Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Doug Miller on 08/24/11 at 12:48 PM ET
Alright, well now that I’ve had a full day or so of virtually non-stop demo playing, with the exception of falling asleep at the controller a few times. I’m ready to give you my rundown of my initial impressions of this little taste of NHL 12 that EA Sports has given us.
First, in an overall sense, as I had suspected based on everything I had read and saw prior to this, a few small improvements have gone a long way into completely changing how the game feels and plays. Much like last year, when I thought the implementation of the new passing system alone in NHL 11, changed how the game felt and played across every mode.
This year, there are a combination of several key things, which combined, all go a very long way into making NHL 12 feel very new and refreshing. With the new full contact physics, full balance control, anticipation AI, combined with some new, more realistic puck physics, make NHL 12 feel like a vast improvement across the board in general gameplay when compared to NHL 11. The new puck physics alone change the dynamics of deking, shooting, and how you approach making certain moves. As even with a highly skilled player, it is easier to lose the puck, should you make some wacky kind of turns and awkward stick dekes, as the puck it no longer seemingly glued to your stick as it has been in the past. This is most noticeable on slap shots, but with enough play time, you’ll see it pop up in a few other places as well.
I’ll admit that I still need to put much more time in, so that I can see more and more situations, before I am able to come to a final verdict on certain things, but upon first impression, I’ve been extremely impressed by several of the improvements that have been made. The very first of which that was noticeable to me, was the new and improved AI. As upon my first game I threw it up on All-Star, as that is where I found my comfort level in NHL 11, where things weren’t too easy as to always result in a blow out, and not too insane that it wasn’t even fun, as I prefer for games to always feel close and competitive, relative to my own skills. However, after a few games in, I realized that the improvements to the AI were extremely well implemented, and All-Star, at least for the time being, was a bit too much for me, until I can get a better handle on all the new changes.
So I threw it back on the default setting of Pro, which honestly, to me, feels much more like All-Star did last year. As I said, I don’t think I can give complete credit to the new AI, as all of the new changes, particularly the new puck physics when it comes to how it effects shooting the puck, especially in tight. Shots in general didn’t feel nearly as accurate at first, but with more playing time, I started to adjust to the changes, and got a better feel for the new system.
There are other nice little touches too, such as when you are back skating in an attempt to cover the passing lanes, your player will automatically start swinging his stick back and forth in a better effort to block said lanes. It was a rather pleasant surprise, as I had heard nothing about it prior to seeing it for myself. It’s a very nice little touch though. Along with several other small things, like skaters automatically hustling and skating with intent in proper situations, such as a breakout rush through the neutral zone, or on the back check. Which according to the in game help menu about player attributes, that increased effort in skating on the back check is now tied into a player’s defensive awareness stat. There are also a few other stats that now factor into even more things this year, as I figured there would be.
One of the other most impressive things about the changes that have been made, is the combination of the new full contact physics engine with the new full balance control… as this totally changes how checking works, and things feel much, much more realistic and smoother. I’ve also been pretty impressed by the AI’s new “stay onside” logic, and when playing with an aggressive breakout style, as I normally tend to do, it’s become very common for me to see an open winger sitting up at the blue line, opposite to the side of which I’ve started my breakout. Although I have yet to come across a situation where I’ve seen the computer do the new skate drag animation to stay onside when a fellow teammate hits the line with speed. I know there is also an option for human controlled players to do this as well, as EA has stated there would be a button for this, yet such button, or combination of buttons, is not listed in the in game manual available from the pause screen in any game mode. I’m sure I’ll figure it out sooner or later though.
Yet another small minor change is the fact that the speed of saucer passes has been increased, making them far more useful in certain situations. Although I do know a particular forward who had already mastered the art of saucer passing from NHL 11. However, things like this, and others, are always subject to adjustments in online play, via new tuner sets that are inevitable when it comes to playing online. I’m sure there are several other things I’m forgetting to mention, as there are just so many new changes it’s hard to keep up with them all.
As for the improvements to goaltending, they are also quite noticeable, especially when it comes to a the computer goalies. They are far more agile and harder to beat in general. Sure, some of the same old “always goals” are still in place, but due to the changes in puck physics combined with the defensive and goaltender AI in general, they are of much less frequency. Plus, in my opinion, I’ve never really seen these as a big problem in the game, because if you do happen to make the proper body movements, to get a goalie slightly out of position, and snipe the top corner, it should be going in the net most of the time. The same goes when it comes to in close dekes, if you can manage to pull one off, and get the goalie out of position, and then rip a shot up high, and manage to get it on net, it’s probably going to go in. As I stated before though, these things are not nearly as simple as they used to be, due to the many new changes in the game.
When it comes to human goalies on the other hand, there are also a few things worth nothing. The first of which is that there are now a wide variety of camera angles available to goalies, pretty much the same as what is there for skaters. I messed around with all of these, and well several of them might appeal to some people for various reasons, I still prefer to keep my camera set on either “high” or “fixed”, of which I’ve yet to really notice much of a difference between the two. In any case, I still prefer this angle, as it gives me a much better sense of my positioning, which allows me to better judge angles properly. In addition to the fact that I’m still able to see the action at the opposite end of the ice without having to hit the button to switch the camera to where the puck is. Which I find more useful for reading the play as the opposition comes though the neutral zone and into my end of the ice. I could go on and on about several more reasons why I prefer this old angle still, but I’ll spare it for the time being.
There are also some new settings for human goalies, which can be found along with the basic controller settings. The two of these being “Cover Puck” which has the option of being auto or fully manual. Since covering the puck ties into a goalie’s rebound control stat, and from my preferred angle, you can sometimes lose track of the puck when it’s right in front of you. So I’ve chosen to keep mine on auto, since it seems to be more useful overall. There is also another option called “Goalie Sweep” which can either be turned on or off. As far as I can tell, this has to do with the sweeping poke checks that can be used when hugging the post in the new goalie V-H stance.
Now, let me get into that, as the impression I’ve gotten from several people is that this new V-H feature only appears to apply to hugging the post with both triggers held down. Although I’ve noticed there is more to it than that. As you can also engage in this new stance without hugging the post, as long as you are far enough away from them, which for the most part, appears to be around the very top of the crease, as any closer back than that, and you’ll automatically slide back to grab a post. Honestly I’m not 100% sure of the functionality of this, as I simply just haven’t had the time yet to play through enough situations to figure it out exactly. However, I should note that the new V-H post hug does feel much smoother than the old system, and allows to you get across the net, or up higher in the crease much easier if you know what you are doing, which involves the proper butterfly movements. I have still yet to scratch the surface of this new addition to goaltending, as I’ve been busy switching around between playing goalie, and using my entire team… but I intend to look deeper into it with more time, as I already know of a save or two I’ve made using this new system, on shots that might normally have been near impossible to stop before hand.
Also, with goaltenders being live now, there is a new button to shove players who might be too close for comfort for you. You just simply push in on the right stick to execute a shove. Honestly though, I’ve yet to have a situation where this has come up, nor have I had many incidences come up where players have made enough contact with me to cause any bumping, with a few exceptions of things that are after the whistle, when I’ve had a computer player either run me over entirely, which has only happened once so far, or simply checked me a bit after the play. There has also been the random occurrence or two, when my defenseman is skating close to me and making an outlet pass just before he comes into contact with an incoming fore-checker, who then slams into him, knocking him back into the net and dislodging it, and slightly bumping me in the process.
My only issues with human goaltending thus far, were two things I had feared would not be addressed. The first of which is that human goalies still don’t seem to have access to all of the save animations as the computer, which really used to bother me last year, but I’ll weight in on that more once I’ve gotten some more time to work on mastering the new V-H technique. Also, in what is I suppose a minor issue to some, but really bothers me now that goalies are live, is that goaltenders are still more or less “frozen” after the whistle, and aside from being able to free skate, have no way to defend ourselves from opposing players who might attempt to run us. Although, I see this being more of an online issue, which could always be addressed via tuner set tweaks.
As a final note on goaltending, should you choose to get into one… initialing a goalie fight is pretty easy, once your team takes the puck out of the zone, just simply free sake up past the blue line, and sometime after you cross that and before you hit the red line, you should activate the goalie fight. I’m not sure if this is available at any time of game, as I’ve only done it twice, both of which were near the end of games my team was losing by multiple goals. I know EA has stated before that goalie fights would be limited to once per period, and would not be in certain online modes, like Drop-In and OTP. Unlike a regular fight, should you happen to win the fight, you’ll only receive a 2 minute minor, where as the loser gets a 5 minute major. Plus the normal energy boost that comes along with fighting. Also, you can fight skaters as well, and the prompt for this usually pops up if one of them decides to start checking you shortly after the whistle, should you choose to do nothing, one of your defensemen usually steps in, and starts checking the player that is giving you crap, and then the fighting prompt in the upper right will change from the goalie’s name to the defensemen’s name.
Now let me get into each game mode and talk about what they offer up in the demo.
This lets you play the 3rd period of a game between Boston and Vancouver at Rogers Arena. The first two periods of the game are simmed, so the score going into that 3rd, can be a wide variety of things. However, unlike last year, this is not the Stanley Cup Finals game, as there is no indication of such on the ice, no patches on the sweaters, and no celebration at the end. This was likely done for one of two reasons, either EA wanted to save people time when playing this single period over and over, or they may have finally changed up the Cup celebration at the end. I suspect it was simply a time issue though, as it allows you to quickly get into another game once that one period has ended. Unless it is tied, then you will go to a short 4 on 4 overtime, followed by a shootout should the score remained tied.
Just a few additional notes about this. The rosters are that of last season’s, albeit with somewhat updated player ratings. Although for some reason Marc Savard is still in the Boston lineup. You only have access to each team’s basic home and away sweaters, although it has already long been confirmed that Boston’s Winter Classic uniforms will be in the final game, since you can take any teams you want into the Winter Classic mode in the full game.
Be a Pro
To me this was the most disappointing mode of the three featured in the demo. As you are not allowed any custom choices for your pro, aside from what team you want to play for, either Boston or Vancouver. You are stuck with “Joe NHL” a left-handed playmaking center, rated 76 overall. The first two periods are simmed at 8x speed on the action tracker, yet your pro is not involved in any of this simmed play, as you magically join your team’s top line at the start of the 3rd period. There are far more positive and negative coaching comments than before, as you will be given positive credit for simply doing what you should be, and thus are told “Good job blocking the passing lanes out there”. After you skate back to the bench when your shift is up, you are given three options, after reading whatever your feedback and current grades might be.
Text Sim - Takes you into the action tracker so that you can follow all of the events on the ice, either in real time (1x), or sped up at various pre-set amounts, until your next shift starts, when the action tracker pauses, and you can advance back to your next shift. Which will either be a faceoff after a stoppage in play, or as another player is coming to the bench for a line change.
Quick Sim - This option pretty much puts the game on super-speed, showing you the shot totals as well as score, and any potential power play or penalty kill that might be going on.
Continue - This choice lets you resume watching the game in real time, from whatever camera angle you might be playing at. Of course, at anytime, should you choose to want to sim to your next shift, you can bring up the Grades/Feedback/Tasks screen, and choose your sim option.
You may occasionally notice at certain times, that you will be assigned a player task by the coach, usually depending on the context of the game. For example if your team is leading by a goal, you will likely see the a task pop up that says “We could use an insurance marker out there”. You can get credit for completing this task either by adding the assist, scoring the goal, or simply being on the ice when the “insurance” goal is scored. I’ve also seen a number of other ones, like “We are getting badly outshot out there, go and even things up a bit.” This is what is considered a progressive task, that you will slowly complete bit by bit as you register shots on goal. These tasks are generally given to you as you get on the ice for your next shift, or sometimes you’ll notice them once you get back to the bench after a shift.
This is the only mode where the net front battles system is really noticeable, as in other modes, you’ll generally just switch players out of instinct if someone is tied up. Although this system feels very natural, as if you happen to get tied up, you just simply spin the left stick around to get yourself out of being tied up. I’ve yet to go into one of the other modes position locked on a defensemen to see how things are from the other side of things. Although I’ve read in the in game manual that to tie up a player you simply have to just engage them by pressing towards them with the right stick. I’ve also heard that certain players, such as big strong d-men like Chara, can also clear the slot by shoving players out of there, I’m assuming by means of how you would normally check someone. Once they are in said net-battle “zone” though, these normal checks turn into something a bit more vicious, from what I’ve heard.
The other sad thing about Be a Pro in the demo, just like all the other game modes, is that being limited to a single period, it somewhat cripples really showing off both the action tracker as well as the new presentation system which includes a new replay engine. You can catch glimpses of this here and there, and again, in what is just a small improvement, but a very nice touch in my opinion, all of the in game replays now also feature all the sound that was originally included in said play.
Hockey Ultimate Team
By far, the shining gem of the demo, which keeps me coming back for more and more. As several of my friends reminded me as we were talking about the demo as we were all downloading it at the time, there was indeed a HUT demo in NHL 11 as well, although I hardly remember it, which I suppose just comes from having spent most of my time playing the 3rd period between Chicago and Philly over and over again.
Anyway, in the HUT demo, you name your team, and are then given what is typically a very nice starter pack, consisting of a good variety of star NHL players, top prospects from the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, other young players like Hall or Skinner, for example, and then a few random lower end players from other leagues to fill out the bottom of your roster with. There is no standard “set” demo pack, and your combination of players can range quite a bit from whatever the overall available group might be. You are usually also given one healing card (although I’ve yet to see a player get injured in HUT) and occasionally might get a position switch card in your starter pack as well.
Once you go and sort out your team, which can take a bit, as you’ve got to look though your scratched roster to pull out some of the good players who might have gotten stuck in there. Then you may arrange your line-up as you see fit. Which might also take a bit of time, if you really care about who is on your power play and penalty kill units, keeping in mind that there is no chemistry factor involved in these, which can make for some interesting combinations.
When you have your HUT team all set, you can then enter the Rookie Cup tournament, which is the only play mode for HUT available in the demo. You will be matched up against the following teams in this order, no matter what.
- St. John Sea Dogs
- Vancouver Canucks
- Boston Bruins
- Team USA
Just like every other mode, you are only limited to playing the 3rd period. However, the score will always start out at 0-0. After completion of each game, be it a win or loss, you’ll be rewarded with Pucks, as per usual in HUT. However, since there is no store in the demo to buy packs. Instead, you are randomly awarded a set of training cards to improve your team with. Although there is no way to check what cards you have been awarded without first selecting a player and hitting, “Apply Consumable” - at which point any card that player might be able to use will be brought up. This does include position switching cards too, which is why after each game you’ve got to check every position on your team to see all of what you may have been awarded.
Although depending on what combination of players you got in your starter pack, which usually consists of the perfect amount of LWs, Cs, RWs, LDs, and RDs. I still have found these cards useful in the demo, depending on the composition of my team. For example, my first starter pack (which still might have been my best overall yet) - I got both Lidstrom and Keith, who are both listed as LD, but thanks to a position switch card I got after my first game, I was able to switch Keith to from LD to RD, and thus put him and Lidstrom on my top D-paring together without sacrificing chemistry in the process. Remember to check your goaltender as well, as you will occasionally get a goalie training card too.
A few things to keep in mind about the HUT demo though, you are never awarded any contracts, so your team is usually limited to your shortest contracts, which is generally 6 games for every team I’ve had thus far. So feel free to use up all of those training cards with no hesitation, as you will likely not get any more than 6 games in with that one team. Note that should you quit out of HUT, you’ll also lose your team as well. So yes, generally you’re pretty limited in attempting to run the gauntlet and win the entire tournament, which is important for the following reason.
As you may have read in my preview of the demo, I mentioned that you can earn up to two HUT card packs for the full version of the game. With a third card pack coming from the main menu option in the demo to invite a friend to play the demo. As far as I can tell, you earn these two packs simply by selecting some of the options in HUT that aren’t grayed out, but still don’t lead anywhere, like “Store” or “My Collection” for example. However, if you read the fine print on the screen that pops up when you go to these areas, you’ll notice that you can earn an “upgraded” card pack if you can manage to beat Team USA in the HUT demo, which means pulling off a tournament win in the usual 6 games you will be limited to, keeping in mind that it takes at least 4 games to win the tournament. It’s doable though, considering the difficulty for the tournament is locked on Pro, and can’t be changed. I finally managed to pull it off, albeit with what might have been one of the worst starter packs I have gotten too!
Also, just one last note on HUT here. The salary cap in the demo is set at 30,000. Although all the videos we have previously seen of HUT show the old 25,000 limit. So I’m not sure if this is just something they did for the sake of the demo, as your starter pack will always land you be slightly above the normal 25K limit, assuming that you are using all of your best available cards.
I guess that wraps things up for now… as there are still several things about the game that I have yet to put my finger on, such as the supposed tweaks to the fighting engine as well as the faceoff system, which I can tell are slightly different, but I haven’t played enough yet to fully notice what these small tweaks are, aside that changing the faceoff formation has now been changed to Left Trigger + Left Stick, as to help avoid accidently hitting it in-between plays, which I also thought was another nice small little touch, especially for online play, when this happens all the time, due to all the people playing.
Also, early this morning, I found this new video posted up, which is EA’s way of previewing the demo, but also makes me suspect something else from watching it. Take a look.
Video via EASPORTS YouTube Channel
See that part about earning a Legend HUT card for NHL 12? That is what I’m talking about. So far, I do not think that there is a single Legend in the group of random players available in the HUT demo starter packs. I have yet to check around the internet, because if there is, I’m sure they are super rare, so I’d rather be surprised. However, I don’t think that there is… but I strongly suspect that the “upgraded” pack you can earn for the retail version by beating Team USA, might include a random Legend.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my early impressions of the NHL 12 demo, I’m looking forward to seeing what some of you readers think… so feel free to comment with your own take on the demo thus far. What changes do you like, what don’t you like… etc. For now… since there is no news to report other than that new video… back to the demo!
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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