NHL 12 Hands-On Preview -- Anticipation A.I., Realistic Player Balance, and Goalie ShovingBy Miguel Concepcion - Posted Jul 15, 2011
If you've been to as many game presentations as we have, you might to start get tired of hearing about "pillars" as a way to highlight a game's key features. At least it helps us writers organize our notes and makes it easy for shareholders to understand a company's product. With EA's NHL 12, pillars have been creatively named as their "hat-trick of gameplay innovations." Marketing speak can only go so far though, so it was great that EA could back up their boasting by letting us experience the game ourselves, namely at their recent EA Summer Showcase.
One of these innovations is anticipation A.I. which, as a term, shouldn't sound like an innovation considering how long sports games has been around. Surprisingly, it only took me about five puck passes to see what the EA spokespeople were touting. Much of EA Burnaby’s time in tweaking the A.I. has been not about players going to where the puck is, but where it's going to be, and I was pleased to see and test it first hand. It's subtle, but there's definitely a sense that the computer-controlled characters do have a mind of their own, at least those who are near or within the path of the puck. It does seem like an overdue feature, considering the dynamic nature of hockey in general. Moreover, A.I. teammates whose real life versions are prone to aggressive, offensive-oriented playing now show that even if the person with the controller might be still be transitioning out of a defensive stance.
It's fitting that in a year where Madden NFL 12 features a much improved collision engine, so too has NHL 12, with its dubbed "full-contact physics engine." It takes no time to see shoving going on, especially around the net. This applied to both offense and defense. I didn't necessarily feel like I was working hard to defend the goal or make a goal than in past hockey games, but just seeing a notable amount of extra elbow and upper body work to dominate one's space really helped in adding authenticity.
One thing that wasn't expounded upon in the presentation that I noticed myself during my hands-on time was the convincing interaction between two players who have notably different builds. It's true that a large hockey player can get solid control of their immediate space in NHL 12, but the smaller player also has the advantage of agility and being able to worm their way around the immediate opposition and have a real chance at the puck.
Another part of this physics engine extends to the balance control of the player. This is especially beneficial to forwards with great low center of gravity and who have a penchant for powering their way to the net. If you think your favorite forward in NHL 11 got knocked over a lot more than their real life counterpart, you might be surprised to see a positive change in this year's game. It also underscores how underutilized these larger players have been in past games, at least in terms of their size-based skills. It'll be interesting to see how this change evolves their stats over an entire videogame season.
Another feature to file under "Why haven't we seen this sooner?" are the dynamic goalies. The way that EA showed this in its showcase presentation was practically a dare for me to try it myself, and sure enough, I did test it out by shoving and trying to start fights with them. As designed, I also got penalized for my rough behavior from time to time.
After personally scrutinizing the game for a good half-hour, I can confidently say that I managed to experience a taste of all three touted innovations. I won't get too excited yet as the price of so many changes brings with it some minor hiccups. It's mostly aesthetic issues with character animations. I did notice a couple odd limb behavior with some of the goalies, but that seems like a small price to pay to have them more involved and lifelike this time around. The true test will be in the comfortable setting of my home, when I can take in the retail version in both its Season experience and through multiplayer.
One might also wonder how having some of the games of this year's Stanley Cup just miles from EA Burnaby helped inspire the studio to make NHL 12 all the more unique and authentic. We'll found out when NHL 12 hits store shelves September 13.