Even an uncertain 2012-2013 hockey season cannot put the breaks on EA Sports's latest entry in the NHL game series. If hockey fans do end up with a lot of time on their hands, EA picked the right year to come out with an NHL title worthy of longer than normal play sessions and deeper general manager simulations. Better yet, skating on ice has never felt more natural.
- Overhauled skating physics
- Deeper character customization
- GM mode goes online
- Same commentary sound files from last year
- Generic soundtrack and arena music
- Ambitious GM Connected mode runs slowly
NHL 13 Review:
These days, a well-implemented online multiplayer mode is enough to compel most sports gamers to purchase the newest releases. How else will you be able to keep up and join your friends, both cooperatively and adversarially? That is certainly the case with this year's installment of EA Sports' NHL series. Yet the developer/publisher has added another compelling reason to pick up NHL 2013, namely in the form of a long awaited physics upgrade.
EA calls it True Performance Skating, but to some of us, it's Long Overdue Ice Skating Physics. We gamers have gotten a lifetime of gaming experience on icy surfaces beyond the rink that it's surprising that it took this long for a developer to show some welcome innovation. Never before has momentum and player/puck explosiveness been such an important factor, changing how you approach defense and offense. The width of your turn is now based on your speed when you started the turn. And breaking on the ice is appropriately felt through controller vibration. There's a much more realistic sense of a player's weight distribution, which gives you a lot to think about in a sport that features countless weight shifts in a given period.
It's a significant enough change that everyone is--at least for these first few weeks--on equal footing when it comes to online competition. Veterans will need as much time relearning the new physics as much as gamers who only started playing online last year. When you combine this deep degree of physics with puck manipulation, we're going to be looking at some very creative maneuvers in a couple months. This change in controls is not a negative disruption, but more of a necessary one, with a lot of long term value for EA to reuse and refine for many, many years down the road.
The AI on both sides also shows sign of improvement, where new behaviors run complementary to the new physics. In past NHL games, careful study of AI goalie behavior revealed exploits, where you were practically guaranteed a goal if you knew the goalie's skill level and if you shot a puck from a specific spot every time. It made past online versus sessions with cheap strangers less than enjoyable. In the 15 hours I spent with NHL 13, I could not pinpoint any reproducible AI goalie exploits.
EA Sports could have easily shipped NHL 13 with True Performance Skating as the only major change to the series, but they had loftier goals beyond gameplay. Hockey Ultimate Team is a positively time consuming fantasy mode involving card collecting and is tied to the NHL Moments Live mode that lets you relive key moments in NHL history. EA Sports has also spent a lot of time improving their character customization, particularly in greatly expanding their selection of preset faces.
It's in GM Connected where you really see EA Sports' bigger ambitious for the series. This first-time online version of the series' franchise mode bears the weight of letting 7,000 players participate in the same league. While my pre-retail experience had a much smaller number of participants, I could already see sluggishness both the UI and as the computer calculated the day-to-day game outcomes. Still, there are some improvements over last year's offline GM mode, particularly the ease and transparency in making trades. Last year's version allowed for too much trial-and-error trade proposals. Now you can see exactly who are the most eligible trades and which players other teams aren't interested in.
With so much emphasis placed on improving the series’ substance in NHL 13, it's of little surprise that its minor shortcomings can be found in the presentation. If you shine a magnified camera during a replay, you can see that players' hockey sticks often pass through each other without any collision detection. The presence of arena songs, from classics like 'Rock 'n Roll Part 2' and newer tracks like 'Kernkraft 400' are understandably pervasive though it wouldn't have hurt to have a bit more variety. This is especially the case for the menu music, which is an uninspired collection of middle of the road hard rock. The game also reuses many of the same play-by-play commentary sound files from last year and the year before that. And last I checked, the Canadian coffee chain Tim Horton’s hasn't been so aggressive with its arena ad placement that their logo would be in every major league hockey arena in the United States, which isn’t the case in NHL.
The one aspect of the game's presentation that did impress me were the real time goal celebrations. It might sound surprising to the casual sports game fan, but prior NHL video games relied on premade celebration cutscenes. It didn't matter where the players were on the ice; the camera always gave the sense the player scored from the same spot. Now the camera naturally transitions from gameplay to the celebration while relying on the same character animations. It gives the game more of a broadcast television feel, which frankly is just as overdue as much as NHL 13's skating realism.
Short End Of The Stick
The more I played NHL 13, the more I wondered how much previous installments were partially burdened with some drive to recapture the halcyon days of videogame hockey in the mid-90's. This new, genuine attempt at real ice skating physics makes NHL 13 the most worthwhile hockey in years. And with a looming players’ strike that could potentially kill the real life 2012-2013 season, you just might find yourself playing NHL 13 more so than you would have any other year.
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Editor's Note: NHL 13 was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game; however, we also played the PS3 version, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.