Until recently it has been the case that successful sports games are effectively a license to print money. Releasing new editions of a great game on a yearly basis, often with little more than an updated team list and a few cosmetic changes, yet charging full price has not been uncommon practice for publishers in the past. However, these days gamers have wised up and are demanding more, no longer content with buying the same game as last year but with different packaging. For this reason NHL 12, the latest in EA's long running ice hockey simulator par excellence, boasts improved defensive AI, a 'full contact physics engine' and a whole new 'Be a Legend' mode to improve upon last year's already universally adored version of Canada's national sport. The question is then, is this enough to justify shelling out full price for?
By all accounts NHL 11 was a great game and the 'if it aint broke don't fix it' approach to NHL 12 serves it well. Players have the same lightness of touch on the ice and skate via left stick control. The right stick allows dekes (feints with the puck) and shots to be performed with little intuitive flicks of the thumb affording surprising levels of accuracy and realistic play. The meat and bones remain the same as in NHL 11 which is no bad thing. New puck physics however mean that players who take their time over their shots will find themselves surprised as the puck glides away from them across the ice as opposed to staying strangely anchored as in previous versions. It's a little touch no doubt, but one that adds to the realism that the NHL games do so well.
As well as the usual bevies of game types and career modes sees the addition this year of the new 'Be a Legend' function. This is pretty much identical to the 'Be a Pro' mode in previous iterations except that instead of starting as a lowly nobody way down in the college leagues you get to step into the skates of classic hockey stars from the last 30 years such as the eponymous Wayne Gretzky, Patrick Roy and Jeremy Roenick. 'Be a Legend' is much more suited to players who found toiling away in the lower leagues for many a season a little bit too much to ask as it gives you control pretty much straight away of a high stat powerhouse at the start of their sky rocketing careers. It's a good buzz and a nice homage to the players even if the mode itself is a little on the shallow side. The inclusion this year of the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) to the 'Be a Pro' mode adds a bit more depth as well as it includes a whole new league of younglings in addition to the NHL and AHL.
Another neat addition is the arrival of the Winter Classic game between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburg Penguins which starts up the first time you play NHL 12. This legendary outdoor match played traditionally once a year on Heinz Field looks fantastic with snow swirling and spectators wrapped up warm. It's just a single game but its inclusion makes NHL 12 even more comprehensive than before. In fact the whole game looks (and sounds with Anthrax and Billy Idol on the sound track) as great as before and there are certainly no complaints when it comes to realistic graphical detail. The only slight marring of this are the infamous fights that break out on the ice (triggered by the triangle button) which look and sound, much like their real life counterparts, pretty embarrassing. I mean come on, grown men acting like children? Good for the odd laugh though.
Brawling professional athletes aside, it is pretty clear that NHL 12 has taken everything that made NHL 11 so great, and added a little icing (pardon the pun) on top. The new inclusions, though not overly drastic, do make a difference in how the game feels to play. Thankfully the direction of that difference is towards even more comprehensive realism than before but not at the expense what makes the NHL games so great to play, namely their accessibility and intuitive controls. There are few things more satisfying than the roar of the buzzer after a speedy slapshot hurtles into the net after the deft flick of the thumbs. Roll on NHL 13.
9 out of 10