If there is one thing that successful developers of sports games struggle with it is innovation. Come up with a great way of portraying a sport, and you'll find it hard to re-invent it every year. It can be argued that the NHL team over at EA Canada came up with a brilliant formula a few years back, and that since then they've mainly added more modes, content and fine tuned the simulation. I'm sure that if you were to go into details you would find that most systems have been switched completely or heavily altered since then, but to the casual onlooker it plays fairly similar - and the 300 gameplay enhancements EA boasts just don't seem to translate into a something entirely new and exciting.
What we have here is a very solid offering in terms of gameplay, with somewhat improved artificial intelligence (awareness is still not as sharp as we would have liked it), new features like breaking the glass with hits and fighting with goalies feel a bit gimmicky. The fact that goalies are now operating with the same physical laws as other players is a dangerous move and we really can't gauge how that will play out until people have started to try and exploit it online. It does however, favour players with split vision who always keep an eye for the keeper's positioning - and it will cost you one or two penalties where you really aren't too blame (goaltender interference gets called a lot). And speaking of netminders, let's back it up a bit to goalies fighting. In my first three games with the Flames Miika Kiprusoff was challenge to fight twice. A goalie fight is something that happens once or twice a season, but it's obviously much more prevalent in the game and that further underlines the gimmicky nature of the feature.
But if the gameplay remains the same there could still be reason to get the game thanks to new modes and content, right? The major additions this year are legends and the Winter Classics. I must say I enjoy the Winter Classics - the presentation is brilliant and it makes sense to have such a major part of today's NHL in the game. The legends, however, and Be A Legend mode, should have been handled differently. The only legend unlocked from the start is Jeremy Roenick and you will have to play a lot of Be A Pro before you unlock the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux for this mode. To me calling Jeremy Roenick a legend is a stretch, and why not allow players the use of the Great One from the get go? That's what we want. Or Super Mario in my case.
Even if I'm still not entirely comfortable with the whole skill stick deal, it is a brilliant concept and you can clearly see how it has added new dimensions to the game since it was brought in. Trying to use the "NHL 94" controls just isn't an option if you want all the nuances NHL 12 has to offer. It's a nice addition if you want a quick game with a mate who hasn't kept up to date with the changes made since those days, but that's about it. When you start getting into the groove of things and pull off fancy stick moves, line up one timers perfectly and rocket slap shots from point - it's a beauty to behold.
Since NHL 12 is a game where the developers have honed an existing product, adding new features, polishing and balancing things for the last year, one would expect it to be a smooth ride as far as bugs and glitches go. Unfortunately, as I found in the second game of my Be A Pro career, that is not the case. A Memorial Cup game went to overtime, and after the first overtime period the coach of my team apparently felt I was too exhausted to play more than one shift and thus I spent the remainder of the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh overtime period on the bench. No one of the computer controlled players seemed able to break the 3-3 tie, and after fiddling with the text sim option (which halted progress completely), I had to opt out of the game by pressing the guide button and simply exiting. There is no way this mode has been tested enough if something like this slips by. This is just one of the issues I found with Be A Pro, and I really feel as though EA Canada have failed when it comes to making this an exciting and natural part of the package.
Overall, NHL 12 is a good game, but if you've already got one of the later games in the series on your shelf there is no need to go out and get this one. Sure, it's more polished, adds some new modes to an already overly cluttered main menu, and has an expanded online experience that's already very advanced, but ultimately it's time for EA Canada to reinvent their game if they expect us to part with our money at the start of each season.