If there's one thing that makes the end of the summer palatable, it's the taste of another imminent year of hockey. However, this year EA Sports has a bit more to celebrate with its 20th year as a brand, and the release of the 21st iteration of its NHL franchise, NHL 12, is just around the corner. One can certainly appreciate a continual focus on gameplay improvements over the lack of fanfare around those arbitrary numbers, but even more pleasing is that some of the more gimmicky-sounding additions announced over the summer aren't taking point either.

Many preview articles, forum threads and blog posts about the game seemed focussed on these gimmicks (I'm referring to the playoff beards, the ability to knock players' helmets off, and the addition of hockey legends, to name a few), as though they were to be the key features. Thankfully, it wasn't so. The majority of the key improvements are subtle and affect the core gameplay and menu navigation, rather than provide cheap thrills.

Don't get me wrong; I'm the first to applaud anything that increases the realism of the game. Playoff beards are as much a part of the sport as anything, but if push came to shove, we could have done without. What I love about NHL 12 is that, while the community's focus was disproportionately aimed at a few specific visual changes, there's a whole slew of them that come together to make the whole scene feel more alive. Yes, you can knock off helmets with big hits, but you can also make the boards shake back and forth; dislodge the net from its moorings; nudge the goalie off balance (or plow into him, whatever your fancy); toe-drag across the blue line to prevent an offside call; look around on the bench and see live players looking around (albeit a bit jumpily) and move when lines change. I'm sure there's lots more minor things I haven't explicitly noticed, but the gist is that playing NHL 11 now feels like moving cardboard cutouts around the screen in comparison. And I used to think NHL 11 was pretty damn good visually.

Key to the feeling of realism is what EA Sports is calling the "full contact physics engine". Fans will recall that NHL 11 touted something similar, where body checks would use something akin to "rag doll" physics that produced different reactions from the recipient of a hit every time. Looking at it now, the limitations are obvious. Colliding with another player without checking often resulted in an awkward pass-by, as if both characters were encased in invisible cylinders. This was even more apparent when skating around the robotic goalie and the cemented net. In NHL 12, all collisions appear to affect both objects involved. Glancing blows will often push players off balance, the net is no longer immovable, checks over the bench causes players to bend over the other side (with seated players reacting accordingly), and hard checks often cause the checker to fall over (sometimes flying over) his opponent.

Because this obviously blurs the line of what is computationally considered "player contact", the calling of interference calls has been greatly relaxed. My one biggest gripe in NHL 11 is that I couldn't so much as poke a player without earning a penalty. It was incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to command a nudge or a shove versus a full-on hit. In addition, you couldn't check a player that hadn't actually touched the puck, even if it was between his skates. Playing defense in Be A Pro was infuriating! In NHL 12, the puck no longer seems to be "owned" by a player, instead often drifting away from the player's control if their stick is priming a slap shot for too long, of they're being too fancy with the deking. Whether because of referee AI tuning or better hitting assist, both of NHL 11's issues appear to have largely gone away, greatly improving the realism of defensive play.

The combination of this and the new physics also led the way for a new gameplay mechanic dubbed "net battles" where two players can become entangled in a shoving contest in front of the net, thereby making goalie screening more effective but close-quarters stick play more difficult. And in the continuing line of this-enables-that, goalies now more realistically look and position themselves to better look around screening players, reducing the chance for screened scoring but also opening the door to spectacular one-timers.

Perhaps the most subtle and effective change in gameplay is in the AI's positioning of players. What I originally attributed to enhanced difficulty combined with paranoia is in fact what the developers call "AI anticipation". I had to look it up and find that it's an actual feature because it's *that* subtle, but I was able to reproduce and compare the behaviour for myself. The most obvious case is with a loose puck deep in the zone when your defense will obviously pick it up way before the opposition gets there. In NHL 11, everybody's rushing back and then the offense only stops and turns back the other way once the defense actually has possession of the puck. In NHL 12, the offense is aware of the scenario and starts skating back up ice *before* the defense reaches the puck. This sounds like a tiny factor until you realize that it permeates the game, and often puts the opposition exactly where you were hoping they wouldn't be and they *get better at it*. This is where the extreme realism, and paranoia, come in. Beat that, playoff beards.

Each of the three primary game modes, Hockey Ultimate League, Be A Pro, and Be A GM, has had a bit of attention in this iteration, as expected. Yes, the various other game modes (season, playoffs, tournament, battle for the cup, etc.) are still there, but they're largely, if not exactly, as they were previously. Of the three, Be A GM is the only one without gameplay changes. Instead, what can only be surmised as a giant heap of work has gone into refining the game's underlying simulation engine to better capture each player's "signature traits". For those of us that aren't stats junkies and don't necessarily notice the characteristic behaviour of key players in the game, you'd have noticed this discrepancy by comparing players on the various leaderboards at the end of a season against those of the NHL. The problem in previous iterations is that, for all the attributes assigned to a player, there wasn't really anything that noted, for example, that Henrik (Sedin) is the passer and Daniel is the shooter. As such, they were equally likely to score goals and thus deviate from the statistical reality, but no longer. If you weren't yet convinced that accuracy with the real world was the number one priority of those hockey nuts in Burnaby, this should do just that.

Having been introduced just last year, the Hockey Ultimate League (HUD) mode didn't get a whole lot of changes in NHL 12. There's a new single-player mode called "EAUHL 24/7" which allows you to play against other gamers' created teams without actually being online, and a "play a friend" mode that's fairly self-explanatory. Both of these relax the HUD rules that otherwise balance online play. Interestingly enough, you can earn EA pucks (the mode's currency) if others play against your team offline, and it doesn't count against your players' contracts.

The Be A Pro (BAP) mode is my personal favourite, and has received the majority of the attention. Firstly, there are now four variations; players can "be" a created player as before, or one of an existing NHL player, CHL player, or a legend. Legendary players are unlocked via the progression of a standard BAP career, and then allow you to integrate them in any present-day team and play their alternate dimension career from there. A standard BAP career can still start with the tail end of a CHL season and the entry draft, or by manually picking an NHL team, but now also includes a much requested third option: to play a full CHL season leading up to the entry draft.

There are two new gameplay mechanics in BAP. The first is the addition of "tasks", which are coach-assigned objectives to complete for additional XP. These have the side-effect of simultaneously providing more coaching direction for the team, and better feedback than yet another "watch the turnovers". The second mechanic is a major shift in how BAP is played, and addresses the previous title's problem with repeatedly getting upwards of 30 minutes of time on ice and a minus 20 on the season. Games are now fixed at a realistic 20 minute periods, and a player's ice time varies depending on a number of factors, including the line you play, your teamwork, and how well you're playing; no more hopping on the ice whenever you want. That fixes one problem and introduces another: no one wants to watch the computer go back and forth for 40+ minutes. While you certainly can sit there and watch from the bench, you can quickly simulate the game up to your next shift, optionally seeing a textual recap of the interval. The mechanic works well to fix the discrepancy with the stats, but the simulation part feels a bit disconnected because it takes you away from the ice entirely. When returned to the game with additional goals on the board that you didn't see happen, the feeling of playing on a team quickly dissipates, defeating half the fun of BAP. It's a shame because the idea is good and something as simple as leaving a faded view of an empty rink from the bench in the background might've helped alleviate this.

The simulation w/ text recap view uses a new interface feature called the "Action Tracker" available at all times from the main menu. It's inspired from the NHL GameCenter tracker, showing an overhead view of an ice rink with interactive icons showing the location of events including shots, goals, hits and faceoffs. In the BAP's simulation time, events pop up sequentially; at any other time they show the events of the period chronologically. What's really cool about it is the inclusion of another view that shows the locations of shots on net and those that resulted in goals, to better tune one's chosen shot targets and assist with the difficulty of mastering the left-stick-moving-but-aiming scheme.

There's a number of other small but noteworthy additions and improvements, including a slicker interface, sub-menu glimpses for easier navigation, the ability to create female pros, a playable team of legends, and longer BAP intro cinematics. Chief among them is the Winter Classic mode, which is window dressing (if very nice window dressing) on the "play now" mode: a recreated Heinz stadium shown almost solely in cutscenes, falling snow during play, and snowed-over interface overlays. There are extra sound clips for the announcers to complain about the riskiness of "long passes in this weather", but I couldn't notice anything special about the gameplay after a few rounds other than a bit of extra puck bounciness that could just as well have been random.

There really isn't much to complain about in this one. Other than the one comment about the BAP simulation interface, there's still the annoyingly long "connecting to the EA servers" message every now and then, even for offline play, and the gameplay settings are still mind-boggingly difficult to balance. Large parts of the play-by-play and commentary is recycled from previous iterations, supplemented with shameful plugs like "Oh man! That one's going to be discussed on the NHL Network!" The one main complaint I'm expecting from players everywhere is that you still can't import your progress from the previous title, so you can kiss those 14 seasons of BAP goodbye yet again, and there's certainly compelling reasons to set NHL 11 aside.

Otherwise, the controls haven't changed other than the addition of a leg-kick-fake-shot, so it's a really easy one to pick up for franchise veterans. They've fixed just about every annoying thing about NHL 11, right down to the idiot defencemen that always touch-passed the puck right back to you in BAP. They've even fixed the confusion stemming from the inability to proceed with unreleased jerseys in NHL 11 by using generic NHL jerseys for the Winnipeg Jets.

To be honest, I'm usually in the camp that skips every second NHL title because it's hard to justify what seems like a few enhancements and a roster update for the price of a AAA game, but this time they've done a fantastic job with improvements that are very hard to resist. Damn fine way to celebrate your 20th anniversary, EA Sports.