Ice Hockey makes for the best sports video games: whereas some sports require so many controls they become over-complicated and others have straightforward gameplay which make the resulting action too easy, the NHL games sit in the middle. Easy to learn, difficult to master and with the right level of knowing violence all make for an entertaining and realistic digital recreation.
Of course one of the biggest issues with any sports game is depreciation. With new editions that implicate both upgrades in technology and changing team rosters year-on-year, by the time the follow-up has hit shelves the previous one already starts to feel out of date. While an understandable cycle, it does mean that any unique qualities of one year are likely to be forgotten.
Despite now being ten years old, NHL 12 is the ice hockey game that gets everything so right it has become a timeless example of its genre. From mechanics to presentation it remains endlessly playable even a decade after it was first released, it remains a definitive hockey game and should be remembered as such.
The real-life 2011-2012 NHL season saw a high standard of hockey culminating in a surprise finale where one of the lowest-seeded play-off teams, the Los Angeles Kings, defeated fellow underdogs New Jersey Devils in six games for their first Stanley Cup victory. EA Sports’ game of that season follows suit: technically accomplished digital ice hockey of the highest order with a lot of surprises thrown in for good measure.
The first being the variety of options the game has on offer. As well as all thirty NHL franchises in their entirety and their AHL affiliate teams, 12 also has gone to the lengths of including the premier leagues of Germany, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and the Czech Republic, a large collection of national sides and even goes as far to include three Canadian junior leagues (There the sport is taken very seriously at every level.)
With any of the hundreds of teams on offer there is the option to play anything from a single game to an entire season or playoff run, and in the case of the international teams, participate in a world championship tournament. Those who want a more in-depth experience can use General Manager mode, with far greater customisation options for their chosen team.
A new mode in this game was the Winter Classic, the annual event played in front of a stadium audience. The real thing provided a whole new atmosphere to hockey and NHL 12 manages to capture just that. Playing in NHL 12’s Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the snow falling onto the ice and rapturous celebrations from the packed house of fans is a whole new and welcome feeling for hockey video games.
The attention to detail in the game extends to the game’s soundtrack, with an eclectic selection of similar but very different tracks. From the familiar sounds of Judas Priest and Dropkick Murphys, ELO and Beady Eye to lesser-known artists who nevertheless provide rocking tracks, it is exactly the sort of music you would expect to hear being played at a real-life hockey game.
Of course the important thing is how it plays, and the good news is NHL 12 is as good as any ice hockey game that has come before or since. The improved physics engine used here makes a big difference on player movement, which feels fluid and responsive, so much so that you can almost feel the heft and weight of them as you guide them around the ice.
Unlike in other sports games, here nothing is done automatically for players. Passing the puck does not automatically find the next player, which can be frustrating but makes the game more challenging. Controls are highly responsive, both in traditional button form and using the right controller stick to move the player’s stick, either to move the puck around or make a shot attempt. Given how much has to be done to earn a goal here, when it finally comes off, it is a very rewarding feeling.
NHL 12 really was the peak of the ice hockey game, where the developers had got everything right and made the experience feel as realistic as possible. The ones that followed fell into the trap of feeling the need to improve but ended up just adding new window dressing. Even those who know little to nothing about hockey (or as they are otherwise known, the English) will find NHL 12 so very accessible; it is possible for anyone to pick it up and play.
If you haven’t got a copy, you’ll find NHL 12 available from Amazon on Xbox 360 and PS3. And if you want to know how the latter day examples of NHL play out, our full reviews of NHL 20 and NHL 21 are here.