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Published on June 11th, 2011 | by Ken Yarbrough, Editor

E3 2011: NHL ’12 Hands-On Impressions

When EA invited me to E3 this year, the first title that came to mind wasn’t Battlefield 3 or Mass Effect 3, or Star Wars: The Old Republic. The first game that I was excited to see was NHL ’12. I’m a huge hockey fan, and have been sorely disappointed with every title that’s ever been released.

While I thought that NHL ’11 was a great hockey game (you can read my review here), I still felt it suffered from the same lingering problem that every NHL game has. The AI has never been made intelligent enough to play smart, so instead they are given free reign to commit interference penalties, while not being called. There is nothing more frustrating that setting up a one-timer in front of the net, just to have the defender lay out your teammate before the pass reaches him.

So when I sat down with one of the developers of NHL ’12, the first question out of my mouth was: “Have you fixed the unfair interference AI?” Thankfully, the developer knew exactly what I was talking about, and suggested playing a match with him. He wanted me to experience the new feature they’ve added, and to see for myself if it was, in fact, fixed.

That new feature that they’ve added is Net Battles. In NHL ’11, the developers added Board Battles, which allowed for board play and fighting for the puck along the walls. In NHL ’12, they’ve added the ability to put a forward right in front of the goalie, and the defender and the forward will actually jockey for position, just like in the real life sport. I wasn’t sold on the idea, to be honest, until I saw it in action.

Smaller forwards are more agile, but are also more easily knocked around, while larger defenseman are slower, but punish a lot harder in front of their netminder. The end result of these Net Battles is that if your forward is open in front of the net, and you pass it to him, the one-timer will be pulled off, as the defender no longer uses the cheap interference tactic from years past. On the other hand, if your forward is not open and you pass the puck to him, in all likelihood it will get picked off and result in a turnover going the other way.

Also, as an addition to this system, the goalies will now lean around players to see the puck, as well as push players out of the way. This new mechanic also leads to screened shots that the goalie cannot see, again, just like in the NHL. All of it adds up to make NHL ’12 the most fluid hockey title yet seen.

This is an absolute brilliant addition to NHL videogames, and one that fixes the biggest glaring problem with them. I lost, but in my defense I was playing against one of the developers and I was playing as my favorite team (Colorado Avalanche) who are absolutely terrible right now. So I feel like I did well enough to keep the score within one.

Net Battles, coupled with all of the additions EA has added in recent years, made the title feel like an actual hockey game. I was compelled to set up plays, and look for the open man, as opposed to trying for the quick one-timer. Any fan of hockey knows that a good team cycles the puck when in the offensive zone, and that more time spent in the zone means more scoring opportunities. In the past, the key was to find that “sweet” one-timer, and that was it. Now, the gameplay feels more fluid. It actually feels back and forth, with time being spent in each zone for significant periods.

The presentations have also been touched up, though most of the presentation upgrades weren’t that noticeable. However, one new addition, is amazing. The EA Sports team has added a new feature which operates similar to ESPN’s Gamecenter application on www.espn.com. Essentially, you get an overlay of the ice with every shot, hit and goal recorded. You can click on any of those actions, and actually view the replay. It performs brilliantly and allows you to quickly find all of the “action” moments from a given period, or the entire game. They have included the old-fashioned replay features as well, so no need to worry about losing the ability to go 360 degrees to see the play from whatever angle you want.

All in all, this is the best hockey game I’ve ever played. For the first time ever I feel like a solid hockey game is going to be released. Assuming EA keeps all of the great online features from last year’s title, and doesn’t change the AI too much from what I experienced, NHL fans and sports gamers alike are in for quite a treat.

NHL ’12 launches on September 13 in North America, and September 9 in Europe. Just in time for the regular season.

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I'm the guy everyone loves to hate. The resident Devil's Advocate for GAMINGtruth, my words are harsh, my message serious. The gaming industry needs some big changes to keep from destroying itself.

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