Will you hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup?

In many northern latitudes, folks are anticipating that first cool breeze in the fall—the one that signifies that the seasons have finally changed, and with it, the sports landscape. That feeling that tells you that, finally, it’s time for hockey again. But in case you can’t wait another month or so, EA Sports is looking to give you your hockey fix a little early with NHL 12.

As always, this season sees plenty of changes, but what’s interesting is that the little tweaks are probably just as big as the overall additions. Not to say that those should be taken lightly, either, though. New modes like NHL Legends—where you can draft a legendary player like Wayne Gretzky or Ray Bourque to your real-life favorite team and play as them like you would in Be a Pro—is a nice addition if you’ve got a childhood hero you want to take back out on the ice. Of course, it might be a little shocking at first to see someone like Jeremy Roenick on the New York Rangers or Chris Chelios on the Tampa Bay Lightning, but this is your chance to see what might’ve happened if your favorite player had donned your favorite team’s sweater.

And speaking of Be a Pro, that’s seen some additions as well. The inclusion of the Canadian Hockey League allows you to play in the CHL for four seasons if you wish, which adds a bit of an RPG feel as your coach assigns you tasks each game in order to progress through your respective organization. Of course, if you don’t want to put in the time and effort to work your way up the minor-league ranks, Be a Pro features a new wrinkle where you can select your favorite current player and play with them already on your big-league club. They still get tasks from the coach, though, and because they’re already in the pros, more’s expected from them—so doing poorly could get them sent to the minors!

Beyond these new modes, though, I didn’t know a hockey game could feel so good until I got my hands on NHL 12. The puck physics have become so realistic that you’d think you were watching an actual game as shots knuckle, deflect off players, or ricochet around the boards. And with the improved AI of all computer-controlled players, you’ll rarely see someone out of position—everyone plays their role, just like they do in the real game. On top of this, NHL 12 offers the ability to hit and interfere with goalies, giving you more influence in the crease than ever before. And you know what that means: goalie fights! Throw in breaking glass, checking guys into the bench, knocking off helmets after bone-crunching checks, or shrugging off checks from smaller players, retired numbers, and even the ability to stage the Winter Classic, and you can’t help but feel satisfied with most every aspect of NHL 12.

Aside from these tweaks to improve the offline modes, another fan favorite that’s been overhauled is the online Hockey Ultimate League. Multiple lineups, stars of the week based on live player stats, a versus mode featuring you and a buddy’s Hockey League teams, and much more have been added to make this month-by-month feature even more addictive for those wannabe GMs out there.

Really, my only complaints with NHL 12 arose in Season or Be a GM when the game didn’t recognize that the Rangers’ first two regular-season games were in Europe—and that the stats were so skewed that the Rangers’ offense was a 100. I love the Rangers, but even through the Broadway Blue–tinted glasses of a fan, I don’t see how adding Brad Richards and getting some guys healthy propels the team so far past last year’s squad.

When all’s said and done, though, EA Sports has gone above and beyond in this year’s effort to give us the best videogame hockey experience yet, and NHL 12 should be more than enough to keep hockey fans satiated all year round.

Summary: NHL 12 is the most complete hockey sim to date, and the effort shows from the smallest puck bounces to brand-new game modes.

  • The Good: Improved puck physics and AI
  • The Bad: Horribly inaccurate player ratings
  • The Ugly: NHL Legends in uniforms they don’t belong in

SCORE: 9.0