I’ve always enjoyed watching ice hockey. If it wasn’t for my utter inability to ice skate then I’d have had a go at playing it too, in fact given the choice of sports to learn it would be right up at the top of my list. So for the past 20 years, ever since experiencing EA Hockey for the first time, I’ve kept a close eye on the NHL series and this year’s version turned up with me having had a few years without an up to date NHL title. Luckily, NHL 12 is every bit as fresh and exciting as I had hoped.
This is an EA Sports game, so you should know by now what to expect in terms of sheer volume of game modes and presentation. We’ll come back to those a little later, but it’s the action on the ice that most people will be interested in, and it’s here that you’ll get totally engrossed. Players move, collide and play with incredible accuracy and realism and every goal, bodycheck, perfect pass and sprawling block feels great. The control system is initially complex but soon becomes more manageable as you learn the ropes. By default you’ll be set up with the dual-stick approach, with one analogue stick moving your player and the other dealing with shots, checks and so on. It’s very flexible but does take some getting used to. Those of you who prefer something a little more traditional can use the alternative setup, assigning the main controls to the controller’s buttons instead of the analogue stick. For those who just want to dive in and have a few games, this is probably the best bet and certainly makes everything far more accessible from the off. There’s also a 2-button NHL 94 mode which really simplifies the controls to the point where many moves aren’t actually possible, but whichever control method you choose the action is frantic, fast and brutal. Hits against the board look and sound genuinely painful, a head-on body check (which might break someone’s stick or send their helmet spinning across the rink) will make you wince and a speedy counter-attack followed by a firm shot into the top corner will be one of the sweetest feelings you’ll get in a sports game.
So all this sounds pretty brilliant, and it is, especially if you play against someone else. Sitting next to your opponent as you slot in a last minute winner (or more commonly for me, get a last minute winner scored against you) is far more satisfying than playing against the AI. And yet for the newcomer this might be as far as you’ll get into the game. there are other beginner-friendly game modes on offer such as the standard season and playoff options, but the real meat of the game comes in a few other flavours, and they’re very much aimed at the ice hockey obsessives.
Be a Pro is becoming a regular feature in EA’s sporty titles, and lets you set yourself up as a new superstar in a team and build yourself up in a semi-RPG type way. Picking the right position to play is crucial here, as you’ll have the camera focussed on you and only you as you play, so if you’re a more attacking player and try to throw yourself round the ice to defend, attack, defend, attack you’ll not only be leaving gaps where you should be, but also end up totally knackered and entirely useless. With the ability to skip parts of the game you’re not playing in your matches end up being a fair bit shorter, which is quite nice for getting through a few seasons.
But then you can, if you choose, get thrown head first into one of the two management style modes. Season mode gives you control of the team’s running, such as transfers, editing your lines and so on. It’s a much deeper mode than just playing the games, and will be great for those who follow a certain team closely and want to delve further into the running of a team. But if that’s still not enough, and you really want to engross yourself in everything there is to do, then the GM mode will be your idea of heaven.
Now to me, the General Manager mode was a step too far, just a bit too much. I didn’t understand the ins and outs needed to make the most of stuff like the salary cap, scouting and negotiations but a friend of mine who is fairly obsessed with this sort of thing nearly burst with excitement when he saw what was on offer. It’s a massive mode that will keep fans of the sport busy for months, but for everyone else it’s likely to sit unloved while the less crazy modes get more affection.
So where does that leave things? Is it just too complex to be accessible? Well no, not at all. There are plenty of available game options (we haven’t covered everything in this review, so expect even more if you pick it up) and the great thing here is that anyone can pick it up and play it, and will probably have a great time in the process. The brilliant presentation, impressive commentary and superb in-game action are marred only by an occasionally odd choice of replays and the fact that casual fans won’t get to play everything on offer. But if you’ve not bought an NHL game for a while, or like the idea of giving it a go then you can’t go wrong. You can even smash the glass round the rink with a hefty bodycheck. Now that’s a big impact.
Reviewed on PS3