a top line player.
Be a Pro also has something of an offshoot mode this year, a mode called "Be a Legend" where you can, for some reason, play as one of the great aged ones of hockey lore like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Jeremy Roenick. That's a fine idea in theory, except that the game opts to include these guys in the laziest way imaginable, essentially making them into Be a Pro defaults that can be plopped onto existing modern teams to "see how they fare in the modern NHL." Guess what? Wayne Gretzky can still play hockey pretty well. Now that that mystery has been solved, can we maybe try a little harder next time? Again, one thing 2K Sports has always handled well is its treatment of classic players, including this year's NBA addition of full classic teams and rivalry match-ups. Hockey, more than any other sport, is as much about the play of the team's supporting players as it is its superstars. Full, classic rosters and rivalries would mean a hell of a lot more than seeing how Jeremy Roenick would fare as the top line center of the Minnesota Wild.
Perhaps I have overemphasized the importance of this feature in the grand scheme of things, but I only do so in absence of any other real mode or feature additions of value. The Winter Classic, the outdoor game that the NHL has done a very good job of convincing us all is the greatest thing to happen to the sport in the history of ever (it's cool, but come on) is finally included, though only last year's game at Heinz Field is here. Be a GM mode feels largely untouched from last year, warts and all. Yes, it's still lots of fun to manage your franchise, but it'd be great if EA Canada could take some time to finally bring this interface together into something that doesn't feel laborious when trying to manage the most base-level details of the team. Same goes for the online modes, which are almost a carbon copy of last year's selection, with only minimal tweaks to anything on offer. There is also the Ultimate Team mode, which is still the Ultimate Team mode. Into card-trading, random chance, and microtransactions? This is absolutely the mode for you.
That's about the extent of the complaining I can reasonably muster toward NHL 12, however. It has its quirks, and certain areas certainly feel ignored compared with previous pushes forward in the series, but by and large, NHL 12 is a game that gets the details right in a way most sports games barely even aspire to. The on-ice action is tight, fast-paced, natural-feeling, and just a ton of fun, whether you're playing offline or on. If you need full-on revolution in your sports titles, NHL 12 might be a year to skip. If you just want a great-looking, and even better playing hockey game for the upcoming NHL season, NHL 12 has you covered.