As NBA 2K12 began to do last year with basketball, NHL 13 is positioning itself to be the only hockey experience fans will get this year. With the announcement of the NHL lockout in the real world, the virtual world may be the only place fans can turn for their fix of dekes, checks, shots, saves, and scores. Fortunately for both EA Sports and the troves of hungry hockey fans, NHL 13 delivers where it needs to.
Each year, successful sports franchises face the problem of trying to maintain a solid game while adding something new for players to get excited about. In many cases, that “something new” doesn’t change the overall experience of the game very much, resulting in a general “more-of-the-same” attitude. With this in mind, EA’s NHL series has had a pretty good run of things over the past three years. With scores consistently in the upper 80s, EA has always been able to do enough to balance old and new elements, keeping everyone happy. This year, though, the publisher/developer decided to reach even further, hoping to make NHL 13 the definitive virtual hockey experience.
One of the biggest changes made in NHL 13 is in the gameplay itself. Looking to present a more realistic experience, EA implemented a new feature known as “True Performance Skating,” which strives to mimic the motion, restrictions, and abilities true to ice skating. This was a risky move on EA’s part, as it could have made the game too difficult or unenjoyable. It does neither, though, only serving to enhance the experience and really bring players into the game. As anyone who’s ever skated before knows, you can’t turn on a dime after flying down the ice, and you can’t accelerate like a bullet. True Performance Skating is all about momentum and it works, requiring players to think about when to grind their skates into the ground for an extra boost of speed, and when to lay off in preparation for a tight turn. Players attempting to fight against physics are warned via the controller’s rumble, but choosing not to heed the warning can result in disastrous turnovers and loss of balance. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve got the hang of it, True Performance Skating becomes an asset instead of a hindrance, allowing you to deke opponents more fluidly and fly down the ice like never before.
Another addition in NHL 13 is the “skate backwards” control. Granting players the ability to face their opponents on defense or turn away from the goal on offense, on-command backward skating provides an extra level of control on defense and allows for better stick handling and wrap-around goals. These new techniques come in handy as the AI has gotten a lot smarter. Team strategies are more defined, players make realistic in-game decisions, and goalies are more aware than ever, all of which comes as part of the new EA Sports Hockey I.Q.
Other game-changing controls come in the form of loose-puck chops, explosive movement cuts, and expanded strategy management features. All of these come together to change the face of the NHL franchise, but none are so complicated as to alienate long-time fans. That said, NHL 13 is much harder to jump into than its predecessors, so be prepared for a learning curve.
One of EA’s ad campaigns centered around the game’s GM Connected mode–in which players can join in with up to 750 of their closest friends in a massive hockey league. As you might imagine, this mode is pretty complex, though leagues needn’t be quite so huge, with league commissioners being able to set the maximum number of members as low as 30. Within GM Connected, users play as a commissioner, a general manager, or a player, fulfilling the roles inherent to each position. If that in itself sounds a bit complicated, fret not: NHL 13 does a good job of explaining the out-of-game processes with graphical overlays. After learning the menu system, you’re off to the races with five ways to play, including both online and offline modes.
Of course, in order to enjoy GM Connected, you’ve got to find (or start) a league, which can be a hassle. Unless you know a bunch of people with the NHL 13, you’ll likely want to join a random league. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work as simply as you may hope. Players must navigate a seemingly endless alphabetical list of leagues looking for one that suits them, and then must send a join request to the league’s commissioner. Even this wouldn’t be too bad by itself, but the data refreshes each time a player highlights a new league, which takes a few seconds each time. If you’re trying to scroll down out of the “0s” section (“0” being the first character in this alpha-numerical system and, therefore, the one preceding many of the league names), you may find yourself incredibly frustrated by the time you get to the “As.” Users can, however, set search parameters and even search for a specific league, cutting down on the wait time.
Aside from GM Connected, NHL 13 brings back “Hockey Ultimate Team” as its other major game mode. Part card game, part franchise mode, HUT starts users off with an introductory pack of “cards,” granting access to players, jerseys, and training power-ups. Then, by playing with their newly assembled team both online and off, players can earn “pucks” (essentially money) to buy various booster packs and expand their teams. With frequent tournaments and the initial level playing field, HUT is a novel idea that turns out to be a lot of fun. Its redesigned menu system and advanced options add new levels of control and allow players to assemble a truly Ultimate Team. Of all the game modes (and there are a lot), I found myself playing HUT the most.
Returning this year are also Be a Pro and Be a GM mode, alongside the addition of Be a Legend, where players can jump into the skates of some of the greatest hockey heroes of all time. Be a Pro also expands into the EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL), wherein players can use their Pro to partake in the online action. With an online performance tracker, players can gauge how their Pro is progressing in both league and drop-in play. If you do join a league, you’ll be able to schedule games with your teammates and compete in seasons and tournaments with each of your created players.
Also launched is the new series of “NHL Moments Live,” which lets users play out some of last season’s greatest moments. Should there be a hockey season this year, EA will add downloadable moments to reflect this season’s greatest games. Moments Live drops users in on some of the most pivotal minutes of these two seasons with various tasks to recreate. In one, you’ll take over as Kris Letang, returning in overtime from an injury to score the Penguins’ winning goal. Another Moment challenges you to launch a Devils comeback against the Kings in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. NHL Moments Live even hosts some classic moments, including the final game of Gretzky’s unparalleled tour of 50 goals in 39 games.
NHL 13 is a beautiful game, often times pushing the boundaries of what I thought was capable from this generation of consoles, and no mode makes that clearer than the Winter Classic. Featuring both this and last year’s outdoor games, EA has clearly put their best foot forward for presentation. From arena reflections on the facemasks of players and the detailed facial structures beneath, to the redesigned walk-in sequences and new replay highlight packages, the game is far ahead of its predecessors in the graphics department. There are, however a few moments where the graphics and physics engine collide, culminating in some interesting results. For instance, during board play–especially behind the net–players will, at times, slingshot off the boards toward the center of the ice. It’s not terribly drastic, but it’s enough to make you wonder what the hell just happened before regaining your composure.
On the other side of the game’s presentation is its audio, which doesn’t fare quite as well. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return as the in-game announcers, but these two famed voices of hockey are drowned out by repetitive phrases and errant comments. It’s a shame, too, because sometimes Thorne and Clement have the perfect quip for a situation, and the interruption of color commentary to announce a breakaway or a save is great. These, though, are overshadowed by blanket remarks that have been rehashed over the past four years, and occasional statements that simply don’t apply to the situation at hand. The soundtrack, too, gets a little stale, but EA has included the option of importing your own music, making that a non-issue.
If you’re a hockey fan with $60 in your pocket, you’d be wise to get this game. Even if you have NHL 12, ‘13 adds enough new content to justify the purchase, and if you’re still hanging on to ‘11, it’s time to upgrade. One of the best things about NHL 13 is its variance. With so many game modes and features, it’s hard not to find something that suits your taste. Maybe you won’t delve into each and every mode, but you’re sure to find something that interests you, whether you’re a devout hockey fan or just a gamer looking for a new challenge. And if you don’t fall somewhere between those two boundaries, go outside or something; stop reading reviews for games you’ve got no interest in.
NHL 13 was developed and published by EA Sports. A PlayStation 3 copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.