If you’re one of the few, the proud, the ice hockey faithful of Australia, you’re probably not a fun person to have at parties at this juncture in time. The world’s most popular ice hockey league – North America’s National Hockey League (NHL) – remains deadlocked in a player lockout by its owners, one that’s already cost a month of the season and the NHL’s newfound outdoor game (‘Winter Classic’) tradition. It’s considered a literal labor accomplishment if the two sides actually meet, let alone agree to anything. (Which they haven’t at time of this review.) Kind of like Tiger Airways agreeing to keep your flight…let alone take off at any particular time.
Despite this negotiations disaster, thankfully one group of hockey’s finest remained hard at work, that being Electronic Arts (EA)’s NHL series development team. As usual, they promised us a whizbang game…with new whizbang modes…and whizbang playability like you’ve never seen before. The amazing thing is…EA delivered on most accounts. The proof is in the sales pudding: NHL 13 – even with a labor strike – became the best-selling iteration of the franchise in its 20+ year history.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the physics. In specific, NHL 13’s ‘True Performance Skating’ is a dramatic overhaul to the way the series is played, one intended to mirror real-life skating science where knowledge of Newton defines success. Force is finally equal to mass multiplied by acceleration, meaning players need to carefully pick spots to begin or shift movement. Overcommitting to a particular direction will enable opponents to soar right past, with gentle coast turns preferred to hard angle adjustments. It’s amazing how different NHL 12 and 13 play solely because of this physics engine.
Still, early releases of the title featured a hysterical ‘Hercules check’ bug, one where the right force…at the right time (e.g. a body check while the bench door is opening/closing) sent opponents meters in the air and into spectators. In good form, NHL 13 developers acknowledged and patched the bug, also releasing a ‘training’ parody of the Hercules check in action.
Alongside the physics improvement, NHL 13 brings updated ‘Hockey I.Q.’, artificial intelligence. I admittedly found little improvement in exception to smarter zone selection by teammates and opposition, most noticeably on special teams (when up or down a man due to a penalty).
‘NHL Moments Live’ is likewise new to the fray, a collection of greatest moments for fans to relive by playing as key heroes primarily in last year’s biggest games. New moments are added literally every week, sad reminders of the empty category box to the right intended for the still locked out, 2012 season.
General Manager (GM) Connected introduces more behind-the-scenes, online management aspects to EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL), the latter being the most popular component of recent NHL console titles. EASHL allows a group of mates to play online as a single team against others equal to the task. It’s a fun, robust mode that requires a fair amount of scheduling to keep a season intact…but worth the investment if you can pull it off. Yet another reason to call in sick to work.
Hockey Ultimate Team and Be a Pro return, two modes that others may find useful but simply do little for me. The first is a trading card based, build-a-team system, one that almost requires digital purchases to field and maintain a squad semi-serviceable against online opponents. Be a Pro continues as unfulfilled destiny, as it never feels as if you're truly ‘playing’ the game, also camera angles can be abysmal.
Presentation-wise, NHL 13 remains beautiful but boring to the ears. The same announcing duo is back for canned phrases, thankfully buoyed by terrific sound effects and perhaps the best sport graphic engine outside of FIFA. This is a beautiful offering.
Thus and as a collective, NHL 13’s single value-add remains its physics engine…a great addition but work in progress. The game is patched and tuned almost weekly for better goaltender physics and reactivity, backward skating nuances, puck behaviors, and other exploits that are alive and well online. Kudos are definitely in order to EA for attempting a physics upgrade of this magnitude to a best-selling series…also fixing bugs as they emerge. In tandem, it’s simultaneously crystal clear that there’s a lot of work to be done between NHL 13 and 14 to get True Performance Skating and Hockey I.Q. where they need to be.
Even with these criticisms, it’s hard not to recommend NHL 13 as the best offering of this terrific series to date. Each game feels different and like an actual NHL contest, with a thankful premium on player placement versus repeat, exploit plays. Simple strategy components – truly setting up plays, throwing a puck into corners and chasing for possession, wraparound attempts on goals – are now realistically executable for the first time in NHL console history. One can finally score via 5-hole (between the goalie’s legs) if executed correctly. Still stale modes, commentary and a work in progress for physics and A.I. are NHL 13’s only obstacles.