EA Sports' NHL 11 reached the pinnacle of hockey gaming last year by featuring the most enjoyable and most accurate arcade simulation of the sport ever made. So where do you go from there? NHL 12 answers that question with a range of subtle refinements and additions that improve play on the ice in a number of ways, as well as add new features like being able to skate as a number of NHL greats. This game won't be the most necessary sequel that you'll ever buy, but chances are good that you won't regret laying down the cash after spending a few games enjoying the new offensive and defensive player positioning, checking out the new CHL league support, or working a give-and-go with Gordie Howe.
The heart of NHL 12 is nearly identical to that of its predecessor. Controls involve the same precise mix of analog sticks and buttons. They remain a great balance of pure arcade twitch reactions and a simulation of hockey because you can pull off some nifty moves with the right stick yet still play a formidable game by keeping to the basics. All of the main modes of play have been brought into the new game with few changes. You can still get into quickie solo matches and play-off runs for the Stanley Cup; create a rookie in Be a Pro and skate him to stardom from the juniors to the big leagues; go online for lag-free one-off games and full seasons; head into the front office with Be a GM; mess around with the oddly compelling Hockey Ultimate Team and its card-driven game mechanics; and so forth. EA held the line here on new features. Core elements of the game are right where they were last fall, so you don't need to even glance at the manual.
The most interesting addition to the above feature list is Be a Legend, which tweaks the familiar Be a Pro mode of play by swapping out the rookie you create in that game with a youthful version of an NHL star from the past. It's certainly a nifty idea because the Hall of Famers and near misses included here come with extremely high ratings in all categories from the first moments of their rookie seasons. Anyone who got bored developing a youngster through a couple of seasons of toiling on the third line in regular Be a Pro action will like the way you take a spot on the top forward line or top defense pairing right away. When you step in with ratings in the 80s and 90s, you can be certain to make an impact on your chosen club in your very first shift. But there just isn't enough meat here. Only a handful of retired NHL greats are here to choose from, so aside from Gordie Howe, your choices are limited to players from the past couple of decades like Wayne Gretzky, Ray Bourque, and Patrick Roy. It's awfully strange to look at a list of NHL "legends" that includes the likes of Borje Salming but skips over Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, and Maurice "Rocket" Richard. Even worse, all of these greats are locked out at the start of play aside from Jeremy Roenick.
Along with playing full seasons in the NHL and AHL, you can now take over the career of a player in the CHL, Canada's top junior hockey circuit, with three leagues consisting of teams from across the country. You can assume the role of a real player on the squad of your choice and play through whole seasons in midsize burgs across Canada like Swift Current and Peterborough. When you pick a young kid, you get to play through his draft year and try to work him up the ladder to become the top pick of an NHL club. When you pick an older player who has already been drafted, you begin as the property of an NHL team, with a chance of starting the season with the big club, down on the farm in the AHL, or back in junior with your high-school buddies. This is a huge improvement over how junior was depicted last year, where you got a shot at impressing the scouts in a handful of games in the Memorial Cup tournament before going into the NHL draft.
The third and final notable addition this year is the 2011 Winter Classic pitting the Washington Capitals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Just like the real outdoor game held every New Year's Day somewhere in the northeast US, this doesn't mean much. It presents you with a pretty place to play a single game, but that's it. Heinz Field looks great with the snow coming down in the dark, and player uniforms pick up interesting reflections from the big stadium lights. The atmosphere is pretty amazing. You can also play the game with the teams of your choice, so you can go against the marketing bosses in the NHL's New York-based office and bring in Canadian teams.