Once a year, all good Canadians gather together for a celebration of peace, love and joyous Harmony. These easy going, fun loving Canadians gather, heads held high, smiles on their faces, beers in hand and celebrate another monumental landmark in the nation's landscape. That day? The day EA Sports releases their latest NHL game.
This year, September 13th was picked as said day of celebration, with a landmark showing how long this franchise has been going on. This year's cover boy Steven Stamkos wasn't EVEN BORN when the original EA NHL game hit shelves in 1989. Feel old now?
Last year's NHL turned the franchise on its ear and shook the wax out. Throwing caution aside and including more than 200 gameplay improvements (including the all new Ultimate Team Mode), I had no qualms in declaring it one of the best, if not the best installment of the franchise ever. So after all that glowing praise, how does this year's stack up?
-Goalie Contact and fights
-The Winter Classic
-The introduction of NHL Legends
-Increased hit animation (you don't necessarily fly off the handle when hit - you can get stunned.)
...and more than 300 other changes. THREE HUNDRED mechanical changes.
I would be remiss if I also did not mention that create a player now includes the ability to have female players too. Luckily, women's hockey rules weren't included (sorry, it had to be said.) How excited was I for this year's release? I was practically biting the wrapping off my copy to get at the disc. I don't often provide minute by minute, blow by blow play by play of the first few minutes of me playing a game, but it went something like this:
Me: ALRIGHT LET'S DO IT!!!!
Me: Would I like to import my NHL 11 profile? Sure
Hang on I've got a phone call.
Me: Adam? Yeah NHL 12. Yeah the loading time is ridiculous again. You want to get some lunch on the moon? Sure let's grab the next rocket out. No, I'll leave the game on.
ME: YEA!!! ALRIGHT I'M BACK TIME FOR SOME N...oh
Much like NBA 2K11 and Tiger Woods 12, the game sticks you in a scenario to start rather than a menu. Here you are at the start of last year's Winter Classic at Heinz Field. It just...takes a little while to get there when you get going. Ever since EA stretched their profile system into your gamertag for all of their sports games, loading time has been a real bringdown. Getting to the moon and back is a slight exaggeration, but I'm sure that if I were to add up all of the crazy profile loading time issues, it would total hours in a hurry.
Once in the Winter Classic, you can play out the game, or just one shift, after which you are given the choice to leave, however, and play the interactive tutorial to familiarize yourself with the changes, and with the game's controls. It starts off very similar to last year and ends with defensive maneuvers. It is what it is. You can go through, or just go and play the game.
The game itself looks and plays very similar to last year. All of the basic controls are pretty much the same, as are the majority of notable gameplay mechanics. However, the controls themselves are much more responsive, and better tuned than they were last year. Perhaps it's a psychological reaction on my part, but it seems like the game's much more responsive and as a result, it allows you to play a more confident game right out of the gate. The new hit animations, however, do change the game up quite a bit. No longer do you have to worry about getting automatically rubbed out of every play. Your players can shake off, and carom past checks with a bit more realism than taking dives soccer style every time they've been hit. The controls continue to have multiple variations of their actions. For example, on Faceoffs, you can pin your opponent or lift his stick in addition to taking the draw itself. I continue to like the fact that this game caches more in-game highlights than most others (with the possible exception of Madden,) and they build it into in-game highlight packages. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are back calling the action, and the commentary once again is spot on and well done. Thorne is so much better calling hockey than baseball, and it definitely shows here. With the way hockey commentary is changing implementing sideline reporters, it would be neat to see the presence of someone like Ray Ferraro, or Pierre McGuire (say what you want about his sense of excitement -- he's still a brilliant hockey mind) at ice level in future games providing in-game insight.
Something EA did this year to add a bit more of a roster X-Factor (as if the game didn't have enough with its implementations of international leagues and minor leagues right?) is the inclusion of a bunch of legends, from recently retired Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick all the way to forever beloved Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
Be and Pro and Be a Legend game modes are similar, and they remain, to me, possibly the most fun in the game. In Be a Legend, you start as Jeremy Roenick, as he's the only one available to you. Restrictive? Maybe, but for those of you who don't remember, or are too young to have played it back then, NHL 95 Jeremy Roenick has the distinction of being the single most unstoppable entity in hockey gaming history. That year, he could score goals with his eyes closed, check opponents THROUGH the boards, pass with laser-like precision, and once his shift was over 12 goals and 14 assists later, he'd re-hydrate on the bench with rubber cement because NHL 95 Jeremy Roenick's body was too tough to accept pansy liquids like water and Gatorade.
Does NHL 12 Jeremy Roenick match NHL 95 Jeremy Roenick? I didn't think so, but after scoring 2 goals and 4 assists in the first period of my first game...perhaps. You'll continue to receive tasks, goals, positive and negative coaching throughout your games., which is the main focus of this mode. As you level up and continue your career, you will unlock more Pros over the course of time. Beware, however, as many gamers online have reported trouble with the unlocks themselves, and many have reached levels where they should be unlocking players, but do not. Whether this is a connectivity problem (some report the problems fixes itself when you log into XBox Live,) or an in-game glitch remains to be seen. If having all of those pros matter to you, however, then it could be a problem. Myself, I'm content to have the unstoppable Roenick in my corner.
Game minutes in Be a Pro/Legend mode are a bit more realistic now. Your energy meter tells you when you should/shouldn't be on the ice, and much like Fifa's Captain your Country, you're kept in the loop as to where you should ideally be on the ice, so you aren't just floating out there. The game and your energy level are tuned so you can't leech and spent 38 minutes out there hogging the puck and taking the game over yourself. You'll be debriefed after every shift and told what you're doing well, or what you may have done wrong out there.
Not to be outdone by the Legends, the standard Be a Pro Mode is no slouch. This year, you can start with a full CHL career, or just the Memorial Cup followed by the entry draft and a career from there. If you import your NHL 11 profile, it will automatically default your pro from last year as your player from this year.
Hockey Ultimate Team is back again, and again, is one of the things that keeps this title in the elite category for all sports games. Like exhibition mode, the base premise is the same - You build your teams through a series of hockey card packs, sign them to contracts (also done through cards) and take those teams online or offline against other created teams. If you are familiar with EA's online offerings (like Madden Superstars, which I referenced a few times last year, but have since stopped playing,) they are using those business models to evolve the console games too. Madden Superstars started sticking different "versions" of players (ie. player of the week Michael Vick, Pro Bowl Michael Vick) in special edition packs. NHL 12 does and will be doing the same thing. My hope is that they read this review, and decide to hook me up an with NHL 95 Jeremy Roenick card. I won't even need the rest of the team. I'll just assign all my contracts to that one man army, and off I go. Forget goaltenders. I'll just stick a silhouette of NHL 95 Roenick in net, and people will be too afraid to shoot. Ultimate Team Mode is something I hope remains a constant fixture of the game. It's just too good, and has gathered too much momentum to take away, or try to downsize in the future. If anything, I'd like to see a special edition for next year similar to what the Madden crew did - A limited collector's edition featuring a legend autograph in every pack with a special edition pack for HUT to sell the mode further. Panini has a hockey license too, and a pretty knowledgeable hockey staff that I'm sure would love to jump in. It might be a tough business transition, however, as EA and Upper Deck have already formed a partnership in past years, and given that UD tends to work on a more in-advance schedule than Panini (who tend to make their real-time changes much quicker,) that groundwork would need to be laid almost ASAP for next year. Still, just an idea.
Something I always take the time to note is the in-game soundtrack. When your primary gaming taste is sports, and you play a bit of everything, the soundtrack and the atmosphere it provides are always something you keep an eye out for. Madden this year dropped off their usual quality, and after NHL's ridiculously spot-on soundtrack last year that bordered on the greatest and most appropriate choices ever, this year's a huge letdown. Sure, ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" is a cool choice, and what hockey game isn't complete without a bit of Billy Idol? But Black Tide? Bush? This is the NHL, not a local 6 year olds game where all the kids skate for the puck while little Ricky's dad controls the music, scoreboard and local hot dog stand.
I don't have many other problems with this game. I'd really like to see a few more things added to the presentation side of things this year for sure - I'm hoping a patch comes out that gives the Winnipeg Jets their actual unis, and the same for their AHL Franchise. I'm also a bit curious as to why the Atlanta Thrashers unis were just pulled out altogether rather than being a Jets alternate. Too soon? I'm also hoping that if all of this business around legend unlocks are true, that gets fixed too. I'm not that concerned about not unlocking the past since I'm only interested in the present (unstoppable Roenick aside) but that's a pretty big problem that will need to be addressed in a future patch.
Graphics: 9.5/10. Graphically, this game has very little left to accomplish within the means and boundaries of the 360. The player sprites are leaps and bounds better than last year. Players look realistic, and what I imagine must be the hardest texturing (the ice surface) is done spot on. The crowds are night and day compared to last year. The floating, towel waving wrists are gone, and replaced by animated crowds wearing tons of jerseys from different eras, representing all sorts of demographics. The only thing keeping this game from getting a perfect graphic score? The jerseys. Why do the player jerseys come out worse looking every year? The Florida Panthers, for example. The letters on the jerseys are too far apart, and the numbers are too small. This seems to be a symptom of most of the jerseys. Some look fabulous, and some just look terrible. I realize this is such a small detail in the grand scheme of things, but it sticks out so badly to hockey fans that it's almost unacceptable. It's like watching real NHL players go out there with those fake Chinese knockoff jerseys and attempt to make a game of it.
Sound: 9/10. Sound again, for the most part is great. Every grunt, groan, slash and skate stop are represented here. Commentary is well done. Again, few complaints here outside of the soundtrack and its ambience. NHL 11's soundtrack must have been a generational thing that proved you don't need current music for a current music. They tried again to get back to that a bit this year, but it flopped. The NHL's musical situation is one that keeps energy and rhythm alive between faceoffs and during goals. That energy gets really sucked out in a hurry if you play the wrong music. There's nothing that kills an arena's buzz more than say, Miley Cyrus during a TV timeout (she's not in the game at all. Just my example.) It'd be good to get back to the "hockey songs for hockey fans/players" approach we've seen before, rather than the "This might sound good in a hockey game. Let's do it" -type of thing we're seeing this year.
Controls: 10/10. I've complained hard in past years about the games that have too complex of controls. Looking back, many controls here are similar, if not the exact same of last year's. But everything was fixed. The game doesn't feel so foreboding or unforgiving as last year, and you can wrap your head around pressure touch passing and checking much better now. The game makes you work (and properly I might add) for perfection, but doesn't punish you if you don't hit everything at the right time. EA took the time to listen to the gripes of gamers here, and really outdid themselves.
Gameplay: 9.25/10. So much is right with this game, and very little is wrong. There are a few things that could be made better - HUT contracts a bit wonky, and it seems like it may be too hard to re-up players at times. I'm not so fond of the overdone goalie contact. While it was a welcome re-addition, that collision detection really messes with you. There's almost too much for what it is supposed to be. Interestingly, the demo had some big holes and problems with the contact drawing too many penalties. This appears to have been toned down a bit with the updated game tuner downloads, but there seems to be a bit more exaggeration in the whole thing than I'd prefer. Outside of that, what else is left to say? Nothing major about this game is wrong. There's nothing that is a caveat that is big enough for me to tell you this game isn't worth purchasing. If you're purchasing for the first time in 5 or 6 years, then you need a few hours to sit down and re-learn the wheel, however, if you bought this last year, and know the song, then yes, it's that good.
Is it good to buy this year if you already have last year? I don't know the answer to that one. I'd say so, but I know it's hard to put down another $60 when you did last year, and the product is somewhat similar. I'd say it would be a no brainer if there was a special edition that gave you much that a regular edition didn't ala Madden, but I don't think the Be a Legend Mode is incentive enough for me to tell you that you MUST get it, especially given the fact that so many people are having trouble unlocking past Roenick. On the flipside, 60 bucks isn't that much. That's an average of one less Starbucks trip a month. Cut down the caffeine and go grab this gem.
During the bleak years of the NHL franchise in the mid-2000s when 2K was beating EA so badly gamers were calling for Electronic Arts to lose their license, EA learned some massive lessons, and the games are so good, you forget there used to be another alternative. We don't need one now. This game is so diverse, and so large in its overall experience that there's almost too much to keep you interested for another full year. Thanks to EA for yet another year ahead of fun hockey, and for getting "Don't Bring Me Down" stuck in my head for the next week.
Like the review? Hate the review? Think Im the best or worst game reviewer in the history of ever? Give me an earful on Twitter @paliontology, and follow our site too @XboxAddicts. See you very soon for Fifa 12. I've been looking forward to that one since the Spring.
Suggestions: Let me pick the soundtrack next year. Please. It would also be great (in an ideal, less payment for licensing world) if you could get all the goal horn songs from all the NHL clubs. It would be awesome to hear Holiday blare when the Canucks score at home, or Chelsea Dagger when the Blackhawks score, for example. It would also be nice to get an "ice level analyst" type of personality like Ferraro or McGuire out there. Someone who can throw out things like coaches speaking to players, or in-game injury reports like they do on real broadcasts. I'm just grasping at straws here since there's not much I can suggest gameplay wise at this point. Oh right -- PLEASE look into fixing the profile loading time issues pre-game. If I didn't have to keep waiting minutes at a time when I loaded my EA Sports games up, that would make me the happiest game reviewer on the planet.