With the NHL’s fourth work stoppage in less than 20 years now in full effect, hockey fans now have to look elsewhere for their fill of the sport they love. Thankfully, for those of us who don’t feel like cheering on teams from smaller leagues (Go Glens Go!), EA’s annual iteration of the beautiful game on ice is here and is bigger than ever before. But does bigger necessarily mean better or should this venerable series finally call a time out?
As in the past couple of years, the major differences between NHL 13 and its predecessors lie in the additions of a few new modes, some tweaking of existing features and a major revamp of an important gameplay element. This time around the most important and fundamental part of ice hockey has gotten a whole new feel in the form of True Performance Skating, an upgrade to the physics engine that makes skating feel more dynamic and realistic. Now it is momentum and speed that determine how fast and well your player skates instead of just a simple flick of the control stick. Your players will react dynamically with the ice and any change in direction will result in a loss in momentum. This new system does take a few games to fully grasp but once you do you will find yourself with a greater understanding of the game (of hockey, not the video game) itself.
NHL 13 may not be the first hockey video game that stresses the importance of your position on the ice but it is the best at hammering home this key point of playing ice hockey. Since the skating is now momentum based it makes it that much harder to keep up with opponents when you are out of position because odds are they are in full stride and your player is performing an abrupt change of direction. This often results in an odd-man rush and if you play as my beloved Flyers and have Mr. Bryzgalov in nets, a goal. Sorry Brizzy.
When you factor the (for this series) radical change that is True Performance Skating as well as the various tweaks the developers have added over the years (stick handling, hitting, and holding, to name a few) it becomes clear that the NHL series is on the verge of becoming a virtual recreation of the sport, right down to the minor details. And I love it. But I couldn’t help but ask myself, do I love all this attention to hockey related details because I think they truly work as ‘a game’ or because I am a die hard fan who lives and breathes the game? From the skating, to the stick handling, to the passing, to the shooting, to everything, this game demands that the player knows how hockey is played. You can play Call Of Duty without knowing how to shoot a gun, but you can’t play NHL 13 without knowing the ins and outs of hockey, which is a worrisome sign, because if the series continues to cater only to the most die hard of hockey fans (I call them Maple Leafs season ticket holders) it stands to lose a lot of its appeal and end up stagnating as a whole.
Earlier I touched on the issue of True Performance Skating and how it affected gameplay situations, but it’s also important to note that it will also change the way you control the game itself. Whenever you turn the player you are controlling - even if it's only slightly - they will lose some of their momentum and speed, while letting go of the control stick briefly will set him in a ‘glide’ where they can manoeuvre more easily, just like in real hockey. Stationary players will also get a boost of speed when they start skating, but pressing ‘L3’ will achieve the same result at any time. I can’t count the times I had an opponent lined up for a big hit, only to have him turn slightly and avoid it, all because I lost my momentum adjusting. But once you do get your head around this new mechanic you will find a much deeper and more satisfying hockey experience on offer.
Other than the new skating mechanics the controls remain largely unchanged from recent instalments. You still skate with the left stick, shoot with the right and everything in between. Of course, if you don’t like the controls you can customize them to your heart's content (though the underlying physics are there to stay). One area that has received a pretty substantial overhaul is the position of goaltender. Instead of actually attempting to make a manual save you will be trying to ‘anticipate’ where the puck is going to come from and the goalie will make the save if you guessed right. It’s an interesting idea, though I still would like to be able to make a wild dive, arms flailing in desperation, if I so choose.
When you boot up NHL 13 you will be greeted with all the gameplay modes and options that were present in the 2012 edition (though, of course, with a few tweaks here and there). In addition two new modes make their debut. The first is NHL Moments Live, which allows you to relive highlights from previous NHL campaigns (and more are promised through downloadable content), though they're mostly from the past two seasons. Here you will be tasked with re-creating as best as you can a signature moment from that year, like scoring an OT goal with a specific player or completing a certain play. The game also features some legacy moments from NHL’s past where you step into the skates of hockey legends like Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. I actually really liked NHL Moments Live; it adds a whole new dynamic in the sense that you have to know exactly (or close enough) how to re-create the play, though it is jarring that the older moments surround your legendary player with the current NHL roster.
The other new mode is GM Connected, which finally brings my personal favourite mode online. Here you and up to 750 other people (almost like a hockey MMO) can engage in a season, with some taking on the role of GM, others coaching and, of course, playing. GM Connected presents a great opportunity for the franchise and is also most likely the direction the next instalments will be taking (more online connectivity with a ton of players), though as of writing I was having trouble filling my league with dedicated players and spent most of my time waiting for someone to do… something. Despite this, the future seems bright for GM Connected and I hope EA will allow connectivity between NHL 13 and future games to keep the online population strong year in and year out.
You could be forgiven for thinking that, at first glance, NHL 13 looks a lot like its predecessors visually. The graphics engine hasn’t received a major overhaul since the end of the last decade, though it’s still a gorgeous game to look at. It’s apparent, however, that a lot of work has gone into making the game look more authentic. First off, the developers have added hundreds of new animations (mostly during phases of skating), making each feel more realistic than the robotic movements of past years. There's also a ‘team first’ presentation, where your favourite team’s colors and logo will accompany you through the main menu, which is a nice touch.
It’s not all peaches and cream, however, as the game does suffer on a technical level. The loading times are particularly long, and while attempts are made at masking them behind un-skippable cut-scenes, they're still a pain. The game also rarely runs at a solid framerate, often stuttering when all the players are in the offensive zone. These are also issues that affect the online experience, which can lead to some frustration.
Like other recent NHL titles, the soundtrack is laced with raucous tunes designed to pump you up and get you ready for the big game. This year’s beats, however, are big improvements over last year's constant barrage of heavy metal; the soundtrack features more punk rock and hip-hop songs that are easier to listen to over and over. Once again the voice work is handled by Gary Thorne and Bill Clement who, as always, do a great job of covering the play by play and adding color to the commentary (even if some of their lines are already three to four years old).
NHL 13 is also loaded with dozens of other smaller additions that together make the game even more complete. For instance, you can now play as real life female hockey stars Angela Ruggiero and Hayley Wickenheiser, as well as play in the Winter Classic, complete with faithful stadium re-creations and accurate ‘at the time’ roster. The game is also the most customisable NHL game to-date; nearly everything from the controls, presentation, soundtrack, computer AI and smaller things like celebrations can be tweaked to customise the game more to your liking.
The game is absolutely chock full of modes that will keep serious hockey fans happy for a long time to come, though this is also a double-edge sword which is starting to become part of a larger problem - these games are just becoming so big, so time consuming that it’s almost impossible to see and play everything and, most importantly, get the best value for money when purchasing it each year. It would probably be for the best if EA Sports completely skipped over the 2014 edition of the NHL series (a lockout, so to speak) to focus on making the game fundamentally better, instead of just adding on more and more content, because we're quickly headed for a future where only the most ravenous, die-hard hockey fans will be able to experience the game in its entirety.
This review is based on a retail copy of NHL 13 for the PlayStation 3.