It's not a good time to be a hockey fan these days. With the second lockout in eight years officially in motion as of this writing, puckheads have to look at the very real possibility that we're going to have another season wiped out because greedy players and greedier owners don't know how to play nice and split a $3.3 billion revenue pie. Here's my idea to solve this little issue. Players get 45 per cent of revenue, owners keep the other 45 per cent, and the rest goes to the incredibly talented development team at EA Canada as a sweet bonus, since they're the only ones making the sport look good these days. Problem solved.
It goes without saying that EA Sports' simulation continues to impress and succeed as the dominant hockey simulation in this hardware generation, and NHL 13 is no exception. While the last few entries have been satisfied with adding new modes and bullet point features outside of the actual gameplay, NHL 13 revamps how the game in fundamentally played this year. While NHL 12 did feature some tweaks to the physics and how players interacted with one another, NHL 13 takes this idea and runs further than a Seattle Seahawks game winning interception. Too soon? Man, pro sports are a mess these days aren't they?
But I digress. The big change this year is what EA is calling True Performance Skating, and it really does make a significant difference in how the game is played. All player movements are now completely governed by physics, including skating momentum. In previous titles, if you let go the analog stick while skating, your player would stop. This year, they'll go into a glide, enhancing their agility and side to side movement. Conversely, hit the new turbo button and your player will take big, broad strides, but will have the turning radius of an 18 wheeler. This new system really does create an unparalleled level of control over your player's positioning and forces players to play to a system. You could certainly get away with just selecting the closest player and going for the big hit in past titles. But this year, the skating engine really pushes you to trust your AI CPU partners and play the position based on the player you have currently selected.
With a pull of the left trigger, you'll also be able to skate backwards at will, giving you control over neat moves like spin-o-ramas, improving positioning for a shot and protecting the puck. It's a great way to learn the intricacies of hockey plays and positioning, but as per usual, casual fans may be left scratching their heads and wondering what all the fuss is about. Those people would be well served by likely sticking with their copies of NHL 09.
NHL 13 also gives you greater control of strategies and positioning from the coach's standpoint as well. This year, you're able to set how much pressure you want on the forecheck or within the neutral zone, and change player formations on the fly.
One thing you'll want to do as you get into the game is mess around with the sliders in the options menu that allow you to customize how the game is played. Speaking for myself, the Pro difficulty proved far too easy and bumping up the difficulty to All-Star proved insanely difficult. On All-Star and above, the CPU would flawlessly position their players, win every face-off, retain the puck as if it was attached to their stick with Velcro, score a plethora of chintzy and bizarre goals, and make tic-tac-toe passes all over the ice that you won't have a prayer of intercepting. With some adjustments, I was able to find a good middle ground that proved challenging and fun, without being a frustrating mess.
That's not to say that there aren't annoyances that should have been fixed, since they've been issues for years. For example, for a game that prides itself on being the premier digital simulation of the sport, the fact that the goalies will play four out of five pucks instead of freezing the play is a little weird when the rest of the game is so realistic. Line changes on the fly can still be flat out broken. You can call for a line change over and over again. As long as the play continues five minutes of game time later, your original line will still be on the ice, skating like molasses into the offensive zone trying for a scoring chance. Do that in the NHL in real life, and you'll be riding the busses in the minors in no time. It's all about when you call for the line change, but changing on the fly shouldn't be like this, and it's an issue that has been that way for years.
New issues brought to the fray this year are small and minor, but worth mentioning. The big one for me is that EA has toned down the aggressive nature of the post-whistle scrums. This in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, as most of my online matches in previous years would have players bashing each other all over the ice after the whistle. It got silly and repetitive after a while. However, by limiting the ability to hit or be aggressive after the whistle, EA has made it almost impossible to get into fights, which are a very fun part of the game. I went almost 20 games in my season before I got into even one scrap. There's got to be a happy medium there. Also, the goalies this year are animated by their limbs individually which most of the time works great but results in a higher number of weak and unfair goals.
One other minor complaint I had is with the revamped player rating system that seems entirely out of whack sometimes. In past years, EA would rank players based on their proficiency within their role, which meant that someone like Zenon Konopka was ranked an 80 despite scoring five points a year, because he had a high enforcer skill. This year, players are ranked overall as forwards, defencemen, and goalies. I prefer that system, but it still doesn't explain why the legendary Wayne Gretzky is ranked a 94, while Sidney Crosby is ranked higher. It also doesn't explain why last season's Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson is only ranked an 86, which is the same rating as merely above average defender Zbynek Michalek.
So the gameplay is sharp as a razor's edge. No matter what kind of hockey game you're looking to play, you'll find it here, both online and off. My personal favourite mode, Be a GM, is back with a vengeance. The ability to control nearly every aspect of the team you're running with staggering RPG-like elements somehow makes me spend another $60 to come back for more every year. This year, the trading AI has been completely revamped, but not necessarily for the better. The game will now highlight players that rival GMs would be willing to get rid of, but I found that making trades and signing free agents was very difficult, if not outright impossible sometimes. You can make a very fair deal, or even a lopsided one in your opponent's favour, and not only will you be rejected, your relationship with the other GMs will drop every time you suggest a new trade. This can get pretty frustrating. The system would have benefitted greatly from an option like that found in Civilization V where you can ask your trading partner as to what would make the trade work. Also, forget about signing ANY free agents during the season. Every time I tried to sign any player, I'd get a message saying that they would have loved to sign with me, but my roster is full. No options to send players through waivers or to the minors, I simply could not sign any players. Period. Ever. Aside from those two issues, Be a GM mode is where I spent most of my time with the game.
Also making their returns this year are the always popular Be a Pro mode, which has you guiding yourself or your favourite player through the various ranks of hockey, all the way to the NHL. The mode remains great fun as always, especially since you can simulate past the parts where you're not actually playing, but I find it more compelling to be able to control an entire team instead of one player. You can also play through a single season without the GM bells and whistles, and well as play-offs and battles for the Stanley Cup.
NHL 13 also introduces NHL Moments live, a feature that has appeared in other EA Sports franchises recently. The mode allows you to download real "moments" from last season (or if this season actually happens, this year too), and try to replicate or change the outcome within the game. Almost every team is represented with a moment or two, including some personally painful moments featuring my beloved Ottawa Senators against those pesky New York Rangers in last year's playoffs. However, this mode stumbles in during the legendary moments featuring players such as Gretzky or Gilmour. Instead of playing with the actual rosters of those days, you control the one legendary player within the context of the modern roster. I've been watching hockey for years and can assure you that Phil Kessel did not play with Gilmour on the '93 Leafs.
For the online crowd, the mammoth time sink that is Hockey Ultimate Team returns. In this mode you gain points to buy new hockey cards that translate into new bonuses and players for your online team. Of course, you can use real-world money to buy more packs too if you want to borderline cheat the mode. If you want a hockey related time-sink of the same level are your average MMO, this is the mode for you.
Finally, the most staggering addition this year is the GM Connected mode. This is basically the online version of Be a GM mode, but with real people potentially filling every position that would be filled with a real person in real life. The mode supports up to 750 players acting as on-ice talent, commissioners, and General Managers. With the game so new, it's hard to test out and comment on how well the mode works, but so far I haven't heard any complaints, and can attest that the interface for the mode is fantastic. If you can find several like-minded people to join a league with you, GM connected could very well become your new hockey obsession, especially with no real NHL hockey to watch.
Last but not least, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fantastic presentation this year, even if it isn't a flawless one. Player faces have finally been kicked up a notch, and superstar players finally look like themselves, even if third and fourth liners still look more like a pastiche of random faces. Player animations look spectacular and accurate, no matter what the situation and context. The game's presentation has also been completely overhauled to reflect a more television broadcast style and the change is for the best. Replays are much more fitting in the context of the game and the little musical cues really bring you into the broadcast experience EA was going for. The sounds of the arena and the sport are well represented here as well. The commentary by Gary Thorne and Bill Clement is still good, but a little on the repetitive side and sometimes completely wrong in the context of the game. I also encountered a few clipping glitches, mostly during goal celebrations near the boards. Regardless, NHL 13 likely the best looking sports game on the market.
Unless you're so upset and angry about the lockout that you simply can't justify giving any NHL related product your money, NHL 13 is a great purchase. The sheer longevity and staggering amount of hockey related content along with some very welcome gameplay refinements, NHL 13 finds itself at the top of the sports video game heap yet again. Considering that this could be your only NHL fix this season, you could certainly do way worse. NHL 13 comes highly recommended for the casual and hockey hardcore alike.