September 12, 2011
The new physics engine changes the entire approach that players must take to the game. The most important thing this new engine has done is make it so that small players can only get big hits if they come in from the perfect angle. Previously, Nathan Gerbe, 5'5”, could take out Hal Gill, 6'8”, with relative ease. This means that defensemen whose primary role is taking up space and being able to dominate forwards along the boards are better able to do so, which improves how the teams who employ this style of defence feel and play. The other notable improvement is the dynamic nature of the hits. Players no longer change positioning magically to make the hit logic line up, and there is a dramatic reduction in the number of ridiculous physics defying hits.
A feature that was also built into this news engine is net front battles which are such a key part of how the modern NHL game is played. This feature fixes one of the glaring flaws that previous versions had when playing against another human, as certain situations would develop where a player would end up at the far post and there was no way to contest his positioning, instead having to rely on a perfectly timed stick lift to prevent a goal.
When it comes to making a good simulation game, the most important element is how the AI reacts to the player's inputs. EA Canada has taken another step forward here, as the various teams and players feel more like their actual playing selves. But while on the whole this system is an improvement, especially in terms of players going to the net and defensemen knowing when to pinch and when not to, it's not without its problems. The fundamental problem with this new system is that it feels like some players follow these new traits way too strictly even in situations where it makes absolutely no sense. For example, using an actual situation that happened, there is 2 minutes left in the game and the score is 3-2. The puck comes around the boards and the defenseman pinches down to the puck, loses the race, and gets beat easily, leading to a 2 on 1 that resulted in a goal, which tied the game. This is a mistake that would never happen in the NHL. Overall the AI is a definite improvement however it feels like a couple of additions need to be made to the code to stop certain situational issues from happening.
The AI issues carry over to the new goalie system. NHL 12's goalies are fully integrated into the ice surface, meaning that there is no longer a magical barrier preventing the goalie from being crashed into or bowled over at any time. This can lead to a lot of inadvertent goalie interference penalties for people used to the old system but it's definitely something that adds to the simulation aspect of the game. The most annoying part about the goalies is that despite the system having been improved in terms of goalie decision making and move, they ignored the fact that a goaltender would never handle the puck behind the goal line outside of the trapezoid. This would cause a penalty, and it's exceptionally annoying when a penalty is caused by a goalie because he turns one way instead of the other. It seems like such a terrible oversight on the part of EA Canada that it must be mentioned.
Be a Pro was a massive innovation several years ago and this year EA Canada has stepped it up to a new level with full CHL seasons and the ability to have this affect your draft position. This is an incredibly awesome feature for anyone in Canada because everyone knows how important the CHL system is in keeping Canada as the top hockey nation in the world. This iteration of Be a Pro makes it possible to start as a 15 year old in the OHL and a 16 year old in the WHL and QMJHL. This means that you can try to take a player through two full CHL seasons to determine your players draft ranking and in turn your player's future prospects in the NHL.
EA Canada has also changed the system so that players can no longer choose when to go on the ice, meaning that it is no longer possible to inflate your player's stats by playing 40-50 minutes a night. The current system works on a 20 minute period cycle instead of the usual 5 minute cycle used by regular games and the previous iterations of Be a Pro. By using a 20 minute system, they have fixed the problem of players feeling like they do not get enough ice time by making it so that every second that a player is on the ice is a real second and as such the player's fatigue meter is adjusted appropriately.
This system of the coach calling when your player gets to play means that the line your player is placed on directly affects their playing time. For example a third line player, which is the default placement when you first join a team, generally gets between 10-15 minutes, depending on whether they are a penalty killer or not. A first line player can get between 17-27 minutes depending on how the game develops. This is very cool for hockey fans because if your team is behind by a goal in the third period and you are a first line player, your player will be on the ice every other shift, whereas a third line player will probably not receive any ice time during this situation. The final cool feature is that it is now possible to play Be a Pro modes as a female character. It's not very noticeable, but for females fans of the NHL, it seems like it would be a welcome addition.
Be a GM mode is always a fun experience. The ability to take your franchise and turn it into a dominant dynasty, constantly competing for the Stanley cup, is a definite thrill. However, it seems like with all the emphasis that was placed on the massive improvements made to the Be a Pro mode, some of the glaring problems of the past within Be a GM still exist. All of these problems relate to the AI GM's and coaches. Experienced Be a GM players know that the first thing to do upon entering this mode is to turn off the control the coaches have over their rosters due to the boneheaded and occasionally costly decisions that are made by the AI. The opposing GM's are as stupid as usual, making ridiculous trades that make absolutely no sense and leaving them at a massive disadvantage while denying rational trade offers that benefit both teams. The cap management system and player contract offers have been made completely true to real life, which allows interesting options such as the ability to offer another team's restricted free agent a deal and if they accept, your team would have to give that team draft picks. The player growth system within the game is very flawed as a team containing mediocre to good young talent can easily develop into a team of players entirely in the 83-85 range and be under the salary cap despite this not being a remote possibility in the real world. Despite having ratings of the D to D- range for players that are experiencing a real drop off in skill due to age, these ratings never seem to actually be used as most of these players choose to retire, or are not picked up in free agency regardless of the fact that they could still be very useful to certain teams.
Presentation and broadcast like features are continually emphasised by sports game developers despite the fact that the vast majority of gamers wish that the part of the team put into developing these features spent their time creating a better on the ice experience. Despite all the effort put into these features, most of them will be skipped after the first few times. The one feature that truly breaks the mould for useless presentation features is the new Action Tracker system that has been implemented in the pause menu. In previous versions of the game, all that was seen in the pause menu was a simple stat sheet. In NHL 12 the variety of things that can be seen with ease in the pause menu is staggering. All major events can be seen in replay by a quick press of a button, selecting what to watch is easy as all it takes is moving around the 2d ice surface to each replay with the right stick. Unfortunately the commentary system has not been overhauled, so most players will probably be playing on mute after a while as the commentary can become quite obnoxious.
EA Canada spent most of the last year working on improving the guts of the game to provide a better and more realistic experience for fans. The new physics system was designed to improve how hitting worked, and despite a few quirks, it definitely is a massive improvement over the old hitting system. The new AI does add a lot more personality to the game however it does still have a few issues that need to be addressed going forward. The Be a Pro system has been changed entirely for the better and people that dismissed the old version due to its various flaws, definitely need to consider giving it another look in NHL 12. NHL 12 is an exceptional game and the improvements easily justify the yearly cycle it is currently running on.
NHL 12 was reviewed on the PS3. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.