The folks at EA Canada tend to like talking about a "trinity" of gameplay improvements, so it's no surprise that the NHL developers are now touting Anticipation AI, Dynamic Goalies and a Full Contact Physics Engine as three big gameplay improvements for this year's title. These elements were already somewhat present in the E3 build, so this is more about the development team officially touting these changes to make sure people realize what's going on under the hood this year. Nevertheless, I don't quite think all three of these changes are on the same level, nor do I think all three will be as noticeable on a game-to-game basis.
In terms of impact, I do think the physics engine is the biggest deal of the three. It essentially ties into a lot of what's happening with goalies this year, and it also works to improve and fix much of what was wrong with the physics last year. However, I want to start with a negative here and point out that some ugly animations crop up with the implementation of this physics engine. I think it's the price you pay, at least for now, to experience more organic moments, but it doesn't excuse the look of some of the interactions. For example, nudging and bumping some players from behind causes the puck carrier to react in some questionable ways. It's nice to see some new stumbles, but it's just not that common for players to be checked down or pushed to the ice from behind as much as they are here. On top of that, some goofiness crops up when the goalies interact with players. These moments have been cleaned up quite a bit when compared to the E3 build -- goalies would flop and writhe around after every small bump -- but there are still some moments where goalies skip between animations after contact without any sort of transitional animation to smooth things about.
That being said, these negatives are worth dealing with because the physics engine adds a new layer to the action. The gameplay feels a bit more slowed down this year, and the massive open-ice hits are harder to come by in this build. So I got to see a lot more of these new shoving, nudging, bumping, riding, stumbling checks and animations. At the same time, with less of these massive checks occurring, the moments where you hip check someone who flies out of the rink and onto a team's bench stand out and get you really excited. To put it quite concisely, it's all about the nuances of the physics engine helping to highlight the flashy aspects of it.
It's just another step in the grand scheme of things. It's great fun battling down low and pushing players around in the crease area, but the next step has to be users getting the ability to nudge and interact with players at any spot on the ice without using a check button. Either way, the additions to the physics engine really stand out when compared to NHL 11.
The Anticipation AI additions seem to be helping to clog the neutral zone a bit more, but I would say it's harder to see how it is changing potential outlet passes on offense. In the demo video, it was shown how smart defenders would read passing lanes, while offensive-minded players would leak out when they realize a change of possession is about to occur. I certainly could not be as sloppy with my passes or just clear the puck through the middle of the ice as often in this build, but I would not say I felt as dangerous as I could have during transition opportunities either. My feelings on this topic were mostly brought to the forefront while playing with the New York Rangers. I feel like Marc Staal is still a relatively unappreciated defender in the NHL, but he was a formidable player on the blue line for the Rangers in the game I played. He was halting plays at the blue line and deflecting passes. On the other side of things, I did not feel like Marian Gaborik was ignoring his defensive responsibilities enough or leaking out for some long Brad Richards outlet passes at key moments.
Above and Beyond
I actually feel like this is a better area to discuss how goalies are "dynamic" this year because it directly ties into how players vary from one another on the ice. I feel like hockey is a tough sport to mimic when it comes to adding signature elements to players. There are not a ton of distinct skating styles or shot styles that can be easily noticed by regular fans -- at least not when compared to something like the NBA or MLB -- so you almost have to be a bit more calculating about the process of adding authenticity to the players. You have to be more focused on body types, player styles and extend that to the way teams act in the playoffs versus how they act in a regular season game (see: more physical play).
So it should really come as no surprise that I'm having trouble noticing a huge difference in goalies so far. This does not mean it's not there, it's just that I have played more with standard butterfly goalies so far rather than an outrageous goalie like Tim Thomas. So things I have seen for certain goalies could be signature moments, or it could just be the small sample size clouding my views. For example, Luongo let in a super-soft goal during a key moment in one game I played. Does that mean there is something at work here, or was it simply a fluky moment? During another moment, Luongo went to his knees early and gave up a top-shelf goal. Is this because he was lacking confidence, or was it simply because he's a butterfly goalie? I don't want to draw any conclusions yet, so you sort of just have to keep an eye on things and wait for the release of the game.
I do know there is certainly something at work here in terms of trying to make players look and feel different, but it's just unclear how deep the changes will be. I can say for sure size, weight, speed and balance are present factors. On another level, talent is noticeable. I had a singular moment of brilliance with Steven Stamkos where I had a great stride going and was able to take on two defenders and find just enough room to fire off a wicked wrist shot that went top shelf for a goal. It was a great moment because there was no funny business involved. It was simply a wicked wrist shot that was placed in a perfect spot by an ulta-talented shooter. Size and weight play out most noticeably with checks, but they are also big factors on offense. In another game, I used Anze Kopitar to really dominate and create scoring chances by using the shield button and his big body to get where I wanted to go.
Tying into the idea of player variety is goal variety and scoring chances. This might be the part of the game that has excited me the most so far. The gritty goals have been really enjoyable to this point. The puck feels a little more bouncy and on edge at various points, and it really adds to the scrums, extra pokes and shots that happen down low. I really want to see how this all plays out in OTP because it will be interesting to see if this might lead to more player variety online. If it's easier to score as a different style of player, then it might open things up a bit more for OTP games.
Backhand shots are also way more inaccurate this year, so it feels even more important to try and keep people from getting off clean shots on the forehand. With more regular shots going in because of screens and all that, there is a certain level of tension that builds up as you play defense. I did not feel like I was simply trying to stop my opponent from doing a cheesy wrap wrist shot, rather I was simply trying to close down shooting lanes and force players into poor scoring chances.
Finally, it's always nice to report that I'm seeing a variety of final scores. I had one game that was 5-4, but I also had a 2-1 OT game, a 1-0 OT game and a 3-2 game. Every game felt different, but again, I would say it's hard to say how different the teams played because of user control and sample size.
It's easy to be up front when it comes to presentation in NHL 12. What's here will not be considered a major selling point. The ice looks better, and the graphics have certainly received another boost, but the NHL franchise is trailing when it comes to delivering TV-style presentation. On the bright side, there was some new commentary -- Gary Thorne mentioned the NHL Network at one point -- and there was a snazzy new replay sequence during a game where the commentators talked about how a specific player was doing, followed by some highlights of what he had done to that point. In addition, the Action Tracker will add a ton to the communal aspects and franchise reports that are a big part of sharing your game with others.
Nevertheless, it still seems like not enough has been done to bring the excitement to another level on the ice. The commentary is not at a level it needs to be at, and even if with some added entrances and new replays, there's still not many overlays or other elements that would help highlight the action and passion on the ice. When the developers find a better way to tie the gameplay and presentation together, that will be the moment the game becomes even more playable throughout the whole year.
At the height of things, the addition of Anticipation AI, Dynamic Goalies and the Full Contact Physics Engine should lead to some brilliant moments. It's easy to foresee a moment where a smart center picks off an errant pass at the red line and makes a brilliant pass to a streaking winger who rumbles towards the net. As the winger skates hard towards the goalie, a defender nudges and pushes over the winger, who then slides and crashes into the goalie and knocks the net off its moorings. Thrilling moments like the one I just described highlight when the NHL franchise is at its best. It's just a matter of bringing that type of excitement and organic gameplay to every inch of the ice.
I'm also still interested to see how the AI reacts when I'm not playing against humans a majority of the time. I have seen many more positives than negatives when it comes to how the AI is reacting on power plays, in the neutral zone and all that, but it's still a matter of small sample sizes.
Lastly, it's already easy to tell that NHL will have to thrill people based on the on-ice gameplay and modes rather than the presentation -- not that presentation sells a game, but I hope you all understand what I mean by saying that good presentation is a key element that keeps folks excited to play a sports game. The Action Tracker will allow folks to easily share those "wow" moments -- plus help liven up and improve Be a GM mode -- but the TV-style presentation that is more and more becoming an industry standard will need a major upgrade at some point.