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Broken Glass, Giant Hits, and the Other Endearing Qualities of EA's NHL 12

I have looked forward to the release of the newest EA Sports NHL game every September since 1995. The first NHL game I owned was NHL '94 for my Super Nintendo. I loved it. I loved the 32-bit animations, that the sticks appeared to be three times as big as the players, and the awesome animated goal celebrations. That game hooked me on hockey video games for life.

I spent my teenage and college years playing every iteration of the EA NHL series. I rented the old Wayne Gretzky SNES game just so I could relocate teams. Eastside Hockey Manager as originally conceived by Risto Remes? Check. The newer version SEGA stopped releasing in 2007? Check. The hours of fun I took out of the EA NHL series was never fully replicated though. And every September, whether or not there are any improvements at all, I look forward to the release of the newest NHL game.

NHL 10 and NHL 11 were both very enjoyable games. NHL 12 is no exception. Most of the bigger issues from NHL 11 have been fixed for 2011-12 so follow the jump, take a seat in a pew, and allow me to stand at the altar and preach the greatness of NHL 12.

In recent years the NHL series has really begun collecting accolades within the sports gaming industry for the vast strides the series has taken with this generation of consoles. This year is no different, and a lot of that comes from the biggest improvement to the game this year:  the new physics engine that creates a much more realistic physical environment. The most obvious difference is observed when you try to hit someone. One thing that drove me crazy about NHL 11 was that if you hit someone in the back while they're skating away from you it appeared as if you pushed them forward. Not now though.

The game now considers all aspects of the hit. If you hit someone with all of the force you can generate chances are that both players will go flying. You can flip guys into the bench, knock their helmets off, and knock their sticks loose. In the process they eliminated most of the nagging annoying penalty calls from 2011. Gone are the constant interference, high sticking, checking from behind, and tripping penalties. With the new physical improvements comes the ability to run goalies (and fight them, if you wish) and break glass. Most of these additions are things the EA NHL community has been clammoring for since this system generation began.

EA has made some vast leaps in hockey gaming AI this year. In the past your players didn't really do much when you had the puck. This year is different. They follow the system set by the user much better than they used to. They crash the net like gangbusters, but the opposition AI works just as well. They fill passing lanes exceptionally well compared to last year. For instance, if you try to make a pass from the sideboards back to the opposite point on the power play it WILL BE intercepted 99 times out of 100.

You can, however, back the defense off with speed which is a big improvement to the game play. Neither speed nor size were appropriately valued before this year. St. Louis could wreck people as if he were a giant which made players like Zdeno Chara significantly less valuable than they are in real life. Speed was equally devalued. It was difficult for guys to get space unless they were turbo burners. This year a 6'3 250 lb'er isn't going to be skating like Mike Modano, and likewise a 5'5 160 pounder isn't going to treat you like a potato masher treats potatoes..

You might be asking yourself how this relates to the Stars in-game. Well, personally, I could never use the Stars for extended periods of time without undergoing a gigantic roster makeover where I inevitably had to give players away for relatively little due to the difficult trading mechanics of NHL 11. I would move players that weren't great skaters immediately regardless of other attributes. So, Mark Fistric was always the first to get the axe. Nicklas Grossman was second. Matt Niskanen always stayed because he had speed despite the reality that he is worse than both Fistric and Grossman. The physics changes address this issue, and take away a significant portion of the inflated value of a Niskanen. His speed becomes less valuable since he can get absolutely crunched by a decent hitter.

The physics engine meshes really well with the type of game the Stars appear to want to play in 2011-12. They want a responsible, but physical, game. NHL 12 provides a reasonable model for the Stars approach to be played through. The smarter player AI will make a few guys look much better than they otherwise would, and the size/speed adjustments give the Stars new-found defensive depth up front much more of a purpose in this installment.

As nice as it is to actually be able to use whoever fits your preferred playing style from the Stars for once, I would be remiss if I concluded this review without discussing some of the other changes which really caught my eye for the 2012 edition of NHL. EA made some game mode tweaks which really stand out, especially to Be A Pro.

Last season I didn't really even touch Be A Pro mode. There was no real reason to. It was the same as 2010, but with up to date rosters. This year, along with the physics tweaks which allow you to play a more customized game, EA has introduced in-game tasks which, if completed, allow the player to gain more XP towards Player Growth. It's a really interesting feature, but they need to go further with if tor 2013. A really interesting addition would be the ability to perform practice-like drills on a weekly basis to gain further XP in much the same way Madden has allowed training.

The other thing I would like to see added, (if possible) would be World Junior tournaments. This edition of the game allows you to begin your career as a 15 year old in the CHL and work your way up to be drafted which is loads of fun. Why not add more detail though? Adding the World Junior tournaments would add another very enjoyable layer of fun to this growing mode. The addition of the ability to create a female character has been covered at length, but it's details like this which show EA is willing to think outside the box to create the best game they can. Adding nerdy details like junior tournaments would do just that.

I've written 1100 words about NHL 12 without covering aspects of the game which are relatively similar to last seasons edition, or covering the slightly revamped in-game presentation. I'm not sure what that is more of a statement about: my laziness or how enjoyable the game is. Perhaps it's a little of both. If you've ever purchased an EA NHL game, but stopped for whatever reason, this is the time to get back into the swing of things. You most likely won't regret it.

*In case you didn't see it and are interested,click the link if you're interested in playing in the EASHL with fellow Stars fans.