Flashback to NHL 11, where the emphasis was on the physics with the tagline "anything can happen". The game lived up to that bold claim, as players shunted into each other with the force of dominoes strapped with explosives. It captured the physicality of a game that's as big on decking as it is goals. NHL 12 furthers this ambition.
The equivalent focus this time round is "Personality Plus", EA's catchphrase for this year's sports products; we've already seen it used in FIFA. It means player differentiation, between height, strength, skill.
Transferred to the NHL, it means that this differentiation will clearly play a role in how the players act against each other on the pitch. Taller and stronger players will have obvious advantages against their smaller, weaker opponents, defensive and aggressive tactics playing out with greater accuracy in the front of goals.
We're excited about how this increased focus on the physics will weigh on the actual gameplay. It's something that in retrospect, has been missing from previous versions. To better use the player's physical attributes will undoubtedly inject more subtle (if you can call a elbow-full or armour to the face 'subtle') elements onto the rink as aggression, strength and skill throw down in winning control of the puck.
Star players will have access to more tricks, able to pull the sort of shots and tackles that'll have the (virtual) crowd in its feet, and there's also a heap of other additions EA has included that'll likely keep them there.
For instance, last year you could knock the stick out of your opponent's hands. Twelve months and one new retail disc later and you can transfer that anger to their helmet guards, which in turn leads to the inevitable schoolyard shove and punch show.
Working in these little details are what we're less sure about. Realistic and showy it may be, we wonder how many players will ignore the punch-ups completely in favour of trying for another goal. It's EA's prerogative to further match the realism of the sport on console, and its up to the players whether they want to blow off steam with a brawl. For us, the dullness from a single goalie scrap swears us to keeping hands on sticks and helmets firmly on.
Another feature to the game is that the series has been brought to the great outdoors, and Europe, for the first time. A new environment brings a new game mode; Winter Classic has you participating in the traditional tournament (a fairly new outdoor event held by the NHL every year since 2008) with the look and feel, from promos to crowd atmosphere matching the real-life televised extravaganza the event has become.
As ever, its hard, event foolhardy, to draw judgement over a game so early in its development cycle. The basic elements are in place, and EA seems to be making good on the promises for this newest overhaul to the gameplay mechanics, which should add greater depth to the game. And while we're not sold on the extensive modifications added to the combat options, it at least reassures that as ever, EA is trying to replicate a sport in which anything can happen.
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