You ever get tired of a new sports title coming out year after year? Other than some minor tweaks here and there or a roster update, this year’s release is probably just the same as last year’s in most cases. It isn’t every year that we see something underneath the surface that is more than just a superficial upgrade. The fact that it coincides with a league lockout makes it even more rare. This year, NHL 13 has some changes that you should welcome in this year’s star crossed release. Are they features that warrant the normal $60 price tag? Well, that’s something we’ll look into.
NHL 13 has a slew of new features that it brings to the table other than being the only franchise for hockey gaming. Being that this reviewer’s last owned copy of a hockey game was NHL 94, the list is incredibly long for changes in this perspective. Changes to the AI (artificial intelligence) have been made to make the computer players smarter and to anticipate actions from a further distance. The General Manager (GM) system has been overhauled to allow a greater in depth experience that can include online leagues with over 700 people. Probably the biggest improvement came in a realistic skating system, giving your players a real weight and feel when you’re trying to turn them around on the ice. NHL Moments Live even allows you to act out some of the great moments in hockey history, and from the 2011-2012 season (though the 12-13 was planned, hard to play moments from a season that isn’t happening).
Skating. Well, skating is something of a new beast. NHL 13 changed the way that the franchise had been going to bring a newer level of gameplay. In what is being dubbed True Performance Skating, the NHL 13 has a physics based skating system. No longer are you mashing one button for a speed boost or changing directions on the fly. No, now players control direction with the stick, but have to consider speed, momentum, and turning angle in their actions. You can no longer expect to blast from blue line to blue line to cut in at a 90-degree angle for an open ice check. It just doesn’t happen anymore. True Performance Skating will feel awkward to use at first, but with only a few hours of playtime you’ll quickly appreciate the change. NHL 13 is better for including it.
Much like Madden 13, NHL 13 has the most beautiful graphics to date in a sports game. From the actions animations, the facial detail, and the sheen on the ice from a fresh Zamboni pass after a period, the sleek and shine of the game are seen even on the smallest of televisions. Details are even seen on the fan level, even though they still lack to a certain degree compared to the actual players on the ice. It is interesting to see the fine details down to the skates when a player is put in the box or zoomed in on during a replay. Lighting and shading appears to have some noticeable improvements as well. A nice touch was the goalie masks as well. Even in the Hockey Ultimate Team mode, goalies maintain their unique helmets from their actual team they play for. Sure, it can look a little odd seeing a Senator’s helmet on your man when your team is wearing Ducks’ jerseys, but it is a touch of flair one can appreciate.
AI is upgraded in a nice way for NHL 13. No longer does the computer calculate players and other AI at short distances, but it now calculates for all players on the ice. Remember the days of the goalie only tracking the player who was in possession of the puck? That’s gone now. It leads to much better player predictability and reactions to what is occurring on screen. Speaking about the goalies, the system for them has changed a bit as well. All of the limbs at a goalie’s disposal are now independent in NHL 13. This means that small tweaks placement will be made based on what the AI anticipates happening. It makes the saves interesting at times, as goalies will squeeze their pads together or flail about to get a glove on a puck that has landed behind them. Manually controlling a goalie still feels a bit of a mess though, but has that ever changed?
Personally the most fun to be had in NHL 13 is in the Hockey Ultimate Team mode. In this mode, teams are formed with cards that are bought with either EA “pucks” (an in-game currency) or Microsoft points. These cards are used to create a roster, which you can play with in order to gain more points. Rather than just have a collect-and- build mentality, booster cards appear as well. Say if a player gets hurt, an injury relief card can be used to reduce the number of days the player is on the injured list. Also, stat boosts can be used to upgrade a player’s statistics in one of their five categories. Players aren’t limited to just the NHL either. Smaller leagues from all over the world are included in the draft table. The great thing about this that is much like a card game, there is upkeep in order to keep using players. In NHL 13, this upkeep is called a contract. Consumable contract cards are found in packs to renew their agreement so they can play gain. This sort of currency gaining, purchasing, and trading (yes to can trade and buy from auctions), pumps a new bit of life into sports games like NHL 13. Having a team in the system can even generate pucks for having your team in a database that other people using the mode can play against.
Other modes felt like others we’ve seen from other EA games. The “Be a Pro” and GM modes should be familiar to anyone who has played an EA game in recent history. In Be a Pro, you can create a player in any likeness you choose, and play out their career in a different number of ways. Players can either enter the CHL, be an NHL draft pick, or just insert themselves to a specific team they want to play for. If you end up being drafted, you can even request a trade later on depending on your worth to the team. GM modes are similar to ones in the past, but do have a difference. Be a GM mode still exists, but it has extended online to the GM Connected mode. Here, players can join huge online leagues to hash out who is the best. The same team building, micromanaging, roster tweaking, and recruiting elements are there in NHL 13 as before. However, one can now play it on the normal small scale, or against a small town.
Playing any mode in multiplayer in NHL 13 is something that seems smooth and refined as well. When attempting to play matches, there never appeared to be a wait longer than a minute. Loading times seemed to be masked with period breaks and a relatively small loading window that at the start with felt no different than loading up a single player game. Latency can become an issue though. On more than one occasion, having the Internet connect hiccup did cause some skips in gameplay. While nothing drastic happened because of it, it was noticeable.
It must be mentioned that the forceful online connection to EA is still annoying. NHL 13 is no different from any other EA game as in it requires an EA pass to play online. On top of that, you still have to connect to EA servers to even play the game, or at least certain modes. It was terribly frustrating when a hiccup in an Internet connection caused me to have to start a tournament all over again just because of a momentary loss in connection. I shouldn’t have to start a game all over again because a modem dropped packets for a second. NHL 13 didn’t pause or start over. It just simply booted me out.
If you are someone who buys each yearly iteration of the NHL franchise, then NHL 13 is pretty much a no-brainer for you to buy. With the change in skating dynamics, computer AI, enhancement to multiplayer capabilities with the GM Connected functions, and even the addition of NHL Moments, the game has plenty going for it. While there is much fun to be had with the title and numerous hours of playtime in which to enjoy them, it isn’t to say that it is a must buy title. Unless you are one of the aforementioned annual buyers, then this does strike us as a game to pick up unless you are at least two years behind. The changes at that point make NHL 13’s new features and core upgrades important enough to trade up. That $60 price point year after year is a tough pill to swallow, but NHL 13 has enough features to make it worthwhile this year.
Editor’s Note: Front Towards Gamer was provided a review copy of NHL 13 by Electronic Arts.