EA brings forth authenticity with its attention to detail.
When I was very young, my parents separated. Having grown up to that point on Long Island, I ended up moving with my mother to the great state of Maine. It was there — in the cold climate of New England — that the love of hockey I began to develop on Long Island flourished into a lifelong addiction. Stepping onto the ice for the first time, learning the fundamentals of the game at a young age, and playing year round simply solidified my love of all things hockey.
Now that I’m older, I reflect upon those days fondly. Traveling around New England, throwing my body all over the crease to make Arturs Irbe-like saves (yes, I was a goalie), and trying to get as many puck marks as possible on my goalie equipment was what I lived for. But wait… puck marks on goalie equipment? That’s what mattered to me? Strangely, it did.
It was this random fact that came to mind when EA came to the IGN offices recently to show me NHL 12. Because as much as puck marks on a goaltender’s equipment are meaningless to many hockey fans and gamers alike, making a goalie’s equipment look worn-in and used adds much-needed authenticity to the EA’s version of the sport. Of course, puck marks have already been added in previous editions of the game, but it’s the addition of more random little things like that which kept me engaged in NHL 12.
Hockey isn’t a sterile sport about 12 men on a sheet of ice, bringing a black rubber disc from one end to the other. It’s much more than that, and it’s nice to see that the developers of EA fully appreciate the finer (and minor) points of the sport, no matter how meaningless they might seem.
There are some expected changes to be had, like an all-new soundtrack, and unexpected changes, like new in-game graphics more in-line with how Versus and TSN present their games. There’s even a visual action tracker (ala NHL GameCenter) that records statistics apart from the meat and potatoes of a score sheet, such as not only how many shots were taken by a given team but where on net those shots were aimed.
But it was when the EA representative loaded a practice session that I got to see some of the little things that allow NHL 12 to mimic the real game. One of the most impressive of these small steps is in terms of player contact, something absolutely integral in the sport, and something that will finally make an appearance in NHL 12.
For instance, players jockeying in front of the net for position react more realistically to each other. A big, stout defense-man will tend to physically dominate the positional game in front of his own net when dealing with a smaller forward. But in turn, that forward’s agility may allow him to briefly squirm free from the watchful eye of a larger (but slower) defense-man, leaving him open for a tipped shot or a close-range one-timer while the defense-man is left flat-footed, screening his goaltender. Size really makes a difference in NHL 12, and it showed in the demo.
And speaking of screening the goaltender, that was another of the minor points that brought the game’s realism to the fore. The developer coordinated a struggle in front of the net between a defense-man and a center. The goaltender wasn’t just standing in the crease accepting the screen, however. Instead, he would try to sneak looks at the puck carrier floating around atop the circles by either actively peering around the screen, or occasionally going into a butterfly in order to steal a gaze if the action was too heated up front. And as the puck carrier brought the puck past the hash marks and into traffic, the netminder wasn’t afraid to throw a well-timed poke check to take the pressure off. Better yet, how a goalie reacts in these kinds of situations won’t be the same across the board but rather based on how aggressive the goalie is considered.
Another interesting facet of the tangled mess around the crease that added to NHL 12’s refined approach is how standard players and goaltenders react to one another. It’s possible to get wrapped up with a goaltender while out in front of the net. Likewise, taking a hard drive to the net only to run into a defense-man may send you careening into the goaltender, who will in turn take a fall, perhaps sending the net off of the pegs. If the action is heated enough and the collision violent enough, the goaltender may even lose his helmet as play comes to a stop. Whether or not you’ll take an ill-timed interference penalty for such contact is another story entirely. And such contact could potentially lead to a first-person fight in which the goaltender takes part.
The game is cluttered with even smaller additions that bring the game’s realism forward. Players could always lose and break sticks, but now they can lose helmets during certain situations. And like in real life, if a puck careens into a stray stick or helmet, it will react to it, potentially breaking up well-aimed passes or deflecting shots. Awkwardly placed slap shots can break the panes of glass around the rink, and it’s entirely possible that taking a run at a player in front of either bench may send the recipient of that punishment over the boards. And speaking of benches, players on the team are accurately represented on the benches this year, including the entire roster right down to the backup goaltender nestled in a free corner.
NHL 12 wants to stress the little things, and it seems that it’s on track to do just that. Sure, there’s more to talk about as NHL 12 slowly approaches — for instance, EA’s desire for players to feel like there are real differences between different kinds of players — but that’s almost too obvious for me to be truly impressed. Instead, it was the attention to all of the little things in an attempt to draw out bits and pieces of NHL authenticity that impressed me the most, and it’s with my eyes on those finer points that I eagerly wait to play more of NHL 12