Like Bentley, Microsoft, and Cartier when it comes to EA Sports you know you’re in for a quality product simply by the name. Even those games released under the banner which have garnered comparatively unfavourable reviews are only judged poorer by association with their stable mates. And the NHL franchise, now into its twentieth release (which in itself is a phenomenal achievement) is arguably the property that has enjoyed the greatest quality consistently for the longest time – even outstripping Fifa for many fans, including myself.
But with NHL 12 now out, could EA Sports continue the great work, or would their total market dominance and the comfort of old age lead to complacency in the same manner that often creeps into other hugely popular franchises like Sonic, Tomb Raider and even Mario? It would surely be a difficult prospect, since NHL is the yardstick by which most other sports franchises are judged – they have set the standard
Well, to begin with the gameplay in a word is phenomenal. Players move with near perfect realism, boosted by the introduction of signature moves and behaviour that mean some research can lead to the best players for any play. That extra level sits on top of the already exceptional core gameplay, which EA got right a long time ago, to make for a brilliant, deep gaming experience that it is impossible not to be wowed by.
Hockey is hardly a big deal over here, though there is a vociferous fanbase of committed individuals to be found all over the country, but that niche-ness is not a deal breaker for NHL 12. It is after all a hugely accessible sports game that will surely be entertaining for both casual players and fervent fans – though the very hardcore out there might think it is geared too much towards a universal audience. But that’s sort of the point – NHL works in Britain so well, and captures the imagination and attentions of a disproportionate amount of gamers who don’t enjoy the sport itself, and it is down to the success of the game not only as an official franchise addition, but also a pure gaming experience.
And visually, NHL 12 is a tour de force. The predecessor was already a stunningly crafted release, but this newest addition to the franchise makes it look embarrassingly cheap in comparison. The presentation is excellent, with individual entrance sequences for different teams, and brilliant “best-bits” animations used to highlight certain players, and its all polished up exquisitely with some very strong graphics. Sadly, the animations aren’t all up to scratch, and they can distract at times, but it’s a fast-paced game so there has to be some latitude until gaming technology advances to match the scope of the developers and the realistic pace of games.
Aiding and abetting that increase in visual quality are the minute details that have been added in a quest for additional realism. Pre-release talk was centred squarely on some of the more gimmicky additions – the play-off beards being most excitedly chimed about – but it is the other, less obvious extra features that dial the realism up huge amounts despite their relative subtlety. It is invariably the little details that have the most effect, their ripples lasting longer on the player’s perception of the in-game experience lasting well beyond the bigger stones of beardy gimmicks or the ability to knock an opponent’s helmet off. And it is those details, like the more intelligent, interactive bench-warmers who move, both in response to personnel change-outs and brilliantly, checks over the bench.
That authenticity extends into the player contact system, which is a vast improvement on the NHL 11 model, which while looking good at the time, was riddled with problems (especially in terms of realistic interaction between players in contact, and their environment) – and it seems EA Sports have taken player concerns into consideration, as the two major player contact issues from last time out have been ironed out – the interactivity being the first, and off-puck contact the second, with the referee in 11 being a little too trigger-happy with the penalties to inspire a quick game.
The best addition for me is the increased realism in the goalie mechanics – no longer the impenetrable last line of defence, the goalies are now fallible, and crucially can also be pushed out of the way, if you’re particularly keen on a more physical (and less sportsman-like) approach to attacking. The increased realism adds to the game experience overall, though the AI means that other non-controlled players will occasionally take matters into their own hands and incur unnecessary interference penalties more .
Having said that the goalkeeper is now more realistic, there are some problems with the overall authenticity of the AI of your computer-controlled opponent: in short, they’re too bloody good – I could count the amount of penalties my opponents from the first ten games incurred on one hand, and unfortunately these CG-Gods of the ice aren’t prone to the sorts of errors that happen all of the time in normal NHL matches. It’s not a huge problem, but for someone not particularly down with NHL as a spectator sport to notice it, it must have regular fans scratching their heads a little.
The replay has always been a huge deciding factor when it comes to annual sports games for me: if any are to be judged successful I have to feel like I can play the game for the entire year until the next instalment is released. And thanks to the vast size of NHL 12 that definitely won’t be a problem. There are a massive number of modes including already established favourites like the season and play-off modes, as well as newer features like the excellent Be A Pro, and the brand new Be A Legend modes. That Be A Legend mode has its flaws, though they aren’t terribly off-putting, and the ability to play as a selection of the NHL’s greatest players largely overrules any hang ups. All-in-all, across the multiple modes, there is the potential to clock a vast number of hours in the company of the newest addition to the strongest sports game franchise on the market.