I haven’t played a major franchise team sports game in a while; for someone with a casual-at-best interest in the sports themselves but a genuine interest in the games, it’s difficult to know when it’s time to get the next one, when they release a new one every year. Good lord how things have changed!

Right at the gate, you’re dropped into the Winter Classic game, where the Washington Capitals visit the Pittsburgh Penguins for a yearly matchup at the outdoor stadium at Heinz Field. It makes a pretty great impression, with the fireworks and fanfare of an epic (and hyped) match up, but it also doesn’t do many favours for anyone like myself who needs to be caught up to speed on how to play an EA Sports game since they started forcing the players to use the right analogue stick for most of the interactions. Still, it’s no crime, especially since you can quit at any moment, and I’d much rather be thrown into the deep end with an option to get out whenever I felt like it, than be forced to paddle in the shallow end until the game decided that I’d done enough to earn some progression.

Once at the main menu, it’s hard to know what to do, as there’s no “main” mode of play that immediately stands out. Most of the sustained game modes have a “Be A” prefix to them, like “Be A GM” and “Be A Pro”. The General Manager mode allowed me to take charge of my preferred Edmonton Oilers through all the trials of the annual run at the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, it’s so bogged down with menu UI with little to no explanation of the minutia of the cycles of leagues interactions. I once learned the rules of ice hockey so that I could play NHL 95 on the Sega Mega Drive. Compared to this, that seemed easy. The Be A Pro mode allows you to focus on a single player, and go through their experience as they do their part in real time. Fortunately you get the option of simulating the time that you’re not on the ice, so you don’t have to sit through an entire full length game of virtual ice hockey and spend a solid portion of that sitting on the bench. You get given some coaching expectations, and a big blue arrow to indicate that you’re playing like an asshole. Which is to say, you’re probably playing like a person playing a videogame controlling a team, rather than an individual team member. It’s a mental divide, between constantly possessing the player closest to the puck and giving chase, and playing as only one, trying to open yourself up to a pass, and occasionally just staying in position and having faith that your team can take care of their business.

The action on the ice is actually pretty fantastic. While it’s become super-complicated since the last NHL game I played, most of the complications make sense in a meaningful way. The right stick generally gets used for pushing the puck around on the ice when in possession, and makes some intuitive sense; right and left control deking, pushing up takes a wrist shot, and holding back before pushing up will cause the wind up for a slap shot. Chasing after a puck has plenty of options too, moving the right stick will make a try for a body check, clicking the stick in will slow your skater right down and position him to do a hip check, and the right button will flick the stick out for a poke check. You can even hold Y down to tie up an opponent against the boards in the appropriate situation. From graphics to physics, the hockey is as well realised as I can imagine. Players can be checked through the glass or over the boards into the benches, goals can come loose from their moorings, the goalies themselves have a far more physical presence and animate their interactions with attacking opponents far better than I’ve seen before, and when the goals come loose (admittedly not that common an occurrence) is when it really shows, their legs sometimes tangling with skaters or the goal posts. Oh, and you can actually press the Y button to actually instigate a fight during play stoppages.

As good as the hockey is however, I felt severely let down by the UI and unwelcoming lack of information about some of the modes. There’s a tutorial that explains how to play on the ice, which mostly does the trick telling you what to do, and then having you perform it, except that it doesn’t give any feedback with what you’re doing, which I found particularly painful when trying to work out how to win face-offs. But the menus and UI is really where the game is let down; there are plenty of times during menu navigation where my Xbox seemingly hung, and I was left wondering if my 360 had crashed. There doesn’t seem to be much point in an animated saving icon if the icon will be frozen in place for more than 10 seconds, and this is something I seem to encounter every time I put the game in and press A at the “Don’t turn your console off when you see this icon!” Navigation through the menus is strewn with hitches like that, whether it’s reading for the disc or hard drive, or writing to the hard drive, or communicating with the EA Sports servers, it’s a total buzz kill, and it’s not helped by the main menu being a confusing mess of options with no real focus.

The Bottom Line

NHL 12 is a great game on the ice. Off the ice, he’s a wife beating drunk, or something. Actual fans of the NHL and other minor leagues will no doubt get a lot more out of the various modes, but unfortunately interested parties without the background knowledge backing them up will find it alienating and frustrating. Fantastic if you intend to play against friends either in local play or online, but a questionable experience solo that will probably frustrate the knowledgeable just by how clunky the UI is.

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