Oh boy, it's that time of year again, when the market becomes flooded with annual updates to various different sports games. And who could it possibly be other than Electronic Arts to churn out these updates? They're masters of it, for better or worse. NHL 12 is here and is arguably the most successful of their main franchises (the others being Madden and FIFA). It doesn't sell the most copies but it has, over the past ten years at least, been the most consistent and rewarding sports game out there. And that winning streak has continued for another year, because NHL 12 is truly brilliant across the board.
Playing ice hockey in this country is a welcome breath of fresh air. Apologies in advance for this generalisation, but some Australians are obsessed to the point of ignorance with the cultural bogan festivities surrounding 'Aussie Rules'. So if you're in the same boat; fed up with the endless coverage of a sport that rewards you for missing (strange, eh?), and generally irked by the chants from obese, VB craving construction workers, then you might find a friend in NHL 12. You won't have to listen to people screaming "Good on ya son! CARN PIES!!", or similar phrases to make you wonder about how many intelligent people follow AFL. Ahem, like we said, it's a generalisation and the Americans aren't exactly role models either. Wait a second... we're supposed to be talking about NHL 12, aren't we? Fair dinkum, or something.
It's as simple as this - NHL 12 is the best sports game of the year and it's highly unlikely that anything is going to change that. Where it succeeds and stands out more so than any other EA title, is in its 'Be A Pro' mode. The concept is far from new, but it's integrated much better than FIFA's version and really makes you feel part of a team. You can create a player and make him (or her) look perfectly normal or like something from a fifty year old science fiction movie. Afterwards, you can start in the lowest league and build up your attributes to create a heavy tackling, shot slapping machine. Again, nothing terribly new or revolutionary, but it's the presentation that really ties it all together. The support given by your coach and fellow players, the dynamic camera angle that always works properly, the superb commentary, the highlight reels... everything, it's second to none. Even if you're pulled from the rink because of your poor performance or struggling fitness, it just gives you more of an incentive to get back out there and perform well.
That's where you're going to find the heart and soul of not just NHL 12, but of the sport in general. No other sports game from EA, or even 2K, has been able to deliver so much and keep it so personal at the same time. There's an abundance of extra modes too (it's quite ridiculous actually), including the online based 'Ultimate Team' which is a lengthy journey in itself. Even within Be A Pro, you'll find more options including 'Be A Legend' where you can relive the career of some of the sport's greatest players. That's only the start of NHL 12, there's an enormous amount of content to play around with. Slight improvements have been made to the physics engine too, making every hit feel extra crunchy and every slick move feel extra smooth. Also, the glass around the rink can be broken, and if you really want to embarrass the opposition, then how about slamming them over the railing and into the benches?
Of course the gameplay is still terrific as you'd expect it to be: fast, brutal, punishing, rewarding, deep, accessible, and never boring. Ice hockey has infinitely more versatility than any grass sport. Traditional football is made up of models who throw tantrums if their salary is less than six figures per week, rugby is susceptible to sluggish passages of play, and we've already mentioned the flaws of the local Australian football. Although to be fair, NHL 12 will take some time to become familiar with if you're not a supporter, but once you get your head around the rules then it's fairly simple. The controls are excellent too, with all of your shots mapped to the right analogue stick for power and precision, while defensive and passing moves are left to the shoulder pads. Some other, more technical aspects of play require the face buttons but it's not mandatory if you're playing casually or simply looking to start a fight.
And those fights can be seen up close in extreme detail, much like the rest of the game which looks brilliant once again. It's not an overhaul by any stretch of the imagination (since when has that ever been the case?), but it's still a gorgeous looking game even with all of those clones in the crowd. NHL 12 looks great where it matters - on the ice; player likenesses, scrapes and scratches, it doesn't get any more authentic. The whole package is practically free of problems in the gameplay department, but it does suffer from a long running problem with EA Sports - the bloody menus. Why can't they run smoothly and why hasn't this been fixed? The same issue plagues FIFA every year and they're obviously sharing assets between studios, so why not address the problem? You'll constantly get slowed down in the career modes as a result and it almost ruins the otherwise flawless presentation. EA servers are notoriously unreliable and nothing has changed, and this is partly why the flow evaporates outside of the actual matches. Just be thankful you don't have to spend an overly lengthy period of time off the ice.
The only other way that you could possibly fault NHL 12 is by asking the question, is it enough of an improvement over the game we bought twelve months ago? That's your decision to make. NHL 12 is essential for pure, hardcore fans of ice hockey who've already made up their mind. In fact, they're probably playing it right now. If you're a casual fan then you're not going to be one hundred percent satisfied with this as it's more of a refinement and less of a full upgrade. And if you want to get into ice hockey for the first time, then look no further. Realistically, NHL 12 is going to last you until the end of 2011 with the single player modes alone. When you bring it online, the game becomes endless. There was a minor bit of lag because the only games available were hosted in America, which is to be expected, but it's still playable which is impressive given that ice hockey is the fastest sport in the world. When it's released tomorrow, everything is ready to go for those wishing to get stuck into the online modes straight away. Just don't tell your partner that you're buying it.
NHL 12 is the pinnacle of sports games, whether it's football or rugby or polo or lawn bowls. The game understands what makes the sport so damn good in the first place and never tries to improve it with fancy gimmicks or stupid new additions. By concentrating where it matters most, EA has delivered one of their finest ever sports games. It's the closest you'll get to being there yourself, but you can do it in the comfort of your own home without falling flat on your arse, or even worse, being knocked unconscious. NHL 12 is a triumph, setting an example that others will hopefully follow. It hasn't revolutionised the sport because it doesn't need to, it just keeps focusing on what's already great. NHL 12 is more than great, it's the best yet, and God knows how they're going to top this next year...