NHL ’12: The Elegance of Intention

For most hockey video game players, there’s a large gap between the game-play experience and the gorgeous visuals. The cut-screens and screen captures are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, but the subtleties and details are largely lost when playing the game with the standard camera setting. The default “from above” camera angle really doesn’t give the opportunity to fully immerse oneself in the on-ice experience; it serves instead as the ultimate scout’s “catbird seat,” making it easy to see what’s going to happen well before it actually does.

With that in mind, upon opening up NHL 12 for the first time, I immediately moved away from that default setting to the “action” camera. I’ve gotten plenty of opportunities to watch hockey “from above” in the press box, and I want my video game experience to be far more visceral. Placed down near the ice, this camera is approximately what it would be like if one were floating 15 feet over the ice, moving back and forth as the puck matriculates around the rink (thanks, Doc Emrick).

It took no time at all to notice what is perhaps the most important advancement in this year’s edition of EA’s vaunted NHL series. Put simply, the artificial intelligence feels true to the sport like never before. If you’ve carefully crafted your lines, you’ll actually get a good sense of who’s coming behind you to support the play and what your passing/shooting options will be when you enter the offensive zone.

Without the benefit of seeing the whole ice with the default “from above” camera angle, you really get the sensation of speed that makes NHL hockey perhaps the world’s most thrilling spectator sport. Hockey’s combination of grit and grace is unparalleled, and playing NHL 12 with the action camera really gives you a terrific sense of what life on the ice is like. Other improvements – such as the inclusion of the Winter Classic – have been given more promotion, but it’s the improved AI that makes NHL 12 the best entry yet in EA’s 20+ year history of hockey videogames. The elegance of intention – from setting your lines to knowing what to expect from your virtual teammates – is truly stunning.

If I happen to find myself holding a slim lead with the clock running down, I find it uniquely fun to take control of the goalie for the final minutes, leaving it to my teammates to swat the puck towards the opponent’s empty net. Making a game-sealing save with the clock running down is far more enjoyable, and the intuitive goalie controls make it surprisingly easy to drop down into a butterfly, make a glove/pad save, or even make a spectacular diving stop on a cross-ice one-timer.

It’s hard to believe today, but back in the early 1990s, EA’s NHL video games were actually more popular than Madden football. And though Madden has become a cultural phenomenon like no other, NHL 12 takes another huge step towards bridging the gap between the two franchises. It’s a great success on virtually every level, building on the excellent NHL 11 platform and delivering improvements that – while subtle – have significantly increased the visceral joy one gets from playing it. The graphics and features are wonderful, but it’s the better-than-ever gameplay that makes NHL ’12 so special.

NHL 12 is available now (list price $59.99) at the following retailers:

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