There is something about sports games that has always seemed so impressive to me. While some would insist that many franchises in the genre put out the same game year after year, the mechanics have become so refined by 2012 that it’s difficult not to be astounded by how far the genre has come. On its 22nd game this year, the NHL series does not carry much gameplay variation. You can still play the same hockey you love, you can still be a general manager, and you can still play online. There are some minor changes to enhance the experience, but the biggest draw to NHL 13 is what has occurred under the hood.
Right off the bat, everything looks and sounds fantastic. The players look more realistic than ever, Bill Clement and Gary Thorne sound as good as they ever have announcing (though I swear that some of this stuff is re-used), and the gameplay has gotten to the point where (minus the static audience) it looks like a game really is taking place. Thanks to the new True Performance skating, everything plays far more realistic than ever before. By utilizing new physics based skating, it means that players can no longer can you maintain full control over their player while they barrel forward at full speed. In the same vein, maneuvering in-and-out of defensive traffic will cause your player to slow down accordingly. On the plus side, the new skating adds an increased depth to control, now allowing your player to skate in all directions (including backwards) far more fluidly than ever before. Though it sounds simple on paper, this feature alone does wonders to make NHL 13 feel fresh and enhanced.
Despite changing for the better, True Performance skating puts NHL 13 in an awkward position, where the originally heavily arcade game is now an arcade game with a heavy amount of realism. While EA Canada is electing to make changes to create a more realistic experience, I’m perplexed by the amount of basic changes the developer easily could have made and decided against making. Goalies can still throw pucks with no regard to who will receive it, the AI will never be guilty of icing or going off-sides, AI passing rarely fails, hockey fights are practically identical and feel like button-mashing fests and competing general managers in Be A GM mode are still stubborn beyond belief. While the NHL franchise is on its way to becoming one of (if not the) best EA Sports franchise, it is frustrating to see changes like this ignored.
On the positive side, NHL 13 adds two new modes this year. The first, NHL Moments Live, allows players to re-enact important moments from NHL history. This usually involves the player controlling a specific player or team trying to get an amount of points during a time period or an overall score. The idea and execution are excellent. Though, like most of this game, you really need to be a hockey nerd to appreciate most of the gameplay in this mode or else it will all just seem like a restricted version of the regular game.
The other mode is GM Connected. For those of you enamored with the management-centric Be A GM mode, the entire experience can be taken online. Allowing up to 750 players (that’s right, 750!) to participate as managers, players, and commissioner, the mode requires a lot of cooperation from a lot of players. There are not many players online yet, so I can’t very much make a good determination of quality, but I can say that the experience is slowed down immensely from the offline version. Thanks to a likely combination of the UI and EA’s servers, menu navigation is terribly slow, and most of the experience involves waiting for players to make their moves. The feature is worth playing around with and I hope that this will become more rewarding over the next twelve months, but I am very skeptical about the level of quality we will actually get back for our time.
Thanks to minor improvements all around (like goalie AI that doesn’t feel as dumb or robotic and other physical changes like better puck cradling), all of the returning modes appear to have new life in them. Be A GM mode has received the most and thanks to the effort of EA Canada, the AI feels much more realistic. It isn’t actually realistic yet (again, players and GMs are as stubborn as ever), but there are less times when free agents and players will sit out for entire seasons because of some contract dispute or otherwise. Perhaps the best option would be to just play the offline mode and not even deal with the hassle of GM Connected to begin with. Of course, this is far from the only returning mode, and you should be happy to know that EASHL mode, the Be A Legend/Player modes, and Your Ultimate Hockey Team are in full force.
Packed with new modes and some key improvements, NHL 13 is indisputably the best hockey game of this generation so far. There are some minor gaffes and EA continues its tradition of making a game nearly unplayable for newcomers, but fans of the series should have a blast this year whether there is a real-life season or not.