People hold a lot of misconceptions about hockey. Despite its reputation as a sport for thuggish brutes, hockey is a game for the intelligent, fleet-footed of the world. And though most people list soccer as the game’s closest analog, hockey is more akin to basketball than any other sport: a free-flowing, up-and-down game requiring snap decisions and as much freestyling as set plays.
Unlike baseball, which is governed by mathematics, or football, similarly dictated by math and geometry, hockey is a game that necessitates immediate, real-time judgments of an amorphous playing environment. Simulating this presents a problem for game designers who build games with objective decision making systems. This is why, for example, in the early iterations of EA’s NHL series, skating across the front of the net while winding up for a slapshot would almost always result in a goal. When the user presses and holds the shoot button, a digitized goalie will attempt to block the imminent shot, rather than poke check the puck or track it longer before making a save attempt. Hockey games have always been based on a binomial cause-and-effect structure, rather than a continuously changing decision module allowing for multiple results from the same set of actions.
With NHL 12, EA has attempted to change that and (mostly) succeeds. The key to NHL 12 lies in its updated “anticipation” AI. In the flow of a hockey game, there are 10 skaters all moving independently of one another, trying to position themselves in the optimal place to get a loose put, to rebound, or to position himself to score. (It’s widely accepted that Wayne Gretzky was not the greatest hockey player because of his stick handling or shot — Mario Lemieux had him beaten in both of those departments while contemporaries like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin surpass Gretzky’s technical abilities. Gretzky was great because he knew where the puck was going to be before anyone else.).
In order to replicate that experience, EA needed to create a widely divergent set of personality traits that allowed the computing system to make more realistic on-ice decisions. So when a team is down by a goal late in the third period, an aggressive forward can be found cherry picking up ice. Offensive-minded defensemen will join the rush as well as crash toward the net in the offensive zone if there’s a hole in the defense’s coverage.
In this regard, the revamp was a resounding success. Although there are still moments of AI indecision — for example, players still stack up at the blue line to avoid offsides — the gameplay feels like real hockey. No longer can you play hyper aggressive offense knowing that there’s little chance of an opposing AI player sneaking behind your defensemen. This game forces you to think about real-time positioning in all three zones (offensive, neutral, and defensive) at all times, which any hockey player will tell you is the key to winning hockey games.
The designers added other subtle touches to the gamplay to make it feel more realistic. Players knock the puck out of the air with their sticks rather than skating by it and can also lose their helmets and sticks after big hits. You’re even able to interact with the goalie for the first time in the series’s history. Perhaps most impressively, after I scored a tip in goal with what was possibly a high stick, the play was put to a video review. Any frequent player of EA games — specifically the Madden and NCAA Football series — knows that once a play gets reviewed, it will be overturned. This is because previous EA games were structured around the aforementioned binomial system: it’s either good or it’s not, except when the designers attempt to add realism by including these “reviewed plays,” which were uniformly reversed. After a short review, the playcall stood and the game resumed. It’s these minor touches that set NHL 12 apart and above not only other hockey games, but all other EA Sports games.
NHL 12 is not without it’s flaws, though. It is an extremely buggy game. There are countless viral videos of in-game glitches, such as one where two fallen players appear to be dry humping on the ice. And there’s a glaring and highly repeatable glitch when changing lines in the “Be a Pro” mode. But the glitches aren’t damning enough to be problems that you can’t look past.
Meanwhile, the game’s various modes are standard fare: a career mode (“Be a Pro,” as well as the new “Be a Legend” mode), franchise mode (renamed “Be a GM”, allowing you to futz with salary cap restrictions and other general managerial duties), and online play. The game also adds the now annual outdoor “Winter Classic,” which is visually impressive but otherwise nothing to write home about. But no one buys hockey games for anything other than a quality simulation, and in that regard, NHL 12 stands head and shoulders above the rest.