With the NHL in lockout one can’t help but wonder what this will mean for the EA Sports NHL franchise. During the last lockout, NHL 05 saw a drastic drop in sales numbers year over year. However, NHL 05 wasn’t really that great of a step above NHL 04.
Thankfully, NHL 13 is not only a solid title, but will surely keep you transfixed throughout the season – or lack thereof. It isn’t without its issues though so you may want to stick around before running out and hitting the ice.
Before getting into some of the gameplay changes and the big additions to NHL 13, let us first take a look at NHL Moments. NHL Moments lets you relive some of the top moments in NHL history, the 2010-2011 season, and, should the lockout be resolved, the 2011-2012 season. The moments were not only enjoyable in bite-sized visits but were extremely challenging as well. While I usually find modes like this extremely forgettable and something I will only visit once or twice, NHL 13 threw in a bit of incentive to visiting this mode on multiple occasions: EA Pucks.
For those not familiar, EA Pucks is the currency used in Hockey Ultimate Team (aka HUT). Ultimate Team mode in any of the EA Sports titles is something that keeps me coming back day in and day out. Managing my team, getting new cards, and playing online can be extremely addicting. HUT truly fell by the wayside for me in years past though as the interface was absolutely atrocious. NHL 13 makes one of the best moves in HUT history though by restructuring its entire interface and designing it around the much stronger Ultimate Team: FIFA.
But like FIFA, HUT still has a very imbalanced system. Instead of feeling like you have good chances in building your team over a reasonable period, it does its best to hold you back by making you play more for contracts than for upgrades. After 12 games with an 11-1 record I found myself unable to progress as I didn’t have enough players with contracts to even play. Thankfully NHL Moments got my over this hurdle but that was a lot of playtime to just be able to play HUT again. It is quite evident that this lack of balance is just to get you to pull out your wallet. But, perhaps if you manage your team with this knowledge maybe you won’t run into these issues. And when you do have a good flow going with your team, HUT can be an absolute blast. Again, just be wary.
The biggest addition to NHL 13 is undoubtedly GM Connected. NHL‘s most popular mode in Be a GM has finally found its way online – and with some impressive additions to boot. GM Connected allows up to 750 players to engage in a fully featured NHL league. That is not a typo. Each team can have up to 25 players complete with one GM that has full control over your team just as you would in Be a GM.
When starting a GM Connected league the first thing that you will come to find out is how you have absolutely no control over the schedule length. So, unless you plan on playing over 100 games which would amount to an over 30 hour investment, plan on simulating quite a few games. Thankfully you can build your own AI file which will let you customize how your team will play in simulation.
One of the biggest disappointments with GM Connected though is its horrifically laggy interface. Searching for a league is almost pointless as most of the filter options you want – like number of people already in the league – are missing. Once presented with a long list of leagues to choose from though you will most likely find yourself just giving up as moving from one league to another takes almost 10 seconds each as it tries to load the information about the league. With this in mind, I strongly recommend using forums or setting up a league with friends so you can just search by name and join.
Once in a league, don’t expect the lag to stop as almost every move you make as a GM will leave you staring at that dreaded spinning wheel. However, once everything is in place, everyone has their roles, and everything is coordinated, GM Connected can come together very nicely. I can never see myself actually finishing a season which is quite disappointing but I will certainly enjoy it for everything it does do well. Being able to play alongside friends and push through the highs and lows of the season is a ton of fun. While certainly an ambitious mode, more than anything it shows the amount of potential that this mode has.
What is said to be “improved AI” can be found in the Be a GM mode as well. After playing almost an entire season of Be a GM I found that the AI was much greedier than in years past. Trades can be next to impossible at times, even when the trade is clearly in their favor. Outside of that this is still the heart and soul of the NHL series for me.
The other staples are still there in Be a Pro, Be a Legend, and EA Sports Hockey League. Small improvements to each of these modes make them worthwhile to still play but the aforementioned modes are the bulk of the love EA Sports gave. There is no denying that there is a ton of content in NHL 13 but it is really up to you to decide if it is enough for your liking.
While the additions and improvements in game modes are a bit disappointing, NHL 13‘s saving grace is, and honestly always was, in its gameplay. True Performance Skating is one of the best additions to the NHL series in its history. Moving around the ice has never been so realistic.
While this change does take some getting used to, just simply thinking what skating is really like can help. The more speed you go for, the less control you are going to have. And as such, thinking one move ahead is a necessity as turning on a dime is no more. Simply put, True Performance Skating is the defining reason to pick up NHL 13.
The impact of this change though is most evident in EA Sports Hockey League. With an amateur ranked player in your control and a poorly rated skater, EASHL starts out extremely frustrating as it will feel as if you are skating on mud. The game feels extremely slow in this mode and it is strongly recommended to focus all of your first upgrades on skating. But once you sit back and take a look at the impact True Performance Skating has here, you can’t help but appreciate the realism that oozes through each and every aspect of the game. It truly is impressive.
The last change in NHL 13, and one that is surely to be seen as the most controversial, is EA Sports Hockey IQ. This improved AI allows players to be completely aware of what is not only going on around them and immediately around the puck but complete situational awareness of the entire ice. The result is much more fluid gameplay and less eyebrow raising moments as to what the AI was thinking.
The reason that this change will be seen as controversial though is really because of goals. In past NHL games the cross-crease was a big problem. In most situations it was a guaranteed goal and games online resulted in unrealistic scores and frustrated players. AI now seems to hesitate much more on the breakaway as if to prevent the number of one timer opportunities. But the real debate – assuming it isn’t addressed in a future tuner update – is in the goalie AI.
Let me get one thing straight right off the bat: I applaud EA Sports in wanting to address the “go-to” goals. However, goalie AI when shutting down the cross-crease is at times completely unrealistic. It is impossible to make a cross-crease this year and while I am happy it reduces the number of goals, it definitely takes away from the realism. Instead, the most common shots made this year are wristers shot towards the goalie’s stick side.
In the end I just found myself adjusting my play style. It in no way took me completely out of the experience, nor did it make me want to stop playing. It just made me want to play smarter. Learn the ins and outs of the opponent’s defense and the goalie’s tendencies. If anything, it took me deeper down the rabbit hole than I ever expected going – and I am very thankful for that.
Realistic and, perhaps more importantly, fun gameplay is what makes players come back to the NHL series year in and year out. That is no different this year with the impressive additions of True Performance Skating and EA Sports Hockey IQ. NHL 13 certainly has its issues – which may very well be fixed in upcoming patches and tuner updates – but overall it is a very solid experience.
This review is based on a physical copy of NHL 13 for the Xbox 360.