New skating and AI features nail the feel of hockey more than any other game before it.
I am a huge hockey fan. The fact that we’re headed toward an NHL lockout later this week depresses me more than I care to admit, but at least I have NHL 13 to hold me over while millionaires squabble over their millions of dollars. EA put the focus this season on making NHL 13 feel as close to the real thing as possible, from the new Performance Skating system to the new AI with their Hockey IQ feature. On this front, NHL 13 is a tremendous success. A few gripes will come from the fact that off the ice, you’re getting almost the same game as last year – save for a few new features. All-in-all, it’s a compelling package for hockey fans.
The impact True Performance Skating has on this game can’t be understated. In years past, there wasn’t a lot of variance in how different players felt on the ice. Worse yet, previous NHL games allowed you to play a high risk defensive game without penalty; even if you went for a big hit or poke check and missed, you could always recover and regain your positioning. True Performance Skating makes skating feel like it does in real-life, as you can’t get to top speed immediately without expending a great deal of energy, back-skating is slower (as it should be), and you aren’t able to make tight turns at high speeds. This really highlights players who are better at accelerating (Jason Chimera is beastly), and forces you to play smart, positional defense with your blue-liners, or suffer the wrath of an abundance of 2-on-1′s and breakaways.
The news isn’t all bad if you give up a ton of scoring chances though, as goalies are better than they’ve ever been thanks to the new goalie AI. Goaltenders would follow the puck exclusively in previous games which forced players to rely almost entirely on cross-crease one-timers that resulted in goals almost every time. Goalies now are aware of every player on the ice, so if a 2 on 1 breaks out, that goalie will be keeping an eye on the trailing attacker while giving the bulk of the attention to the puck carrier. While this leads to the saving of more one-timers than I’ve ever seen, it’s a double-edged sword, as you can abuse goalies on the short side and the five-hole like never before. One moment saw me able to squeeze a shot between the goalie and the near post as I crept in along the faceoff circle because the goalie cheated toward one of my wingers who was waiting for a pass on the far side. This simply didn’t happen in NHL 12. Goalies can also move all four limbs independently for the first time which leads to some spectacular desperation saves. Seriously, you’ll catch yourself looking up to the ceiling often after getting robbed by some of these, just as your in-game players will.
True Performance Skating and the new Goalie AI also helps immensely by not allowing online players to exploit the game as they’ve done in years past. I’ve found it’s finally easy to destroy opponents who don’t play hockey like hockey is supposed to be played, which is a welcome sight from a series where exploit artists have traditionally thrived. Some will complain that poke checks are over-powering and scoring is harder than ever, but that’s how things should be in my opinion. Real-life NHL’ers can’t just dangle the puck down into the low slot every time. Cycling the puck, being patient with your shots, and playing on the points is how you’ll find success in NHL 13. That said, casual fans of the series who just want to score lots of goals may be a little put off by the huge step up in difficulty.
This increase in difficulty comes in large part from Hockey IQ. The new feature makes players aware of the whole ice, and the AI will position themselves accordingly. A big part of this is all the new strategy settings that have been added. For the first time in the series, you can independently dictate your forecheck and neutral zone alignment, as well as how much you want your forwards to cheat toward one area or the other. If you want to torture your opponents with the Lightning’s 1-3-1 alignment, you now can, though don’t expect to get much pressure on the offensive end. You are also able to dictate tendencies of your individual lines, so checking lines can finally be made to get down for shot blocks and to work primarily from a dump-and-chase style, while skill lines will be more inclined to carry the puck into the offensive zone and burn a ton of energy trying to turn pucks over in the offensive end.
The on-ice play isn’t without its faults. The physics in the game just don’t feel completely right, as players can feel a little bouncy at times when being checked (though this has felt better with the couple of tuning updates EA has put out since launch). I’ve been cut down with checks from behind with the puck more often in this game than any other, and they’re usually hits that would draw penalties in real-life but don’t here. The officiating is inconsistent as usual, and not in a “realism” way. Penalties just don’t get called as often as they probably should. I’ve also noticed players missing line changes more often in NHL 13 than in years prior, which leads to having some dog-tired skaters on the ice a lot of the time, another nagging problem in the series.
The biggest issue I have with NHL 13 is primarily off-line players are getting essentially the same package as last year. Almost nothing in Be a GM, Be a Pro, and EA Sports Hockey League has been changed, with the exception of the trade logic in Be a GM, which is much improved, as the CPU will finally explain why trades were turned down and give you a better starting point for counter offers. EASHL in particular was kind of buried in the menu as well, which is surprising for what is one of the trademark game modes for the series. I understand emphasis for the new GM Connected and NHL Moments Live modes is what EA was shooting for, but series vets shouldn’t have to dig around to find the most-played features.
GM Connected is the ambitious online franchise mode new for this year. Up to 750(!) players can participate in a league, and players are smartly able to assign a CPU AI for their team to use in games so the usual quagmire that online leagues run into – not having everyone being able to play all of their games – can be averted, and the season can move along at a brisk pace. The UI in GM Connected is fabulous, and I have no clue why the developers decided not to use this in the offline Be a GM mode as well, as it’s a significant visual and practical upgrade. The biggest downside with the mode is that almost every page and screen you navigate to requires some sort of talk-back with EA’s servers, which slows down the menu surfing a lot.
NHL Moments Live is your run-of-the-mill “replay history” mode with a few welcome twists. Unlike most modes like this, some challenges have you using individual players as opposed to full teams, which is very cool when getting to use legends like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemeiux. I wish the legends in particular had their historic teams though, as using Gretzky with the current-day Oilers isn’t as compelling as if I had players like Mark Messier and Jari Kurri aside me. Completing these challenges on varying difficulty levels also will yield EA Pucks, which are your currency for the Hockey Ultimate Team mode, which means I will actually spend some time completing these challenges that I usually ignore in most sports games.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk a little about Hockey Ultimate Team, arguably the most compelling game mode in the NHL series. This year, EA has made HUT essentially a carbon copy of the FIFA series’ FIFA Ultimate Team, which has some good and bad sides to it. On one hand, the career limitations you had for cards in years prior are gone, as are team salary caps. Want a team filled with 90+ rated players? Have at it. On the other hand, the ability to train your players and permanently improve their ratings has disappeared, which is a little disappointing. I also wish if they were aiming to bring the mode more inline with FIFA that they had copied the awesome bronze/silver/gold player types, as it adds a small extra wrinkle of strategy. That said, Ultimate Team is still as addicting as ever, and will be what primarily holds my interest in the game.
I didn’t notice much in the way of bugs or technical issues. Online play was actually smooth as ever, which is usually my biggest problem with EA titles. Load times on the PS3 are horrendously long, as usual (I didn’t get to play the 360 version, though traditionally they are much better on there). If only EA would give an option to install part of the game on the hard drive, some of that could probably be averted. For better or worse, Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are back on commentary. While they do a capable job, it would be nice for EA to mix it up next year, especially since most US hockey fans would associate Mike Emerick’s voice as the voice of the NHL today. Also, when can we get team-specific crowd chants, EA? I’m still waiting for the Caps’ horn guy in the NHL series.
- True Performance Skating changes the entire feel of the game for the better
- Hockey IQ has the players behaving like real hockey players would
- The most authentic representation of video game hockey
- Not a whole lot of new features in offline modes
- Enhanced difficulty could turn off casual players
The fact that you’re getting the same package as NHL 12 doesn’t matter because of the substantial on-ice improvements made in NHL 13. EA set out to overhaul the NHL series with True Performance Skating and Hockey IQ, and in doing so they have put out the first truly landmark release in the series since the introduction of the Skill Stick in NHL 07. If you’re a usual purchaser of the series, you have to pick up NHL 13, though causal fans should do so knowing this is a game you’ll have to take time to re-learn. Once you do, NHL 13 may take a little bit of sting out of the regular season games NHL fans will probably be missing.
VG CONFAB SAYS: BUY IT
For this review, Brad played NHL 13 on the PlayStation 3 system, using both the downloadable early release version as well as the retail release of the game. He also wishes silently every day for someone to put Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr in a hockey fight against one another where the winner’s side would get their CBA demands so we can actually play some damn NHL hockey on time this year!