A new year means a new version of EA Sports’ NHL series. As you’d expect, I’m ecstatic.
First off, get yourself acquainted with our review of NHL 11. It would be extremely difficult not to compare this year’s version with last year’s…and hell, I could go right down the line pretty much til NHL 94.
Developed by EA Canada and distributed by EA Sports, the NHL series IS hockey on a gaming console – the franchise has taken twenty-two game of the year awards in its lifetime. Available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation, a myriad of improvements are touted for the title, not limited to but including contact with goalies, a more authentic “Be a Pro” mode with the inclusion of the CHL, improved physics for more realistic hits and collisions, and the inclusion of the NHL Winter Classic. If half of that doesn’t make much sense, you’re probably not a hockey fan.
NHL 12 will fix that.
First starts, or starting anew
“Would you like to import your existing profiles?”
Why, yes. Yes I would.
I still own (and play) NHL 07, NHL 08, NHL 09, NHL 10, and NHL 11, yet this is the first time I was asked that question when I started the new year’s edition. In addition to being a HUGE time-saver, it just makes sense. I didn’t have to sit through a skill stick tutorial – I know that system like the back of my hand. Instead, Steve Wright, #17, defenseman extraordinaire was brought over and tucked away in the background of the “Be a Pro” mode, and I was thrown into last year’s NHL Winter Classic playing as the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Washington Capitals. It’s the first time the Winter Classic has been included in the title, and to get into that game as soon as I popped in the game disc was a delight and a great (re)introduction to the game.
In short, the game developers are very aware of who comprises their audience…and they’ve catered to both new and old players. Should you have started up the disc without existing NHL profiles, you can take advantage of a number of tutorials focusing on the skill stick, body contact, and even fighting…and if that’s not enough, the in-game manual advises on how to tweak game settings so penalties aren’t called as you’re learning how to poke check, and so that offsides and icings aren’t enforced. If you’re not sure what those terms mean – don’t sweat it; I know my partner Matt has the advantage of watching some of my games, but I’d like to think he really learned the ins-and-outs of hockey from this series.
Newbies might think that switching to the old NHL 94 control scheme is a good idea, but trust me that it’s not. The skill stick offers FAR more flexibility and player manoeuvrability. Use the tutorials and it’ll feel right in no time flat.
Also take my advice and get stuck straight into Be a Pro – it’s the crowning jewel as far as game features go. Start off slow, pick your pro carefully (as you’re stuck with him/her for the rest of your career…or at least, until you start a new save file), and work on your skills. To assist in your efforts, the mode now has coaching tasks that you’re thrown mid-game. They could be simple — “we need to get more shots on goal to equal our opponent” — or downright nasty. I was having a particularly bad game, down two goals with three minutes left in the third period, and my task was to “win the game.” Way to rub it in, coach.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, the “Be a GM” and “Be a Legend” modes are quite enjoyable as well. You can put your skates to the side as a GM to wheel-and-deal your way into a Stanley Cup, and the Legend mode is self-explanatory. I mean, who doesn’t want to play as Steve Yzerman, my hero, Captain of the Detroit Red Wings, and General Manager of Team Canada? Well, if you’re not such a hardcore Wings fan like me, you can also play as Legends Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Ray Bourque, Chris Chelios, Patrick Roy, Jeremy Roenick, Gordie Howe, or Börje Salming.
Ouch. Oh, and wow.
The game hypes its improved physics, as well it should. Hits feel REAL this year, and you definitely feel the weight your player is carrying as he (or now, SHE!) hits another player. I SCREAMED with giddy delight the first time I hit someone so hard that broke the glass over the boards last night. I groaned when an amazing hit was a little off, and I ended up missing my opponent and flying over the boards into the other team’s bench. Oops.
Simply put, this year is about moments. GOOD moments. In NHL 11, it was a big deal that sticks could be broken…and so much so that it happened about ten times a game. Bottom line: it wasn’t realistic. This year, that’s toned down, and when a big event like a glass-break or a stick break happens, it seems like a big deal. In between those epic moments, the new physics still deal realistic and amazing hits so you’re always entertained. Executed perfectly, your opponent will go down like a ton of bricks; if you’re a bit off, you might go down too, or you might only bring the opposing player to his knees.
Most of my “wow” moments in the game came from improvements that you never considered, but couldn’t live without once you’ve experienced. The new simming engine in-game is amazing. No longer restricted to letting the AI sim through an entire game or period, you get a real-time, text based simulation, dubbed the “Action Tracker,” that shows shots, hits, and goals. If you’re feeling like your team needs your direct input, you intervene then and there. Additionally, in the AMAZING Be a Pro mode, you play realistically, meaning you’re on for a shift, and then off for a shift. While it’s great to watch the game around you, it also takes AGES…but not if you take up the option to sim the game through to your next shift. Genius.
Even better with the new engine is that every hit, or shot, or goal is insta-clipped for you in the Action Tracker. No longer do you need to go and use the frustrating controls to try to showcase your amazing goal or hit — most of the work’s already done. Change a quick camera angle, zoom in a tad…done. Maybe you’ve noticed the amazing photo of Steve Wright, Saskatoon Blades defenseman, teeing up a great slap shot from the point?
It can’t all be good
I’m a fanboy, but I’m not blind. Some stuff falls flat, or doesn’t make sense. To be fair, here are some of criticisms.
I could start off by copying and pasting my thoughts on the HUT – or Ultimate Team mode – from my NHL 11 review. The game mode exists to take cash from you; you buy card packs to improve players/stats on your own Ultimate team, and then you take that team online to play other gamers. Simply put, if you don’t invest, you fall behind very quickly. No sense playing in that mode if you’re going to be walloped by those with a greater disposable income.
Another mode that I’m playing and feeling like I’m wasting time on is the Be a Pro mode whilst in a WHL team. After every game, I see an overview screen that has me at Level 1…and shows me remaining at Level 1, only because the system doesn’t really kick in until NHL games. Why bother telling me that I’m not really progressing until then? What’s my incentive to play in the lower leagues rather than heading straight up into the NHL Be a Pro mode?
The soundtrack for this year also falls a bit flat. We’ve got some good oldies in the mix like “Mony Mony” by Billy Idol, and a favourite of mine, “Hang Em’ High” but the Dropkick Murphys, but the in-game music doesn’t capture the intensity and fury of the sport as in past years. This isn’t a huge sticking point, because you can load your own custom soundtrack into the game – I basically used a selection of GREAT songs from past NHL games into the mix. “A Whisper and a Clamour” by Anberlin, anyone?
The Legends idea is a great one, but you have to unlock the greats as you go, meaning I’m going to be waiting a bit before I get to use my hero Yzerman, unless I hit up the “Play Now” game mode for a quick once-off. On that note, I’m all for the title’s huge replay factor, but I clocked up seven hours of game-time last night and only managed to walk away with three achievements equalling 30 gamerscore. It seems as if the series’ achievements are only getting more complicated and more online-tournament based with each passing year. That takes a big chunk of enjoyment out of the game for me.
Despite the negatives, there are far more positives to report. This doesn’t feel like it could have been a DLC retweaking of NHL 11; there are features in this title that really elevate it to another level. For the most part, it’s comparable to Windows Vista and Windows 7. This game takes a property that was pretty good — and pretty flawed at the same time – and tightens up known flaws while polishing other features to make them indescribably better.
If you’re thinking a rental will be enough as you’ve got last year’s title, I think it’s better to be realistic – you’re barely going to scratch the surface of this gem. This game is definitely worth a purchase – especially for you Australians interested in competitive sports. Get into it and realise just how amazing ice hockey is!
Before we finish this review up with a top-corner wrister in overtime: If you’re interested in setting up an EASHL online team and you’re in need of a defenseman, you know where to find me.