While NHL 13's true performance skating has dramatically improved the realism of player movement, the way it allows players to backskate through the offensive zone has unintentionally introduced a number of easy-to-repeat glitch goals.
A simple search of Youtube brings up a multitude of money goal tactics that rely on manipulating the goalie's positioning via backskating:
According to EA Sports' Community Manager, backskating exploits will be addressed in NHL 13's first tuner update, but it's impossible to know just how effective the update will be at exterminating all the goal exploits that have already popped up since the demo's August 21 release.
Given the "monkey see, monkey do" mentality of most online players, there is no doubt that backskating could potentially ruin NHL 13's online experience if it remains as exploitable as it currently is in the demo.
For as exciting as online franchises can be, the reality is that most sports gaming is still done offline. If an offline franchise mode is going to remain engaging for multiple seasons, it needs to have computer AI teams who make intelligent decisions, both on and off the ice.
NHL 13's "GM Brain" claims to have drastically improved the CPU general mangers' decision making. GM Brain's premise is that all trades, draft picks and transactions are now evaluated for their immediate and long-term impact, not just one or the other. This could be a tremendous improvement over the old general manager behavior, which seemed unable to think long-term.
25 player roles have been added for NHL 13, such as "first line forward" or "top 4 defenseman." These new descriptors should help computer teams sign players who fit their specific needs, as previously, AI general managers could only judge a player on his position, age and overall rating. Player roles also impact salary negations, so now, just because a "tough guy" has a high overall rating, doesn't mean he will demand "top 6 forward" money.
Free agents will also raise or lower their asking price depending on market availability at their position. So if there's a lack of talented centers one off-season, some teams might overpay a mediocre player just to fill their position of need.
Player growth and salary cap creep have also been addressed, ensuring that highly rated, high-salary players don't flood the league in later years. General managers can now see when players' attributes have stopped growing thanks to a new color-coded, five-star potential scale, which means AI teams should be less likely to hand out huge contracts to older players who've peaked or are on the decline.
If all of these improvements function as advertised, EA's NHL series should finally have a franchise mode that can maintain league-wide realism beyond its initial seasons.
Few things are more frustrating than wanting to play a game but not being able to due to technical issues.
System freezes plagued all modes of play in NHL 12. Freezing occurred seemingly everywhere, whether in the main menus, inside the Be A Pro and Be A GM modes, during online lobbies or after online games.
The "Freezing Issues" thread from last year's game became one of the largest topics on the NHL forums, and if EA Canada fails to release a stable product this season, they could be losing many potential customers for this year and beyond.
Server instability has also hurt EA's NHL franchise as the online user base has grown. Random disconnections from the EA servers have become the norm in NHL games, as fans can probably recite from memory the errors, "You have lost connection to the EA Servers" or "The EA Servers are unavailable at this time. Please try again later."
Just a few weeks ago, my own EASHL club lost connection to the EA Servers during a fourth round playoff game, giving our team a "disconnect" loss and forfeiting any chance at capturing a playoff banner. It's situations like these that make people want to trade a game in and not buy the next year's version.
No matter how great a game plays or how many amazing features it offers, if you cannot play the game without it ending in a technical error, the development team has failed to do its job.
Creating intelligent computer behavior is the toughest part of sports game development, and EA's NHL series has traditionally been as guilty as most sports franchises when it comes to dumb AI players.
While EA Canada continues to push a strong marketing campaign for "Hockey IQ" and how it has revamped the way computer players behave, the NHL 13 demo shows CPU players still committing many of the same old mistakes.
Computer defenders remain far too passive, allowing the puck carrier to cross the blue line at will and skate through the offensive zone freely. With its poor containment principles, the AI defense routinely gives out free breakaways and odd-man rushes like they were tickets to a Phoenix Coyotes game.
Offensively, it's almost as if the NHL 13 demo discourages players from passing the puck, as getting your computer teammates to move into open space or simply cycle along the boards is an exercise in frustration. Why pass the puck when you can just as easily skate through the entire defense and score without being touched?
It's possible that gameplay sliders (not available in the demo) could address some of these AI issues, but based on NHL 13's demo, both sides of the ice still need some serious fixing if "Hockey IQ" is going to meet or exceed the hype.
On paper, GM Connected has the potential to become one the biggest, greatest modes in sports gaming. After all, Be A GM was already the NHL series' most-played mode, and the addition of online multiplayer to the traditional franchise experience should make leagues much livelier.
Up to 24 players can join a single team, and with 30 total teams in the NHL, GM Connected can potentially support over 700 players in a single online franchise. Even if each team is comprised of only 6 players, that's still 180 players per league!
However, a few caveats have already emerged. There is no live drafting, as entry drafts are run automatically by the computer. Human teams can set up a draft board, ordering which prospects they'd like to take, but this process is a significant step back for online franchise modes, which have had live player drafts dating back to Madden NFL 10. Fantasy drafts are not possible, either, though a "roster scramble" feature is included, which will evenly reassign all the current NHL players to new teams.
Season length is another major issue, as all GM Connected seasons must be 82 games long. Anyone who's attempted to play a simple 19-game online franchise in the Madden NFL series can speak to the difficulty of maintaining a successful online league for less than 20 games, much less a full 80+ games schedule like NHL 13 is asking.
Coach mode fans, however, will be pleased to know that unlike Madden NFL 13, NHL 13's Connected Career mode does support user coaching. Coach mode lets the player pick line changes and alter team strategies on-the-fly, in addition to a "shoot" button that will tell whomever has the puck to fire on net.
Operation Sports will be running lots of GM Connected leagues once NHL 13 ships, so keep an eye on the NHL forums to see how this innovative feature fares after release.