EA Sports' National Hockey League franchise froze out the competition a few years ago, winning fan devotion with its stunning graphics and true-to-life gameplay. Maybe that's because the programmers work out of Canada, eh?
Whatever the reason, EA hasn't let the quality of "NHL 12" (for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, $59.95) slide. This season's incarnation builds on previous triumphs, with numerous subtle enhancements that make a big difference. But that doesn't mean a fan can't nitpick.
Computer-controlled skaters now anticipate where the puck is going and are better at reading plays. You can interact more with the goalies by bumping or hitting them. The net comes off when players crash into it, and collisions and hard shots can break the glass. Helmets pop off and players can be knocked over the bench.
EA Sports has upgraded its physics engine, so size and strength truly do matter. That means bigger hits and more muscling for the puck, and if you line up a skater just right, you can send him spinning.
The new "Be a Legend" mode puts you in the skates of all-time greats like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe. There are also improvements to the "Be a Pro" feature that allow you to create your own player from head to toe and lead him from the minors to the big show. In the past, once your shift was over on the ice, you'd have to watch and wait for your next turn. Now, you can simulate the time in between shifts so you can get back to playing sooner.
"NHL 12" also features the newest tradition and spectacle in the NHL, the Winter Classic outdoor game. While it defaults to last season's contest between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field, you can choose any two teams and watch the snow fall on the ice as they skate around.
Now the gripes.
While the new physics engine makes gameplay more realistic, it also causes some frustration. The hitting and bumping moves the game closer to what you'd see in an NHL game, but it also leads to more turnovers and lost pucks and slows the game down more than necessary.
This season's "Legends" team includes greats like Gretzky, Lemieux, Howe and Patrick Roy, but leaves out many of the game's greatest players and some notable Hall of Famers. In their place are newer "legends" like the Penguins' Sidney Crosby, the Vancouver Canucks' Roberto Luongo and cover athlete Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
EA Sports has come close to perfecting the hockey video game experience. Despite a few small issues, any hockey fan will enjoy "NHL 12" — and even gamers who aren't devoted to the sport will find much to enjoy. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum