I got to play in the Winter Classic venue, so it feels right to start with the presentation. While it's hard to get a read on the commentary (low volume for the demo), I could immediately tell work was done to player faces. It's tough to gauge how great all the players will look, but the stars definitely received some love and pixelated magic. Ovechkin and Crosby were highlighted in the pregame ceremonies, and I can't speak highly enough about how realistic their faces looked. It would be an amazing feat if the NHL developers could spend that amount of time on everyone.
Beyond the snow and Heinz Field aura, the Winter Classic essentially does what you'd expect -- provides a little extra excitement to your standard game of hockey by giving you the added weather element. The game plays out a bit differently on this ice as well because pucks roll around a bit more and lead to a bit more "clumsy" hockey so to speak. (By the way, the puck is now loose on slap shots, just have to throw that in here even if it's not a presentation thing.)
Another element I noticed here is that the players on the benches are way more alive this year. In addition to all the players being rendered and represented on the bench, they are also reacting to what's happening on the ice and actively jumping on and off the bench to get over the boards for line changes. So if you wreck someone near your bench, you can see your players cheer you on or just simply embrace the body you have dumped into their laps.
The all new EA Sports Action Tracker is a presentational addition as well as the showcase for the new simulation engine in the game. This Action Tracker is similar in look to NHL GameCenter, and at any point during a game you're playing you can press pause and check out any action that has happened on the ice to that point. Key moments in the game will even be highlighted as replays in the Action Tracker. It's a really good looking addition, and it's invaluable at the end of periods, especially for uploading purposes. I don't know too much about the simulation engine changes at this point, but again, I do know the Action Tracker plays right into the new simulation engine. In short, the development team needed to make this type of big change to the presentation in order to make those under-the-hood changes to the simulation engine.
Bloody chaos. This build is bloody chaos!
It's hard to get a good read on everything because the developers even said they really turned some things up in this build to show off the new goalie interactions, hitting and so forth. Physicality reigns supreme here (I swear every other check near the glass ended up breaking the glass), but there were some underlying changes at work that are still worth discussing.
First off, hitting variety has been increased. That does not just mean there are more massive checks, it means that checks are entirely changed in terms of how both players can react to them. During my time with the game, I saw checks where both players fell down. I also saw instances where the player who made the check fell while the other player was able to stumble and keep going. I even witnessed players stumbling or falling to their knees after being checked. What's even more wild about these checks is that if some player falls to his knees, another player can still come in and check him again and ruin that guy's day even more.
And even with the checks being the definition of absurd in this build, it's worth noting there is much more information tied into these checks. Weight and height are even more important this year -- smaller players will bounce off big dudes or even fall over -- and puck control, strength and other attributes are also working together here in an attempt to better simulate how checks should play out on the ice.
Beyond the checking, the developers were not fibbing when they said the goalie is live now. At the start, I went hard to the net a couple times just to see if I could get a penalty (hint hint: I did). After the whistle, the goalies are just as live; I was knocking goalies around and knocking the net off its moorings well after the whistle had been blown.
The issue with the goalie interactions right now is again a matter of tuning. If you even touch the goalie or the crease area something big seems to be happening. Either my player is falling over and getting stuck in the crease, or he is just simply destroying the goalie. It's great that the goalie's mask can be knocked off, and some people will like that goalies can fight and all that, but we can't forget this is not NHL Hitz. (Quick tangent: It would be far more interesting to me to see one skater give the goalie a snow shower while a defender comes in and sort of grabs him and just pushes him a bit -- rather than just full-on chaos always breaking out after every whistle)
There are very fascinating and worthwhile experiences that can be added to the game if the goalie interactions are tuned in the coming months, but right now it's hard to know what will happen because it's a new addition and it hasn't been tuned right yet. On the more positive side of things, tussling in front of the net and screening really look good so far. There were a plentiful amount of deflections, and one of my goals (I scored two, hooray) was directly tied to a great screen in front of the net. This to me seems like the much bigger addition to the game than the checking tweaks. There also seemed to be more deflections and redirects because of this increased traffic.
The developers have also been talking about some of the AI tweaks that have been made this year, but since I have played only head to head, it's hard to get a feel for those. Nevertheless, I know this is an important topic to you guys, so I'll give you a couple of the bullet points that come from the developers themselves at it relates to AI:
- New CPU shot-decision logic -- they shoot more and are more aggressive
- New skate with intent animation and logic -- better planning by the AI
- CPU will aim for goalie's pads to create rebounds when no other scoring chance is available
- CPU puck carriers will skate more aggressively towards open space
- New "stay onside" logic
- Improved in-zone set up logic.
To wrap up my gameplay thoughts, I need to tell you about one first-hand experience. The best thing about my time with the demo came in the form of a delicious example of strength and balance. I used the Penguins in the demo, and during one play I was grinding it out down low. At some point, Malkin got the puck. After the smooth-skinned Russian escaped from the scrum, I used the (previously nerfed) shield button to use Malkin's girth to get out in front of the net and keep the defender on my hip. I was able to get myself to the slot and fire off a quick wrist shot through a screen and directly into the top of the net. It was a singular moment of sheer talent, skill and strength.
It's those moments where star players stand out and show off their unique skills that most excite me about this game. Hopefully the developers are focusing on giving players some signature style and skills so individuals as well as teams can stand out more moving forward.
NHL 12 still seems really promising to me, but it's really hard to get a gauge on where the game is at this point because of the arcade-like tuning to the gameplay. I have been assured this is not where the game will be when the game ships, but it still clouds the overall gameplay situation. That being said, the game still seems to be making positive strides this year on the ice. Of course, one of the big questions remaining is what is being done to improve the game off the ice.