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Review: Tweaks to NHL 12 polish already solid game experience

In past years, EA Sports' only competition in the hockey videogame department was the NHL 2K series. With 2K going on hiatus this year, NHL 12 runs unopposed this year, ensuring that they will once again dominate the marketplace.

Coming off a highly-praised NHL 11, EA has tried to further create a realistic hockey experience with NHL 12. Tweaks to the physics engine such as the puck sliding away from you if you don't get your slap shot off quick enough; the ability to shake off checks; and adding signature traits for players, EA has attempted to add to the realism of the user experience.

Considering the gameplay additions to the NHL series in the past few years and the replay value with the various game modes, EA has continued to set the bar high for themselves in the hockey market.

NHL 12 is no different and EA is hoping the new features this year will keep gamers enticed and keep the series from getting stale.

Gameplay

EA's big hook for NHL 12 is their touting of over 300 gameplay refinements, some of which have been in the game before, but are new for this current generations' game engine.

Nets can be knocked off moorings, glass can be shattered and goalies are live this year and are able to be bumped into and even join into fights with other skaters or the opposing goalie. So if you want to recreate Brent Johnson(notes) versus Rick DiPietro(notes) or even Tim Thomas(notes) versus Alex Burrows, you can. Fortunately, you won't be given a goaltender interference penalty every time you bump into the goalie. Just don't do it often and you'll stay out of the box.

Playable this year will be the Winter Classic at Heinz Field. You can use the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals or any two teams of your liking. The outdoor elements are there with snowflakes falling to the ice, but the elements don't affect gameplay:

One welcome tweak is the full contact physics engine. It used to be easy to lay out any oncoming skater with a hip check to knock them off the puck, but now the size and strength of the player matters. Bigger players such as Dustin Byfuglien(notes) or strong-on-their-feet skaters such as Sidney Crosby(notes) won't fall victim to a check every time, instead they'll be able to bounce off the hit and be able to recover. This is a great change seeing as how it was frustrating seeing a smaller defenseman being able to wipe out a bigger forward and ruin a potential scoring chance.

If you're like me and like to have a player positioned in front of the goalie for screens and deflections, you're able to control a skater in a net battle as either the forward or defenseman. Once again, the importance of the size and strength of the players involved will determine how successful you'll be at either keeping traffic in front of your goaltender clear or winning the position battle to give yourself a better opportunity to create a scoring chance.

The intelligence of your CPU teammates is has been greatly improved. No longer will the CPU skate around following the puck as you bring it up ice; instead players will anticipate where the puck will be and react accordingly (including the offside prevention method of dragging the skate across the blue line).

Be-a-GM mode is much of the same as it was in NHL 11, but it's still a very addictive feature. Full CBA rules in regards to unrestricted and restricted free agency are still in the game and a new revamped sim engine was put in place that'll track various stats and allow you to intervene if things get hairy.

A new feature for the Be-a-Pro mode is the ability to sim to your next shift. Previously, once your player's shift ended, you watched the game from the bench, which got boring real quick. New "coach tasks" have been added to give the player specific goals to meet in order to please the bench boss and earn himself more ice time. Players can also begin their Be-a-Pro career in the CHL and play junior hockey for a couple of seasons while they work their way up to the NHL.

Review: Tweaks to NHL 12 polish already solid game experience

The big announcement that EA was hyping this summer about NHL 12 ended up being the inclusion of nine NHL "Legends". Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Chris Chelios(notes), Steve Yzerman, Gordie Howe, Patrick Roy, Jeremy Roenick(notes), Ray Bourque and Borje Salming are all unlockable players that can be integrated into the upgraded Be-a-Pro mode.

The inclusion of those Hockey Hall of Famers is nice, but NHL fans were expecting EA's big announcement to be something along the lines of a gameplay tweak or a new feature to online play. A Montreal Canadiens legends team was in the last couple NHL games and while it was a nice to have it, it was more window dressing than anything substantial.

Presentation

The pre-game intros for each team have been updated a bit and for the Sharks and Oilers you'll get the real thing when you play at home with the oil derrick in Edmonton and the smoking shark head in San Jose:

While the broadcast presentation is enhanced, other than the entrance when you play in the Winter Classic, the rest of the teams intros are not in the game; even the Detroit Red Wings' octopus coming down from the rafters.

Back again on the mics are Gary Thorne and Bill Clement and while there are a few new additions to the game commentary, it's mostly the same you've been hearing for the last few editions, so get back to remembering these Thorne-isms:

"Scoring opportunity ... he has it on the stick!"

"Oh what a shot that was!"

"Offensive opportunity 3-on-2!"

"Pretty good defensive pressure right there."

As Jeff Bakalar of CNET pointed out in his review, maybe it's time EA goes with a play-by-play pair that have current ties to the NHL. We'd recommend CBC's Jim Hughson, but we're still trying to get "Great save Luongo!" out of our heads from NHL '06.

Other impressions:

• Retired jersey numbers for all teams will be found in every game mode. You won't be able to select No. 99 for your hot shot rookie if you're playing as the Oilers in a season or Be-a-GM mode.

• Detroit's Winter Classic jersey, New Jersey's red and green Christmas tree jerseys and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim threads are all new in NHL 12. The newly-released Winnipeg Jets jerseys will be available for download soon after the game's released next week. Speaking of the Jets, the Teemu Selanne(notes)-era jerseys are not in the game, so if you want to bring No. 8 back to the 'Peg, you'll have to settle with their 1980s look.

• For the ladies out there, you'll now be able to create a female Be-a-Pro player.

• You'll still receive ludicrous trade offers from opposing GMs in Franchise mode and highly-rated players will once again end up sitting out seasons if not signed during free agency.

• Menus are a bit clunky and loading/saving times can frustrate you with the wait.

Gameplay 9/10

The 300 gameplay refinements that EA put into NHL 12 are noticeable as you're playing, but none will really make you jump out of your gaming chair. They end up being nice tweaks to further polish an already solid game. The anticipation AI, net battles, hitting engine and puck physics add to a more realistic gameplay experience.

Graphics 8/10

Most players in the game somewhat resemble their real-life counterparts, but for most -- as usual -- it's a generic model. Arenas have been updated with the inside of most looking similar to the real thing and live Jumbotrons will track stats and broadcast camera angles as selected by the user.

Replay Value 10/10

Between Be-a-GM, Be-a-Pro, Franchise, EA Sports Hockey League, Hockey Ultimate Team, online play and Battle for the Cup, you'll be able to spend plenty of time experiencing something different with NHL 12. The game is deep and definitely won't allow you to be bored playing it.

Overall 9/10

It's easy to nitpick things in NHL 12 because the series has been dominant and groundbreaking for so long. It's like when a prospect is pegged to go No. 1 at the Draft and even as he's listed atop scouting lists, people begin pointing out flaws in his game because they run out of things to praise him about. We might be at this point because the tweaks in NHL 12 aren't massive or earth-shattering; they just make it as solid and well-rounded of a game as they come.

NHL 12 hits stores on Tuesday, Sept. 13 and is available now for EA Season Ticket users.

(Ed. note: I was unable to try any of the online features due to a local connection issue.)

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