|System: Xbox 360, PS3|
|Dev: EA Canada|
|Pub: EA Sports|
|Release: September 12, 2011|
|Players: 1 (2+ Online)|
|Screen Resolution: 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p||Mild Violence|
by Josh Engen
For one reason or another, America has never fully embraced Ice Hockey with the love that most Canadians think it deserves. Many scientists hypothesize that this is a result of the innate distrust that Americans have for Canadians, but more research needs to be done on the topic before we'll know for sure. Either way, EA seems to be bent on defying science, because they've released a new NHL title every year since 1991, and the franchise continues to be incredibly popular.
For the hockey illiterate out there (read: most Americans), EA's NHL franchise was built on the pursuit of hockey realism. The developer wants to create the most realistic ice hockey experience on the market, and over the years they have spearheaded and perfected elements like analog stick-based puck control and "Be a Pro" mode. These elements have not only influenced subsequent NHL titles, but other games in the sports genre as well.
However, when it comes to video games, realism can often be a type of poison for gameplay. Obviously, Electronic Arts could never shrink wrap a perfectly authentic professional hockey experience. If they did, most players would probably end up in the emergency room on release day. Even so, I often worry that developers can become so fixated on realism that they sacrifice gameplay, but NHL 12 quickly put my mind at ease.
Because I value scientific inquiry, I assembled a crack team of research professionals in order to put NHL 12 through its paces. The team included a nationally ranked NHL 11 player, 2 drunks, and a 12-year-old kid. We spent several hours talking trash and hitting each other with virtual sticks. Here are the results of our study.
Right out of the first face-off, EA's quest for realism is readily apparent; the game speed in NHL 12 is significantly slower than its predecessors. This is the type of thing that typically worries me about a developer's pursuit of realism. Even if EA is trying to match pro hockey's actual speed, the end result is going to be less accurate than a faster-paced caricature of reality, because that caricature captures the essence of hockey's frenetic play more accurately than any realistic approach ever could. However, EA makes up for the slower game speed with their artificial intelligence improvements.
In past versions of NHL, non-human players would simply trail the puck. However, with EA's new "Anticipation A.I.," CPU players will go where the puck is going to be, not where it is. In my opinion, both of these are welcome changes that go hand in hand with one another, injecting a sense of urgency into every play. Every time the puck was loose, the pursuit was far more clamorous. Sure, the gameplay might be slower, but the excitement level is measurably higher.
For the last few months, EA has been touting a new "Full Contact Physics Engine" for NHL 12. When I first heard EA's Sean Ramjagsingh brag about the engine, I must admit, I was a little skeptical. But after getting my hands on the game, the engine's influence on gameplay was readily apparent. Now, when two players collide, both of their physical sizes are taken into account. Players of a similar size are more likely to simply stumble or get knocked down to a single knee. This stands in contrast to previous versions of the NHL series, in which all properly executed hits resulted in a player hitting the ice.
All of this may seem trivial, but NHL 12 has intricacies that make the Full Contact Physics Engine an instrumental part of the overall gameplay. For instance, one of my researchers (one of the drunks) was knocked down to a single knee and found that he could still maintain control over the puck and even shoot. And that's not all. Players are able to break the glass, get their helmets knocked off, and knock the nets off the goals. Obviously, some of these changes were made purely for aesthetic reasons, but all of them can affect gameplay in extraordinarily subtle ways.
One of the other things that my research team latched onto was the addition of goalie fighting in NHL 12. That's right. If, for some reason, you have a beef with the opposing team's goalie, feel free to settle it like men. I was surprised by the excitement that the first goalie-related fistfight generated among the researchers, and I'm equally surprised that it's taken EA so long to implement this feature. Goalies deserve to get punched, just like everyone else.
Speaking of goalies, screening has become far more useful tool in the offensive player's toolbox. NHL 12 gives players significantly more control while screening. However, defensive A.I. has been added to protect the goalie. So, if you're anything like the people on my crack research team, who constantly tormented the goalie by screening or picking fights, your players will probably spend some time on the injured list courtesy of the goalie's bodyguard. All of this results in a far more realistic offensive and defensive experience.
This type of A.I. skill set for non-human players was actually a large part of the NHL 12 development process. In fact, the developers have gone so far as to implement player-specific characterizations, called "Signature Traits," to ensure that each CPU player plays more like their real-life counterpart. Sean Ramjagsingh recently explained a few of these signature traits: