True Performance Skating has revolutionized hockey gaming, but how does the rest of EA Sports' NHL 13 fare when compared to real hockey?
Gone are the days of being able to spin around in circles, instantly hit top speed or turn on a dime. In its place, is the most realistic skating ever coded into a video game. Momentum and acceleration are perfectly captured, creating a true separation between top skating forwards and oafish defensemen.
True Performance Skating's only misstep is how it has replaced the old vision control button (left trigger) with an unnecessary backwards skating button. Without the ability to face the puck and keep your player's body square, it's much more difficult to line up one timer shots or play as a power forward in front of the net. Defenders can also get awkwardly spun around with their back to the puck if they try to skate while holding the left trigger.
End-to-end dekes and cross-ice one timers had been the dominate offensive strategy in EA's NHL games since the inception of the skill stick in NHL 07. NHL 13 has finally made enough tweaks to its offensive system that playing a realistic style of hockey will beat people who only know how to play "video game hockey."
Performing stick dekes now slows down skaters enough that those moves are only effective on breakaways and penalty shots. Connecting on one timers is more difficult than ever now that CPU defenders and goalies like to jab their stick into passing lanes to disrupt plays.
The biggest sore spot on offense remains your bumbling AI teammates, who have trouble moving around to the open space on the ice, and whose shots tend to get blocked or miss the net entirely.
For as poorly as your own AI teammates perform, CPU teams still have no trouble zipping the puck around the ice with superhuman accuracy or firing wrist shots top shelf. It has become routine to see computer teams with 70 to 80 percent pass completion, which is just unacceptable for a hockey simulation.
I appreciate EA Canada's attempt to loosen up the puck and make NHL 13 a sloppier brand of hockey, but the game's poke check has simply gotten out of control as a result. Online team play games now consist of a heard of players chasing the puck around the rink mashing the right bumper, poking it out of one corner and into to the next.
Players can get away with spamming poke checks because penalties are rarely called. A typical game of NHL 13 has no more than one or two penalties at most, if any are even called at all. This is not to say that players never get tripped up, because they do, it's just that the ref (who's still missing his three on-ice colleagues) refuses to blow the whistle whenever obvious trips or slashes occur.
Checking penalties are equally sparse, with blatant interference rarely being called, regardless of whether it occurs on a skater or a goalie. NHL 13 introduces unintentional collisions to its physics capabilities, which should have finally gotten obstruction calls into the game. But after almost 100 matches played, I've yet to see a single penalty called whenever one player skates in front of another and causes a crash by blocking off his path.
It seems to be a company-wide thing that EA Sports games just cannot get collision physics correct. NHL 13 is equally as guilty as Madden NFL 13 and FIFA 13 in making average collisions look like The Ultimate Warrior is delivering a running clothesline to Hulk Hogan. NHL 13 is particularly goofy in the way players' bodies will flop around and convulse after being hit.
Even more perplexing, is the fact that CPU defenders all play like they have 99 checking power, 99 balance and 99 strength, as they can knock you off the puck and into the ice at any time, from any angle, without regard for the involved players' size or weight. If you try to mimic some of the hits that CPU players can land, your players will just bounce off the CPU puck carrier like he has some kind of protective force field around him.
The design philosophy behind the NHL series' goaltending has traditionally been to make the goalies so good that they can hide the fact that the defense in front of them is awful.
This is done because most human players don't know, let alone care, how to play proper defense, and because the AI simply isn't advanced enough to keep a human-controlled offense out of prime scoring territory.
While skaters received an overhaul this year in how they move on the ice, goaltenders are still largely weightless in their movement, allowing them to warp from one goal post to the other without regard for momentum and inertia. Goalies are so superhumanly quick in their lateral movement that it literally looks like they are telporting across the crease. The transitional animations from an initial save to a secondary save can occur so rapidly that they defy the laws of human movement. In short, the infamous “robo goalie” is still very much alive in NHL 13.
New cross-body, diving desperation saves have also been added to goalies' arsenal of save animations, and unsurprisingly, they are also too quick and too effective. In the Hockey Ultimate Team mode, I have seen minor league goalies who are rated only a 60 or 70 overall making diving stick saves like they were Jonathan Quick.
The majority of goals that are scored in NHL 13 seem to be the result of either weird puck bounces or the popular short side, bad angle wrist shot. The new "anticipation AI" was marketed as a way to let goaltenders cheat over a bit and defend against one timers. In reality, all it has done is opened up the short side even more -- and as anyone who's played EA's NHL series in the last five years can tell you, there were already too many weak angle short side goals before goalies started over-anticipating.
NHL 13 continues to stick with its simplistic rock/paper/scissors system for determining who wins faceoffs. Contrary to hockey rules, there is still no penalty in NHL 13 for drawing early, or for jabbing your stick seven or eight times before the puck is even dropped.
In laggy games, faceoff spammers can take advantage of the latency and beat people who are trying to take draws legitimately.
Too many draws in NHL 13 are won cleanly, and the animations for tying up or stick lifting your opponent play out the same way every time. AI teammates are often unresponsive to tie ups, preferring to stand outside the circle and watch while the two centers dosey doe around the loose puck.
Like NHL 13's boardplay, there is nothing dynamic about the current faceoff system, giving it the feel of an archaic, last-generation mechanic.
Now in its second year, the tweaked "net battles" jostling system still feels like it does more harm than good to NHL 13's realism. EA Canada has decreased the offensive player's ability to shoot while being held up, but it's still far too common to see laser one timers delivered in spite of a jostle.
As with boardplay, the suction effect built into the netplay animations remains a major nuisance. A player can be skating full speed one moment only to be pulled into a jostle and brought to a standstill. Net battles also sap a tremendous amount of energy from both players involved in the animation. During online team play, simply getting caught in one extended jostle can drain your player's energy level for the remainder of the period.
The most glaring flaw in NHL 13's gameplay is the lack of dynamic interactions around the boards. Boardplay in NHL 13 remains completely binary, with only one defender and one offensive player able to engage in an awkward pinning animation. The offensive player being pinned cannot be hit or in any way interacted with aside from a simple poke check from an unengaged player.
Human skaters can exploit the boardplay button's invulnerability by pinning themselves to the boards to completely avoid incoming body checks. AI skaters still foolishly allow themselves to be pinned by oncoming defenders when they could have easily chipped the puck up the ice or around the boards. Throw in the tremendous suction effect that comes with the boardplay animation, and it feels like a feature that belongs in a PS2 game, not a PS3 game.
Simply looking at this hit chart from last year's cup-clinching game between New Jersey and Los Angeles shows that most hockey hits occur along the boards, but if you only play EA's NHL games, you might think the opposite: that hits only occur in the open ice.
Overall Grade: B-
Hockey is a sport of chaos and unpredictability, yet historically, most hockey video games have suffered from being too predictable and repetitive.
By erasing many of the repeatable scoring tactics and cheap skating maneuvers from previous editions, NHL 13 has made offense more fun and unpredictable. Still, the robotic goaltending and lack of realism in faceoffs, netplay and boardplay are keeping EA's NHL series from becoming a true hockey simulation.