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NHL 12 Preview

What's New

The folks at EA Canada tend to like talking about a "trinity" of gameplay improvements, so it's no surprise that the NHL developers are now touting Anticipation AI, Dynamic Goalies and a Full Contact Physics Engine as three big gameplay improvements for this year's title. These elements were already somewhat present in the E3 build, so this is more about the development team officially touting these changes to make sure people realize what's going on under the hood this year. Nevertheless, I don't quite think all three of these changes are on the same level, nor do I think all three will be as noticeable on a game-to-game basis.

In terms of impact, I do think the physics engine is the biggest deal of the three. It essentially ties into a lot of what's happening with goalies this year, and it also works to improve and fix much of what was wrong with the physics last year. However, I want to start with a negative here and point out that some ugly animations crop up with the implementation of this physics engine. I think it's the price you pay, at least for now, to experience more organic moments, but it doesn't excuse the look of some of the interactions. For example, nudging and bumping some players from behind causes the puck carrier to react in some questionable ways. It's nice to see some new stumbles, but it's just not that common for players to be checked down or pushed to the ice from behind as much as they are here. On top of that, some goofiness crops up when the goalies interact with players. These moments have been cleaned up quite a bit when compared to the E3 build -- goalies would flop and writhe around after every small bump -- but there are still some moments where goalies skip between animations after contact without any sort of transitional animation to smooth things about.


That being said, these negatives are worth dealing with because the physics engine adds a new layer to the action. The gameplay feels a bit more slowed down this year, and the massive open-ice hits are harder to come by in this build. So I got to see a lot more of these new shoving, nudging, bumping, riding, stumbling checks and animations. At the same time, with less of these massive checks occurring, the moments where you hip check someone who flies out of the rink and onto a team's bench stand out and get you really excited. To put it quite concisely, it's all about the nuances of the physics engine helping to highlight the flashy aspects of it.

It's just another step in the grand scheme of things. It's great fun battling down low and pushing players around in the crease area, but the next step has to be users getting the ability to nudge and interact with players at any spot on the ice without using a check button. Either way, the additions to the physics engine really stand out when compared to NHL 11.

The Anticipation AI additions seem to be helping to clog the neutral zone a bit more, but I would say it's harder to see how it is changing potential outlet passes on offense. In the demo video, it was shown how smart defenders would read passing lanes, while offensive-minded players would leak out when they realize a change of possession is about to occur. I certainly could not be as sloppy with my passes or just clear the puck through the middle of the ice as often in this build, but I would not say I felt as dangerous as I could have during transition opportunities either. My feelings on this topic were mostly brought to the forefront while playing with the New York Rangers. I feel like Marc Staal is still a relatively unappreciated defender in the NHL, but he was a formidable player on the blue line for the Rangers in the game I played. He was halting plays at the blue line and deflecting passes. On the other side of things, I did not feel like Marian Gaborik was ignoring his defensive responsibilities enough or leaking out for some long Brad Richards outlet passes at key moments.

Above and Beyond

I actually feel like this is a better area to discuss how goalies are "dynamic" this year because it directly ties into how players vary from one another on the ice. I feel like hockey is a tough sport to mimic when it comes to adding signature elements to players. There are not a ton of distinct skating styles or shot styles that can be easily noticed by regular fans -- at least not when compared to something like the NBA or MLB -- so you almost have to be a bit more calculating about the process of adding authenticity to the players. You have to be more focused on body types, player styles and extend that to the way teams act in the playoffs versus how they act in a regular season game (see: more physical play).

So it should really come as no surprise that I'm having trouble noticing a huge difference in goalies so far. This does not mean it's not there, it's just that I have played more with standard butterfly goalies so far rather than an outrageous goalie like Tim Thomas. So things I have seen for certain goalies could be signature moments, or it could just be the small sample size clouding my views. For example, Luongo let in a super-soft goal during a key moment in one game I played. Does that mean there is something at work here, or was it simply a fluky moment? During another moment, Luongo went to his knees early and gave up a top-shelf goal. Is this because he was lacking confidence, or was it simply because he's a butterfly goalie? I don't want to draw any conclusions yet, so you sort of just have to keep an eye on things and wait for the release of the game.

I do know there is certainly something at work here in terms of trying to make players look and feel different, but it's just unclear how deep the changes will be. I can say for sure size, weight, speed and balance are present factors. On another level, talent is noticeable. I had a singular moment of brilliance with Steven Stamkos where I had a great stride going and was able to take on two defenders and find just enough room to fire off a wicked wrist shot that went top shelf for a goal. It was a great moment because there was no funny business involved. It was simply a wicked wrist shot that was placed in a perfect spot by an ulta-talented shooter. Size and weight play out most noticeably with checks, but they are also big factors on offense. In another game, I used Anze Kopitar to really dominate and create scoring chances by using the shield button and his big body to get where I wanted to go.


Tying into the idea of player variety is goal variety and scoring chances. This might be the part of the game that has excited me the most so far. The gritty goals have been really enjoyable to this point. The puck feels a little more bouncy and on edge at various points, and it really adds to the scrums, extra pokes and shots that happen down low. I really want to see how this all plays out in OTP because it will be interesting to see if this might lead to more player variety online. If it's easier to score as a different style of player, then it might open things up a bit more for OTP games.

Backhand shots are also way more inaccurate this year, so it feels even more important to try and keep people from getting off clean shots on the forehand. With more regular shots going in because of screens and all that, there is a certain level of tension that builds up as you play defense. I did not feel like I was simply trying to stop my opponent from doing a cheesy wrap wrist shot, rather I was simply trying to close down shooting lanes and force players into poor scoring chances.

Finally, it's always nice to report that I'm seeing a variety of final scores. I had one game that was 5-4, but I also had a 2-1 OT game, a 1-0 OT game and a 3-2 game. Every game felt different, but again, I would say it's hard to say how different the teams played because of user control and sample size.

Presentation

It's easy to be up front when it comes to presentation in NHL 12. What's here will not be considered a major selling point. The ice looks better, and the graphics have certainly received another boost, but the NHL franchise is trailing when it comes to delivering TV-style presentation. On the bright side, there was some new commentary -- Gary Thorne mentioned the NHL Network at one point -- and there was a snazzy new replay sequence during a game where the commentators talked about how a specific player was doing, followed by some highlights of what he had done to that point. In addition, the Action Tracker will add a ton to the communal aspects and franchise reports that are a big part of sharing your game with others.


Nevertheless, it still seems like not enough has been done to bring the excitement to another level on the ice. The commentary is not at a level it needs to be at, and even if with some added entrances and new replays, there's still not many overlays or other elements that would help highlight the action and passion on the ice. When the developers find a better way to tie the gameplay and presentation together, that will be the moment the game becomes even more playable throughout the whole year.

Final Thoughts

At the height of things, the addition of Anticipation AI, Dynamic Goalies and the Full Contact Physics Engine should lead to some brilliant moments. It's easy to foresee a moment where a smart center picks off an errant pass at the red line and makes a brilliant pass to a streaking winger who rumbles towards the net. As the winger skates hard towards the goalie, a defender nudges and pushes over the winger, who then slides and crashes into the goalie and knocks the net off its moorings. Thrilling moments like the one I just described highlight when the NHL franchise is at its best. It's just a matter of bringing that type of excitement and organic gameplay to every inch of the ice.

I'm also still interested to see how the AI reacts when I'm not playing against humans a majority of the time. I have seen many more positives than negatives when it comes to how the AI is reacting on power plays, in the neutral zone and all that, but it's still a matter of small sample sizes.

Lastly, it's already easy to tell that NHL will have to thrill people based on the on-ice gameplay and modes rather than the presentation -- not that presentation sells a game, but I hope you all understand what I mean by saying that good presentation is a key element that keeps folks excited to play a sports game. The Action Tracker will allow folks to easily share those "wow" moments -- plus help liven up and improve Be a GM mode -- but the TV-style presentation that is more and more becoming an industry standard will need a major upgrade at some point.

 

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NHL 12 Videos
Member Comments
# 1 sroz39 @ 07/11/11 07:48 PM
Great write up, Chase. Appreciate the honesty. As it stands, it's still the one game I look forward to most every year. Interested to see how all these changes to the goalie play out in OTP/EASHL play, as that's where I play the majority of the time. The POTENTIAL is there for this to be the most organic online experience in this series yet. Can't wait to find out.
 
# 2 Money99 @ 07/11/11 08:30 PM
Great write-up Chase.
I loved hearing how you felt certain players had different strengths and the strategy that goes with those advantages.
Can you comment if you saw the CPU use it's players accordingly as well? Did you notice playing against a bruising defenseman compared to a more passive, slick dman (Chara vs Lidstrom)?
Or what about the different type of forwards? Did you see a difference between a sniping forward, a playmaker or a grinder?
Thanks!
 
# 3 BaylorBearBryant @ 07/11/11 09:22 PM
I love me some EA NHL. Can't wait!
 
# 4 Flamesfan102 @ 07/11/11 09:40 PM
Great write-up Chase! I appreciate you being through and detailed in your impressions.
 
# 5 Vikes1 @ 07/12/11 01:13 AM
Thanks Chase for the straight forward write up. Always refreshing to read reviews that cover the good...and the maybe not quite as good things.

What I'm kinda sensing is, that NHL'12' may not be a breakthrough release. But at least another good effort outta EA Canada. I'll be in line on 9/13.
 
# 6 32 @ 07/12/11 01:18 AM
Nice write up Chase. Question you may be able to answer, is there a broadcast cam in this year? They really need to add this. I hope they did.
 
# 7 jaiman @ 07/12/11 01:39 AM
Quote:
Originally Posted by DirtyJerz32
Nice write up Chase. Question you may be able to answer, is there a broadcast cam in this year? They really need to add this. I hope they did.
Great question. I would like to know this too.
 
# 8 kai123 @ 07/12/11 02:46 AM
Quote:
Originally Posted by jaiman
Great question. I would like to know this too.

From the EA stage demo video it seems like they didn't add the correct broadcast camera angle.
 
# 9 Tatguy80 @ 07/12/11 06:49 AM
Sounds like the AI has somewhat improved. Hopefully this will make playing BAP funner.
 
# 10 FBeaule04 @ 07/12/11 09:42 AM
This game as to be dissect in two parts. Offline and Online. As for the online part, like always, it will come down to play something that ressemble to hockey, but with danglefest, glitchfest and stupidfest. I don't expect anything less than what we saw in 09-10-11 in OTP/EASHL.

For the offline part it's different. The game was so bad in 11 (I won't get start again on the AI, I sound like a broken record) for offliners that I'm expecting a better effort from EA. I have my doubt after seeing that the focus was on things like goalies fight, broken glass and goalies collision!

From what I read, It's seems the AI is improving, but like last year, it took us 2 weeks of playing (especially BaP goalie) to see that this game was a major fail. I guess we will have the answer around late september to see if EA did test that game for the AI play this time around and that "anticipation" AI is worth it.
 
# 11 johnprestonevans @ 07/12/11 10:20 AM
I fear that this is the year that NHL is no longer the defacto #1 sports game as it has been for nearly 5 years now. The big issue seems to be its TV-broadcast presentation - or lack thereof. I think the NHL team has played it safe these past few seasons since establishing arguably one of the best playing sports games of this generation. Marginal improvements to the AI and physics engine are most welcome, but I feel like NHL has looked the same as it did a few years ago. I know there have been new animations and minimal graphical upgrades since 09, but nothing drastic. The biggest problems now are with the out-of-date camera system, repetitive commentary and abscence of true telecast elements that many leading-edge sports games are incorporating into their product.

I loved NHL these last few years, but its begining to show its age. None of the changes this year sound like they are improving enough to make me involunarily spend $60. Im tired of the same looking, and generally same playing game every year. Its a fun pick up and play sports game for sure, but I'm happy with playing the 3 year old version I own. The EA NHL team needs to blow out its TV style presentation - badly.
 
# 12 jaiman @ 07/12/11 03:40 PM
Quote:
Originally Posted by kai123
From the EA stage demo video it seems like they didn't add the correct broadcast camera angle.
I didn't get to see this stage demo. Did they actually show the game playing in broadcast mode?

Come on EA. Are we really asking for too much?
 
# 13 Vikes1 @ 07/12/11 04:03 PM
Quote:
Originally Posted by johnprestonevans
I fear that this is the year that NHL is no longer the defacto #1 sports game as it has been for nearly 5 years now. The big issue seems to be its TV-broadcast presentation - or lack thereof. I think the NHL team has played it safe these past few seasons since establishing arguably one of the best playing sports games of this generation. Marginal improvements to the AI and physics engine are most welcome, but I feel like NHL has looked the same as it did a few years ago. I know there have been new animations and minimal graphical upgrades since 09, but nothing drastic. The biggest problems now are with the out-of-date camera system, repetitive commentary and abscence of true telecast elements that many leading-edge sports games are incorporating into their product.

I loved NHL these last few years, but its begining to show its age. None of the changes this year sound like they are improving enough to make me involunarily spend $60. Im tired of the same looking, and generally same playing game every year. Its a fun pick up and play sports game for sure, but I'm happy with playing the 3 year old version I own. The EA NHL team needs to blow out its TV style presentation - badly.
You know John...I found myself nodding my head more than once while reading your post.

At least the impression that I'm getting out of Chase's review is...[not to put words in Chase's mouth]...that nothing about the game really impressed him too much. And I'm personally thinking that just possibly, the NHL game maybe losing a bit of the momentum it's built up the last few years.

The NHL game the last few years has been mentioned by quite a few sport gamers, in the same breath as some of the best sport games out there. Ie...The Show, NBA2K, FIFA. I hate to think that the NHL game may possibly be allowed is slip out of such lofty company.

The NHL game is currently, the only sports game I play. So obviously I dig the heck out of it...and am looking forward to 9/13. But again...I guess I'm just hoping that EA Canada isn't getting a bit too comfortable with this imo, excellent sports game.
 
# 14 kerosene31 @ 07/12/11 04:11 PM
Time will tell (and a demo!). However the thing that made NHL 11 great was a bunch of little things all tied together.
 
# 15 kai123 @ 07/12/11 04:27 PM
Quote:
Originally Posted by jaiman
I didn't get to see this stage demo. Did they actually show the game playing in broadcast mode?

Come on EA. Are we really asking for too much?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycd0v...layer_embedded

Check around the 3:00 mark. It looks to be the same old camera angle but I could be wrong
 
# 16 jaiman @ 07/12/11 06:04 PM
I must have missed that video. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that angle looks much improved! I could work with that one if that is not just a replay camera.
 
# 17 Vikes1 @ 07/12/11 07:47 PM
Quote:
Originally Posted by jaiman
I must have missed that video.
I also missed seeing this video.

The thing I was really watching for was how aggressive the cpu was defensively. And overall, I think it is better with what I saw in this video. The cpu players, defensemen and back checking forwards....at least seem to be more aggressive towards the human puck carrier. Kinda happy with what I saw.
 
# 18 SinisterAlex @ 07/12/11 08:33 PM
Quote:
Originally Posted by kai123
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycd0v...layer_embedded

Check around the 3:00 mark. It looks to be the same old camera angle but I could be wrong
That clip to me looks like just a reply not an actual "camera". The camera stays in one spot and doesn't move at all.
 
# 19 plaidchuck @ 07/12/11 10:17 PM
My biggest problem is that meat and potato things like dump and chase and defense 101 still don't look right in the videos.. sometimes I think this should be the "KHL" series..
 
# 20 ChaseB @ 07/12/11 11:29 PM
Quote:
Originally Posted by Pringles
they really need to put a camera in the net for realism especially with all the contact that will happen with the new goalie physx and replays to decide if the goal stands or not. i mean with us being able to now make contact with the goalie and the net can come off its mournings this will make goal review a lot more interesting and the best replay view is the overhead or the one in the net.
I mean I don't think that would work from a gameplay standpoint, but it's just one of a billion things that could add to the presentation. I love those shots where the in-net camera shows the goalie being crashed into on replays.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Money99
Great write-up Chase.
I loved hearing how you felt certain players had different strengths and the strategy that goes with those advantages.
Can you comment if you saw the CPU use it's players accordingly as well? Did you notice playing against a bruising defenseman compared to a more passive, slick dman (Chara vs Lidstrom)?
Or what about the different type of forwards? Did you see a difference between a sniping forward, a playmaker or a grinder?
Thanks!
I still mostly played human versus human games. I also didn't really play against any "iconic" defensemen that would really stick out besides Doughty -- but, again, I was the Kings.

Quote:
Originally Posted by DirtyJerz32
Nice write up Chase. Question you may be able to answer, is there a broadcast cam in this year? They really need to add this. I hope they did.
I should have written this one down since I think people asked about this at E3 as well, but I just forgot. So the answer is, not sure.

Quote:
Originally Posted by johnprestonevans
I fear that this is the year that NHL is no longer the defacto #1 sports game as it has been for nearly 5 years now. The big issue seems to be its TV-broadcast presentation - or lack thereof. I think the NHL team has played it safe these past few seasons since establishing arguably one of the best playing sports games of this generation. Marginal improvements to the AI and physics engine are most welcome, but I feel like NHL has looked the same as it did a few years ago. I know there have been new animations and minimal graphical upgrades since 09, but nothing drastic. The biggest problems now are with the out-of-date camera system, repetitive commentary and abscence of true telecast elements that many leading-edge sports games are incorporating into their product.

I loved NHL these last few years, but its begining to show its age. None of the changes this year sound like they are improving enough to make me involunarily spend $60. Im tired of the same looking, and generally same playing game every year. Its a fun pick up and play sports game for sure, but I'm happy with playing the 3 year old version I own. The EA NHL team needs to blow out its TV style presentation - badly.
I continually make a general point with sports games, so I should probably just reiterate it here. What the NHL team is doing is smart from my perspective. They have a clear idea about where they want to go with gameplay, and they clearly put lots of their resources there for the tech and general development of the on-ice action.

From there, they seem to look at modes and other things dealing with longevity of the product. After that, then it seems like presentation comes into play.

Again, I love presentation, and I absolutely believe they should be doing more (WAY more), but it still has to be a secondary objective when compared to some of those other things above. And, then as for the folks who talk about a lack of evolution, I feel like you get the base and you build on that base. NBA 2K, NHL, The Show -- I probably would even throw FIFA in there as well now -- are titles that have thrived and become beloved for sticking to their core concepts and building on them on a yearly basis rather than going for these "massive" headline changes on a yearly basis. Sometimes it means you get less press and so forth -- or more misunderstanding in the general public -- because there's not as much to tout on the gameplay front, but it doesn't mean there are not sizable differences at work that are certainly changing gameplay for the better.

That being said, I'm not saying you can't just enjoy an old NHL title from this generation. They are way different at this point to me, but I certainly still have some fun with an older NHL title -- the series does age relatively well for a sports game.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Vikes1
At least the impression that I'm getting out of Chase's review is...[not to put words in Chase's mouth]...that nothing about the game really impressed him too much. And I'm personally thinking that just possibly, the NHL game maybe losing a bit of the momentum it's built up the last few years.

The NHL game is currently, the only sports game I play. So obviously I dig the heck out of it...and am looking forward to 9/13. But again...I guess I'm just hoping that EA Canada isn't getting a bit too comfortable with this imo, excellent sports game.
I don't mind if you put the words in as long as I can spit them out.

I think another thing at work here is that NBA 2K and The Show, specifically, clearly believe in the TV-style presentation and focus on it a lot. I would argue that neither title really can stand up to what NHL does in the online space both in terms of bringing folks back on a daily basis and in-game performance -- and that's even without a long-term online Be a GM mode, which makes it more impressive in my book -- so it could be a matter of priorities at work here once again.

The NHL guys have never struck me as folks who are just taking it easy. My writing style for previews is just to be relatively down the middle and timid. I write this way because of the general lack of extended hands-on time, so I don't want to lead readers on or anything because it's still sort of a guessing game when writing a preview. I'll write about what I see rather than what I'm told, and, for the most part, I'll try to avoid "projecting" how the end product will look. However, I don't want it to seem like the changes in this year's game couldn't be absolutely huge. Traits/Anticipation could change things in a big way for AI; the physicality around the net could add a whole new layer to the game in OTP while adding new ways to play, score and interact down low; the physics changes could increase "wow" moments while decreasing checking and adding so much more nuance to the title.

BUT

Without extensive playtime, and seeing how it affects AI games, human vs. human and OTP, it's hard to really get too excited or too down before the game actually is released.
 

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