Over the last three years, EA Sports has managed to dominate the NHL video game market. In fact, last year, 2K Sports dropped out of the race alltogether, leaving EA with (practically) an NHL monopoloy. Of course, it’s no accident that the publisher’s NHL series has risen to the top. Critics and fans seem to agree; the games are good. NHLs 10, 11, and 12 have received Metcritic scores of 88, 88, and 86 respectively–pretty impressive for a sports series that hasn’t seen a total overhaul since 2009.
One of the reasons EA has sustained such a successful series is that it has been smart about managing its annual iterations. Though each year the publisher adds new content and mechanical tweaks, it never crosses the line into trying to fix what ain’t broke.
EA hopes to continue their trend of hockey excellence this year, and while the new edition won’t quite be revolutionary, it does promise a few new features to keep fans excited. Here are some of the most notable:
- Hockey I.Q. - Without a doubt, the most coveted element in sports game development is realism. Publishers and developers ask themselves on a daily basis, “How can we make this game true to the experience of playing this sport?” EA has answered that question this year with a simple, but effective principle: make the players smarter. By upping the intelligence of the A.I., the user’s teammates and his team as a whole will operate more realistically. No more cross-ice passes to find a teammate lagging behind. No more blue-line shots without players crashing the goal for rebounds. The overarching hope here is that no more controllers will be thrown into the TV based on unforeseen A.I. mistakes.
Apart from player intelligence, EA has also increased team strategy I.Q. By giving users the opportunity to control a variety of strategy modifications, EA has allowed players to adjust their team’s play style to fit the situation at hand. If you’re down late in the game, you can tell your team to shoot more and pass less, or to forego efficiency for an all-out energy push. Within roster updates, as well, each team will be equipped with settings to accurately replicate their play style, so the teams inside your console will play like the ones on NBC Sports.
- New Goalie Design - One thing especially apparent in NHL 12 was the unevenness of goalie performance. It seemed that in some games goalies would make miraculous, physics-defying saves, while in others they could have been playing behind the goal and it wouldn’t have made much difference. While this type of ebb and flow is “realistic,” it certainly didn’t appear to be a feature in NHL 12, and players were understandably upset with their goalies missing easy saves. In NHL 13, EA looks to alleviate the woes of its fans with their all-new goalie design. According to the game’s website, this year’s goalies will feature “complete limb movement,” with a wide range of fluidity and flexibility tweaks to allow for “an infinite number of animations.” Combatting another user frustration, EA has assured its fans that goalies, once committed to an animation, will be able to snap out of it fluidly in order to attempt a better save.
Like the other players in the game, goalies are also smarter now. Finally, the masked men will be able to anticipate the cross-ice one-timer that so many fans have lived and died by. Yes, it’s annoying to have to switch up your go-to tactic, but that’s what realism is all about. Goalies will also be more likely to attempt desperation saves when they know their net is wide open, and are better equipped to deal with all potential scoring threats. Lastly, user-controlled goalies have also been improved, and have been given access to the same infinite arsenal of animations that their cpu-controlled counterparts have.
- True Performance Skating - Premiered at E3, the implementation of True Performance Skating (TPS, for the purposes of this article) is probably EA’s biggest game-changer this year. This year, NHL’s skating system has been rebuilt from the ground up. Tying it to the phrase “over a thousand new player animations,” though, doesn’t do the game justice. In its quest for realism, EA may have come that much closer to reaching its goal with TPS. This new skating system adds never-before-experienced level of control. Just a few of its new features include backward skating, motion-affected shooting, and a revamped skill stick. With skill sticks in the past, players have been able to deek and set up backhanders and wrist shots. Now they’ll be able to move the stick in a wider range, performing player-specific moves. It’s a lot like Fifa’s right stick, taking advantage of different players’ skill levels to create a more dynamic experience. Playing with Sidney Crosby instead of a third-line defensemen won’t just mean you can score from anywhere–the former will be able to employ a number of tricks and techniques that the latter will fall on his face attempting.
EA has put a lot of effort into this year’s idea of speed versus control. In NHL 13, the variation in player speed will be much more stark than in years passed. Instead of everyone moving at almost the same pace, some players will be able to fly up and down the ice, while others will have to rely on positioning to gain their advantage. Along with this idea of speed comes the notion of control. As EA has mentioned numerous times, NHL 13 is designed to give full control to the player. That player, in turn, must rely on physics and skill to make their player do exactly what they want. Zooming up the ice with the puck and attempting a 90-degree turn toward the goal won’t work out like it did in past games: your player will fall down and you will lose the puck. Instead, EA has included controller feedback to let players know when they’re about to lose their footing, at which point they can either decide to go with the move or bail out. Of course, some of the most exciting plays can be built around this method of risk-versus-reward.
For many, buying the new edition of a sports game each year can be taxing. In most cases, the simple roster update and a few minor changes aren’t enough to warrant dropping $60. That being said, with its ground-up developed skating system, new goalies, and all-around improved A.I., EA’s NHL 13 may have just enough new material to trump its predecessors. Of course, we won’t know for sure until review season, so stay tuned. The game launches on September 11 for PS3 and Xbox 360.
In the meantime, why don’t you tell us what you’re most excited, or what else you’d like to see from NHL 13 in the comments section below. You can also head over to our forum page and start a conversation about the game!