NHL 12 introduces what EA is calling a Full Contact Physics Engine, but it doesn't make a huge different to the game on the ice. Still, there are some changes, and most of them are good. Defense has been beefed up. Players stick to their lanes very responsibly, and defensive men close up tightly in their own zone. As a result, passing lanes are shut down efficiently if you run the offense on rails, and a lot of shots are blocked before they get to the net. You can see these changes the most in the low slot, where battles get very fierce. More is let go by the officials down low this year, so you can take extra shots at the netminder, give opponents a few face washes, and so forth without immediately getting yanked off to the sin bin. It's nice to see things have eased up down by the net; it would be even better if the real NHL would start allowing more battling like this around the crease.
Rosters have been updated with players shifted to their new homes, like Dany Heatley in Minnesota. Still no new Winnipeg Jets uniforms, though.
Opponent artificial intelligence is also smarter when it comes to anticipating your actions. If you try the same move over and over again in the face-off circle, for instance, you'll soon find the opposition center adapting by doing things like tying you up instead of going for the puck. Opposing players also anticipate where the puck is going to be, resulting in no more bad changes springing breakaways, and making it easier for errant passes to be cleanly picked off. If you telegraph what you're doing, you now pay for it. The one problem with these defensive improvements is that they spotlight issues with the offense when locked to a position or playing in Be a Pro or Be a Legend. Better defense seems to befuddle offensive AI players somewhat because they tend to hog the puck more often now and refuse to pass unless you manage to get totally open. In the end, you get a more challenging though more frustrating game. This issue isn't noticeable if you play traditionally by switching player control with puck possession, of course.
Visual and audio quality is on par with last year. Graphics are smoother and more lifelike when replays take you to ice-level encounters with stars like Jonathan Toews and Phil Kessel, although you would need a slow-motion, side-by-side comparison to really tell the difference between the two games. One feature is missing right now in the new Winnipeg Jets uniforms. Granted, they were only unveiled within the past month, and the team just moved from Atlanta last spring, but you would think EA would have done a quickie update by game-launch day. As it is right now, it's disappointing to hit the ice with the brand new Jets and find them wearing silver-and-black NHL togs reminiscent of the 1990s LA Kings. Audio is similar to last year, as well. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement recycle a lot of the play-by-play and color calls, although there are some new lines in the mix now. The duo also refers to the Jets instead of the Thrashers during Winnipeg games (although the odd mention of Atlanta can still be heard). The soundtrack consists of the usual mix of thrash alt-rock with a few oldies from ELO, Billy Idol, and Judas Priest.
Swedish defenseman Borje Salming is the Toronto Maple Leafs' representative in the Be a Legend crew.
NHL 12 doesn't push the envelope, but there are few gripes with what EA Sports has put on the ice. This is a safe sequel that doesn't advance the franchise in any significant ways, but the tweaks and new features buff up a game that was already shining like a freshly flooded sheet of ice. With that said, owners of NHL 11 have to ask themselves if taking some shifts with Wayne Gretzky, playing more seasons with the Ottawa 67's, and skating around in the snow is really worth $60.