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Last year I commented on how NHL 11 was a big step forward for the long-running EA Sports’ series and therefore the best ice hockey game ever to grace consoles.

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I also said developers would have a tough job on their hands trying to improve on it, and so it’s proved.

This year EA has reverted to tradition by making what appear to be, to me at least, only superficial enhancements for the latest annual update.

Despite the relatively small improvements, the game has still got slightly better and is therefore the new best ice hockey sim ever to appear on consoles.

The fact is it was superb before and it is still superb now, with the added benefit of being up-to-date and having had some subtle changes made to it.

To use a football analogy, complaining about this game not being vastly superior to last year’s would be like saying Lionel Messi hasn’t improved much on last season. Even if he’s only marginally improved, or even not at all, he’s still a superstar who is better than others around him.

Even though it’s the best in the series yet, NHL 12 does still throw up the usual question asked by all of EA’s sports franchises - is it worth forking out £40 if you already own last year’s game?

Certainly if you own NHL 09 or 10 and want to update your collection then 12 is definitely a must-have. It is a fantastic game which can easily be recommended to fans of ice hockey, ice hockey video games or just spots games in general. If you haven’t played a NHL game for a couple of years then get this one.

If you do own 11 though, it is much harder to recommend a purchase of 12. There is little difference between the two and unless you’re someone who must have the latest version of every game you might want to hold off until 13, which will no doubt be even better.

NHL 12 factbox

Developer/publisher: EA Sports

Formats: PS3, Xbox 360 (PS3 reviewed)

Verdict: 9 out of 10 – The NHL series continues to be a giant among sports games, and this year’s version is the most feature-rich and realistic yet.

If you take the plunge with 12 then what you’ll get is the usual first-class representation of North American professional hockey.

You’ll get to play as any of the top American and Canadian teams. There is a load of ways to enjoy the game, from one-off matches, play-offs and seasons through to the Be A Pro mode where you can play through the career of an individual player.

NHL is basically the Fifa of ice hockey so if you’re familiar with EA’s footy offering you’ll instantly feel at home with the various menus and modes here.

During matches there is the plethora of features you’d expect any self-respecting hockey sim to provide. Just about everything you’d see in the real sport is included here.

The action is full-on, fast-paced, end-to-end and of course packed with incident, including bone-crunching collisions, frantic goalmouth scrambles and fights.

This is as exciting, intense and fun as any game in or out of the sports genre.

Those subtle changes I mentioned earlier are related to the physics engine, AI and goalies. Or Full Contact Physics Engine, anticipation AI and dynamic goalies to quote the back of the pack.

No, I don’t know exactly what these things are either and I can’t identify any clear-cut moments when I’ve seen them in action but NHL 12 still feels overall the slickest and most realistic version of NHL yet.

Other improvements for this version include the introduction of the outdoor Winter Classic match and the Be A Legend mode in which you can play as hockey stars of the past such as Gretzky, Howe and Lemieux.

One of the best aspects of the NHL games has always been its broadcast-style presentation, and that’s as good as ever in this edition. The TV graphics, great camera work during replays and first-rate commentary from Gary Thorne and Bill Clemente all contribute to an authentic experience. The stadia are really well done too and the crowd effects are excellent. This is one of the best looking and sounding sport sims around, up to EA Sports’ usual high standards.

Of course NHL 12 isn’t flawless. Sports are played by humans, always random and unpredictable, and video games cannot do a perfect job of replicating this. NHL makes a very good attempt at it but the strings sometimes show.

For instance, the computer players hardly ever make mistakes. They never fall over, or carelessly lose possession of the puck.

Computer opponents are also generally not aggressive enough for my liking. Hockey is a maximum-contact sport but I can’t think of any occasions when the computer opponent has given away needless penalties, so power play moments are very few and far between.

The slightly sad fact of the matter is whatever I say in this review or whatever plaudits the game wins from other reviewers, ice hockey is such a niche sport in this country that NHL 12 is unlikely to convert anyone who hasn’t bothered with the series before.

Anyone not playing this game is missing out on something special, something that is a masterpiece not just in the admittedly limited ice hockey field but also among sports games in general.

NHL 12 is a steady rather than spectacular step forward from previous iterations but developers have still achieved what I thought impossible, that is improving upon last year’s effort, albeit only just. This is the series’ new pinnacle ... at least until next year.

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