‘NHL 13′ Preview

NHL13

Promoting the biggest relaunch of its NHL franchise in years, EA Sports has been giving the gaming community the hard sell when it comes to NHL 13. Releasing more campaign videos than some presidential candidates, EA is trying their damnedest to show that owners of NHLs 11 and 12 need to upgrade this year, or risk falling into the dark pit of obsolescence.

Yesterday, exactly three weeks before launch, the NHL 13 demo appeared on the Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Store, allowing eager fans to finally get their hands on all the hype. Featuring four modes of play and a handful of promotional videos, the demo lets players experience new features like True Performance Skating, upgraded AI with “Hockey IQ,” NHL Moments Live, and more.

As we know, EA’s focus this year is on realism, and from the limited exposure the demo provides, it seems the #1 sports-game publisher has definitely hit its mark. The game looks, feels, sounds, and smells like a real hockey game. The movement is fluid, the graphics are slick, and the commentary is as tuned-in as ever. All of this, though, is overshadowed at first by one blatant truth:

It’s really stinkin’ hard.

I’ve been consistently playing NHL games since 2010 and, despite usually sucking at video games, I’ve tended to fair well with this series. The first session of Play Now in ’13, though, had me flashing back to my childhood, struggling to keep up with my older brother in whatever sports game he’d decided to beat me in that day.

Play Now throws you into the third period of a Kings-Devils matchup with a randomly generated score. In my first game I started up 1-0 as the Kings and quickly fell behind 2-1. Based solely on my long-standing ability to turn every scoring chance into a one-timer, I managed to tie the match up for the final horn, but still felt dejected and humiliated. This was the computer I’d just been manhandled by. On Pro (essentially “medium”).

At first, you’re going to feel a lot like this goalie: bruised, battered, and beaten.

After a quick round of Free Skate–a one-on-one friendly matchup against a goalie–and an instructional video on True Performance Skating presented by Claude Giroux, I thought I’d have a better shot against the Devils. The rust was off, I was back in hockey mode, and I was feeling good about it.

Five games and no wins later, I was starting to think NHL 13 hated me and wanted nothing more than to claim me as its bitch.

At this point, with very little keeping me from unplugging my PS3 and swearing off of video games, I decided to poke around the menu and see what else this spiteful demo had to offer. I soon discovered NHL Moments Live, the demo of which pits the LA Kings against the Phoenix Coyotes in overtime of the Western Conference Finals. It may not go down as a Hall-of-Fame moment, but having happened only four months ago in real life, it’s an exciting addition to the demo.

This is it, I thought to myself. If I can’t put one lousy puck in the back of the net against the Coyotes, I’m done.

Determination rushing through my bloodstream, I gripped the controller while waiting for the match to load and tried to forget everything I’d previously known about the NHL franchise. Unfortunately, the load takes almost no time, and before I knew it, I was facing off. Then, in some nirvana-esque moment of understanding, I began to get it.

Gaining control of the puck, I pulled into mind all of the videos I’d watched on the new skating system, AI, and team strategy. Suddenly I didn’t suck so much anymore. By utilizing the “glide” mechanic to get around defenders (letting go of the left stick after skating in a certain direction to turn more effectively) and passing to where players should be instead of where they’d been in past games, I managed to push the biscuit past the net-minder inside the first two minutes of play, sending the LA Kings to the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals.

Maybe it doesn’t sound that exciting to an outside reader, but the point is this: veteran players, long-time fans of the franchise, will have a tough time with NHL 13 at first. Even if you haven’t picked up NHL 12 since February, your muscle memory will want you to do things that, in terms of ’13, are flat-out wrong. Just like in real life, you can’t make a ninety-degree turn after skating from one end of the ice to the other without releasing some of your momentum. Likewise, on defense, you can’t hope to b-line for a puck-handler and deliver a rib-cracking check after adjusting for the opponent’s movement. Both of these situations can be better by gliding to change directions. Though tough to get used to, the sometimes-constant moving and releasing of the left stick to glide mimics the lifting and pressing down of a real ice skate, adding one more subtle level of realism to the game.

Another new mechanic to master is backward skating–redesigned from what used to be called “vision control.” With backward skating, you’re able to get even more creative when it comes to getting around defenders. By pressing in L2 (or the left trigger on Xbox), your player will automatically spin around to his opposite side, making it easier to protect the puck and get around the net for a wraparound goal. Backward skating also allows you to set up on defense more effectively, eliminating previous issues that came with trying to face a defender in front of you.

The NHL 13 demo, which takes about 1 gig from your PS3 hard drive, also comes with a mini offline tournament inside its “Hockey Ultimate Team” mode. The demo of HUT gives you a team of randomly selected players, which you can than customize (albeit limitedly) and use to play through a 16-team tournament with four potential rounds. Like in Play Now, these games start in the third period, though the scores are always tied at zero. If you win (either in the third period, in overtime, or in the shootout) you move onto the next round. If you lose, you’re out and you’ve got to restart. Because it’s a demo, though, there’s no way to save your progress, so if you want to claim the tournament trophy, you’ve got to do it all in one go.

Though undeniably realistic, the newest edition of the NHL series is a challenge to pick up and play. For the first time since the introduction of the shot stick in 2009, new players may actually have a slight advantage over veterans in the beginning in that they won’t have to unlearn certain mechanics and techniques. The demo allows for very little adjustment in the way of settings, so arcade-style players are out of luck until the customizable full game drops in September. Personally, I found the game speed to be a bit to slow–a slider I will most likely adjust as soon as I can.That being said, the demo is a must for avid hockey fans and sports-games fans alike. While the jury is still out on the full version, the demo gives a glimpse of a game that could start a realism-revolution in its genre.

NHL 13 launches on September 11 on PS3 and Xbox 360. Have you laced up your skates in the demo yet? Did it make you call for momma, too? Let me know in the comments below or over on our forums!

Being undeniably bad at video games has never stopped Sam from loving them, and now he's covering the gaming industry daily. When he's not writing about (or playing) video games, Sam can usually be found watching past-their-prime TV shows on Netflix or reading whatever finds its way onto his Kindle. Twitter: @scnolan13 PSN/Steam: rotcerid