NHL fans are staring down the barrel of another lost season. Team owners and the players association stand at each other’s throats for the second time in under a decade, and neither side seems willing to bend. For those of us obsessed with our respective hockey teams (go Isles!) and deeply saddened by the prospect of being forced to watch the NBA, NHL 13 may be the only place we can go for respite. And that’s the first dose of good news loyal NHL fans have received in a while, because real hockey or not, NHL 13 is a fun, engaging and deep iteration of the world’s best sport.
Right off the bat, you’ll notice some old fallbacks that you can jump right into. Play a scrimmage against the AI or a friend, start a season as any team you choose, or jump into the role of general manager and control your organization’s destiny from the front office (and cozy sky box). The latter is a mode I spent a considerable amount of time with this year, bringing my beloved New York Islanders through a season and into an unexpected playoff berth. But in playing actual games on the ice as opposed to managing from the tranquility of a quiet, digital office, I came to enjoy the more overt tweaks and fixes EA made this year to make NHL 13 a more realistic experience.
This new dose of realism is derived from what EA calls "True Performance Skating." Developer buzzterm aside, True Performance Skating marks a paradigm shift in the series by making the very act of skating less arcadey and more realistic. That means no more turning on a dime when barreling full speed towards the boards or shadowing a rushing player without sacrificing some modicum of control. What it does mean – easily understandable to anyone who grew up playing hockey – is that speed sacrifices control, and staying in control, in turn, sacrifices speed.
Such a system changes the way you’ll play NHL 13, but you’ll quickly adapt to this more realistic take. Hockey is a positional game – far more than casual fans understand it to be – and NHL 13 forces your hand by making you play it as such or reaping the consequences of failing to do so. Instead of playing the body while skating backwards into your own zone, you may opt to play it angularly, sacrificing an easy-to-save shot you know your goalie can handle instead of going in for the check, and likely missing in the process. Likewise, dumping-and-chasing won’t be so much about a straight skate for the puck, but instead knowing when you’re beat and subsequently letting off the gas a bit. If you don’t, you’ll be left in the dust during the ensuing rush.
A fundamental change like this works well, but it’s also admittedly (if only mildly) confusing. NHL 13 isn’t a simulation; it’s an arcade-style hockey game supplemented with a heavy dose of realism. The opposing team almost never ices the puck or goes offside. Goalies regularly dish a covered puck back out to his defenders, hockey logic (and puck safety) be damned. And passes aren’t only tape-to-tape; they’re borderline magnetic. All of this is totally fine, but why emphasize more realistic skating – something at the core of the game – if the ancillary happenings around the rink aren’t also addressed?
Still, for this seeming lack of logic, EA has gone out of its way to change its NHL series in pretty dynamic ways considering the developer has under a year to iterate on last year’s product. For instance, the AI has adjusted with new attention paid to realistic skating physics. The claim is that EA spent more time on AI this year than in the three years prior combined. Players can now skate backwards more easily, cradle and protect the puck with greater emphasis, and choose from a growing number of neutral zone tendencies and overall play styles. Goaltenders are smarter and less inclined to let up easy goals, like one-timers and wrap-arounds. They’re also more acrobatic than they’ve ever been – mirroring the real game we know and love – and can even move individual limbs while sprawling and diving, bringing a Hasek-esque like look and feel to NHL 13’s armored netminders.
This emphasis on presentation oozes into every facet of NHL 13 and isn’t only evident when actually playing. Slow load times and some menu stuttering aside, the game looks beautiful. Games are presented as they would be on NBC Sports, replete with the familiar commentary of Gary Thorne and Bill Clemente. Ambient sounds of the arena, the crowd and the on-ice product are all expertly executed as well, supplementing the game’s high visual fidelity. Animations are occasionally awkward (as they appear to be in all EA Sports products), but that has more to do with the constant number-crunching behind the scenes than anything else. NHL 13 is a sight to behold, as several editors who have watched me play the game in the IGN offices brought it upon themselves to let me know. It plays virtually identically online and off, sacrificing none of the bells of whistles regardless of who you want to play with and where.
Then there are NHL 13’s two new modes. One mode, NHL Moments Live, allows gamers to relive moments from hockey’s past, challenging them to recreate the exact scenario given whether it’s a goal in overtime with a specific player, an overall point count in a certain amount of time, or anything else you can think of. With most of the moments coming from this past season (and with more promised to be downloadable if this currently stalled season ever gets off the ground), these are events even novice hockey fans will remember and appreciate.
But as great as this idea is in premise – and as fun as it is to partake in – there are some puzzling choices that take away from its realism. This is especially true when considering some old moments, such as Gretzky’s big game against the Flyers in 1981 or Doug Gilmour’s overtime heroics against the Blues in the 1993 playoffs. In those games, players are cast in the role as Gretzky or Gilmour but are surrounded by the current roster of the Oilers and Maple Leafs, respectively, while playing against the current rosters of their opponents. It simply doesn’t make any sense and was disappointing when I was expecting to see some familiar faces accompanying these great players, not guys who were, at best, in diapers when some of these events took place.
The other new, notable mode is called GM Connected. EA claims that GM Mode in its NHL series is the most popular offline mode, and I can understand why. It’s totally engrossing if you’re a hockey nerd. EA decided to leverage this popularity by bringing it online and accommodating up to 750 players in a single league. That’s no typo: each league can consist of up to 750 real people from around the world, acting as commissioner, general managers and even players.
GM Connected is an ambitious and bold mode, but one that needs time in the wild to truly appreciate. Gearing up for GM Connected as I reviewed it amounted to checking static screens and waiting for other players to act (I eventually set it so my CPU will make all in-game decisions). This mode can be truly robust and pay off big in the end, but it’s impossible to say right now with the limited amount of players online, and the equally limited interaction it therefore affords. In other words, the jury’s still out on GM Connected, but it’s something worth meddling with, especially if you enjoy offline GM mode.
Combining GM Connected and NHL Moments Live with the aforementioned offline season, GM and scrimmage modes, as well as the ability to play in one-off playoffs, tournaments, practices and more, NHL 13 gives you incredible bang for your buck. And yes, you can even create your own pro once again this year (or even play as some well-known veterans from the NHL’s past) and grind through the junior and minor leagues as you ascend towards NHL glory.
In other words, there’s so much to do in NHL 13. And in a year looking less and less likely to provide the real thing, NHL 13 proves a mighty promising distraction.
Source : feeds[dot]ign[dot]com