Unfortunately, we may not get to see the National Hockey League’s elite battle it out for rink supremacy this year. That is, unless the League and its Players’ Association come to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, which seems to be a pipe dream at this point in time. However, there is one silver lining for all of us armchair sports gamers, as EA Canada hasn’t taken the year off like their real-life inspiration may. For that reason, we can (thankfully) still turn to its incredible hockey franchise for some virtual competition, as NHL 13 is now available on retail store shelves.
Over the course of close to a two decade-long span, Electronic Arts has been giving us annual iterations of its digitized rink fare to look forward to, creating an almost holiday-like excitement within the Canadian populace. Some versions have arrived touting minor improvements, while others have debuted with the promise of incredible enhancements. This year’s release happens to be from the latter camp, and it thankfully makes good on its grandiose promise of game-changing content, thanks to its newly-designed True Performance Skating mechanics. Alone, that singular enhancement makes NHL 13 worth the purchase, and cements it as one of the most pivotal sports releases of all-time.
Fans of the franchise will remember how much of a game-changer the Skill Stick was when it was first introduced in NHL 07, as it allowed gamers to feel more like their professional heroes than ever before. Instead of requiring the use of a mixture of a directional pad (or joystick) and one of two buttons to deke and shoot, the much talked-about input system allows for unprecedented control of players’ sticks through the use of a joystick based input method. Simply put, that change revolutionized what was already a great series, by adding a brand new layer of both immersion and realism to its presented experience, and the same can be said of this year’s True Performance Skating mechanic.
Instead of employing a system where all players skate in a similar fashion, with movement animations that don’t exactly mimic their real-life counterparts’ unique strides, NHL 13 incorporates individual characteristics into the mix. That way, each athlete’s varied skating skills are put to the test. All of that is accomplished thanks to an ingenious concept, where the amount of pressure placed on the controller’s left joystick determines how much energy a controlled pro will use. To explain, picking someone like Phil Kessel and holding the stick in a full, upward position, will cause him to skate to his utmost potential, draining a lot of his energy in the process. Conversely, if you were to only put a bit of force on the stick, he would glide in a less aggressive manner. It’s all reminiscent of real world hockey, wherein players skate in different ways depending on the situation at hand. Plus, for the first time ever, you can skate backwards in any zone.
On the animation front, the design team did an extraordinary job of replicating the skating methods of today’s superstars and their peers. They all push and glide in such an impressive way that it’s almost uncanny, creating an experience that is hard not to gawk at. Plus, in comparison to last year’s outing, the change is almost night and day. Looking back, it’s easy to see that the manner in which players skated in previous titles was only an interpretation of how they move on a physical ice surface during games and practices. Now, you can actually feel the energy being exerted during a manic push, and must take stops and turns into account. Whereas basic skating strides can come to an end with relative ease, high speed strides tend to require more force and an added amount of time to halt. The result is usually a drawn out stop with rumble feedback representing the blades’ ice-digging friction.
Complementing all of the above is a new artificial intelligence system known as EA Sports Hockey I.Q, which lets users create their own team A.I. file, and also enhances the title’s core gameplay experience. By making players aware of every other person on the ice, as opposed to just the one carrying the puck at any given time, it makes for more intelligent competition. The result is gameplay that is more challenging, as opponents defend with an enhanced set of smarts; something which is heightened by the title’s extra-intelligent goaltenders. Then again, while attempting to score can become frustrating at times, the task’s presented challenge isn’t anything new.
Now, it’s time to discuss NHL 13‘s plethora of available game modes. All of your favourites have returned, including Hockey Ultimate Team and Be a GM, plus Be a Pro and all of its variations, including Be a Legend. Going further, they’ve all been enhanced, allowing for more realistic experiences. Improvement examples include a new GM Brain feature for Be a GM mode, which improves and streamlines transaction processes, as well as a line manager that can be called upon to create ideal lines in Hockey Ultimate Team. However, fans may be happier to hear that trades can now be requested in Be a Pro, not to mention the fact that one can choose to retire at any given time. Those upgrades, along with other mode enhancements, have helped to create a more accessible product.
If you’ve been pining for new modes, then you’ll want to check out the game’s two new offerings: NHL Moments Live and GM Connected. Both offer hours of enjoyment, although in different ways. Providing exciting fan service, NHL Moments Live tasks fans with attempting to re-create or change memorable moments from the League’s 2011-2012 season, with DLC based on events from 2012-2013 planned in case the season ever gets underway. Avid viewers will find plenty of memorable situations to dive into, making it a standout mode.
Although NHL Moments Live’s lengthy list of scenarios run the gamut of types, with some focusing on individual player performances and others focusing on team triumphs, its listed years are somewhat misleading. In actuality, there are a few different moments taken from games as far back as the early 1980s, featuring Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemiuex and Doug Gilmour. As a Leafs fan, the inclusion of Number Ninety-Three’s incredible wraparound goal from the 1993 playoffs made my day, even though he’s the only player from his era found within the historical reenactment. In fact, all of the retro flashbacks are played in today’s NHL, but that makes sense from a licensing standpoint.
While the noted scenarios are very enjoyable and offer extra Hockey Ultimate Team pucks based on chosen difficulty levels, social gamers may prefer GM Connected. The mode works as its title suggests; a user creates an online league and picks his team, then asks his friends to join for some friendly competition. All thirty teams are available for use, and up to 750 players can be active in one league at one time. Although that may sound strange, it makes sense when you consider that individual players can be chosen, and that some people may elect to play as coaches or general managers. It’s a neat concept, which will surely become an online favourite.
Visually speaking, NHL 13 is a triumph. Not only are its modes a celebration of hockey and everything it involves, but the game’s presentation aspects really bring the on-ice action to life. The amount of detail found on players’ faces and jerseys is outstanding and, as mentioned before, their animations tend to look great. The gameplay is fast and fluid, although it does have some minor issues that need to be addressed, including a bit of occasional lag during own zone play, the odd animation glitch during bench shots and rare instances where the puck will sit in one place until a human player interacts with it. There was also a strange occurrence where both goalies disappeared just before a game’s final buzzer and, although I scored, I didn’t get credit for the goal. Hopefully those mentioned problems can, and will be, patched in the near future, because they mar what is otherwise a phenomenal sports game.
The audio portion of the experience is as solid as ever, with great sound effects, realistic arena noise and above-average commentary from the familiar duo of Bill Clement and Gary Thorne. Their interesting, yet slightly repetitive dialogue, helps to bring the television experience to interactive space in quality fashion. Occasionally, a mis-used line will come out of your speakers, but no sports game is perfect in that regard. Franky, I applaud them for improving upon last year’s lines with even more informative colour work.
Although it has a few rough spots that will need to be ironed out by the talented development team at Burnaby-based EA Canada, NHL 13 is an absolute must-buy for any hockey-loving gamer. It’s simply the best interactive version of the stick and puck sport that we armchair athletes have ever received, and a lot of that credit is due to its game-changing True Performance Skating system. Thankfully, even though we’re looking at a lockout that could go on for a while, we have this fantastic digital offering to turn to.
This review is based on a copy of the game that was provided to us.