NHL 13 Review (Xbox 360)
Looming lockout be damned, because there is a new hockey game to review.
I think it's safe to say that commercial and critical success have followed the NHL franchise in the last few years, as the hockey product has always brought something new to the table, whether that be a meaningful gameplay iteration or new online modes. To my mind, this year's game takes the biggest risk by skewing the gameplay in a much more “simulation” direction. The speed at which you play is drastically altered by the new skating engine, the goalies are formidable presences, and the tendency for bobbled pucks, missed nets and blocked shots is notably increased.
But does this make for a compelling game overall? I feel this direction serves to represent the sport in a much more accurate way than before, but it may leave some players feeling initially shackled by the change in pace and timing. For those that are willing to get out of their comfort zone a little bit and learn the new skating engine and all of the subtle gameplay changes, you'll find an awesome hockey simulation waiting for you.
The biggest change this year is definitely the skating engine, as players now have to build up speed (by clicking and holding the left stick) when heading in a straight line in order to really take off. The catch is, of course, that you're turning ability is greatly reduced at top speed, and you'll be very easily knocked off your feet. This feeling of inertia is also reflected in many other skating scenarios, as you'll feel the rumble of the controller when your skater has to carve and turn a corner, or you'll see the weight of a player shift when he has to stop on a dime and start hustling back the other way.
This change of pace is readily apparent when you're playing as a lowly created player or when you start out in Hockey Ultimate Team, as players without points in agility and speed really seem to be affected by the skating engine, requiring that they make deliberate and premeditated movements more than their high-skill peers.
I really feel this skating engine is an intriguing new direction for the franchise, as many players will be familiar with the concept of flying around at top speed and still being able to deke as fast as they want, pass effectively and take reasonable shots. This skating engine allows much less of that and, more importantly, creates a risk-reward scenario where you can still grab high speeds to blow past defenders — something you can do believably this year once you get going — but you'll be incredibly susceptible to turnovers, hits and the momentum of your own skater. This vulnerability may bother some players who are used to the sheer speed that previous versions afforded, but I think patience will reward those who are willing to dig into this new skating method.
I found that I was able to have success by anticipating the movement of the puck, especially if I needed to head back on defense. Getting turned around a split-second earlier allowed me to build up the speed necessary to cut off a potential breakaway. In fact, since the backskating speed has been reduced a bit, it requires that you start skating back first and then switch to a backskate later, which represents real hockey more accurately. The momentum of your player really plays into hits as well, since your momentum will put you even more out of position than before if you miss a check at the blue line. As a disclaimer, I played on mainly Superstar difficulty (occasionally going down to All-Star for HUT and other modes).
Goalies have also received a major overhaul, with added save animations, increased speed and a greater sense of desperation. It won't be uncommon to see eye-popping, cross-crease saves or a desperate reaching of the goalie stick to knock down a puck. Since the netminders have the added ability of animating their legs and arms independently, it's really cool to watch them do the splits when falling down but animate their arm separately to glove a puck. I think these buffed goalies serve the game incredibly well, as it keeps the goal totals from getting ridiculous, even if the goalies are cheating (literally and figuratively) a little bit in order to get to some shots. It cuts down on a lot of the strange goals going in, which do happen occasionally still, and the one-timers of before are almost non-existent.
Then again, the reduction in one-timers can also be attributed to the increased “randomness” and added emphasis on defensive play, two aspects I welcome wholeheartedly. You'll see many more blocked shots this year, and the poke-check has been heavily buffed. No longer will players be able to just deke through swaths of opposition without losing the puck, and there's an increased number of missed nets, errant passes and shots off the post. Also, credit to EA for adding the puck chop move, which allows you to swipe the puck along the boards with right bumper, relaying it to your teammate before the opposing team can react. It's a brilliant and subtle addition to the gameplay.
The AI of the CPU seems generally improved across the board, with the goalies getting the aforementioned buffs to make them more of a threat, defenders showing added willingness to actually engage attacking forwards, and forwards actually forechecking with a purpose. It's great seeing defenders step up on hits when you try and blow past them with the new skating engine, and forwards will go after pucks in the corners.
That said, there are still some AI issues when it comes to d-men giving you a proper option to cycle the puck when you're under pressure, and the unwillingness of fellow forwards to actually crash the net and give you a passing option remains baffling. Some CPU behavior can be attributed to the new skating, added randomness and emphasized defensive play, but you are still left with some moments where the CPU isn't doing a simple thing which would alleviate pressure or create offense. Additionally, I'm a little concerned about the current tuner set in terms of lack of penalty calls, especially interference, but hopefully that can be ironed out soon.
The overall look of NHL 13 remains quite familiar, with most everything looking fairly good on and around the ice. The lack of player face variety still remains bothersome (and hey, where's GameFace?), and the crowd is now looking a bit dated, but the animations are still great, and the action remains smooth overall.
There are a few additions to the interstitials and replay packages, so you'll now see highlight reels when a team is doing poorly (missing the net, hitting posts, getting hit), and there's some graphical overlay and musical splash when going into the intermissions. The replays in general seem to do a better job of showcasing all of the action happening on the ice. After the whistle, the game also has a bit of a dynamic presentation, as it allows for a few more “unscripted” moments of players skating around the ice, which looks good. Additionally, the net cam has been added, so you'll get all sorts of fun shots of players crashing the net and goalies desperately flying across the crease. It's a shame that most of the cinematic presentation remains the same, so you'll be treated to familiar renditions of winning OT games, player walkouts and shots of the bench. Also, I'm not sure why the post-goal celebrations lack the five-man huddles and previous cinematics, as now you just watch your guy raise his arms on his own (even though that has some unintentional comedy).
Thorne and Clement provide the same commentary as before, with the usual slew of minor additions to their candor. They still do a good enough job providing insight and background noise, but the duo is getting quite familiar at this point, and maybe it's time for a change. The on-ice sound is still rock solid, with great puck ricochet and board impact effects. The chatter on the ice and from the crowd also remains effective, even though it has seen little change this year.
The biggest addition in terms of modes this year is GM Connected, EA's attempt at scooping up a wide cross-section of gamers in one grand gesture. The concept is awesome, as you can have 30 teams play in up to 25 seasons of what is essentially an online franchise mode. Each of the teams can actually support 25 human players, but much like the EASHL, this is purely theoretical, as only six players can head out on the ice at once. It is cool that someone can just play as a coach, if they so choose, allowing them to select line changes, alter strategies and tell players to shoot the puck.
The mode supports multiple tuner sets, which is a cool idea, so you can scale back to a previous gameplay style if that's what your league wants. You can even bring in an AI profile from the AI creation feature in the options, which is a great touch. There isn't a fantasy draft, which is a bummer, but you can do a random roster setup, which does at least put everybody in the same boat. There's plenty to do as a GM as well, since you'll have access to free agents, waivers, trades and full international scouting.
This all seems pretty great, right? Well, a lot of it is, but unfortunately, as I've outlined before, the EA servers can be a curious beast. And in GM Connected, to be sure, they are a beast. You'll see plenty of the EA “spinny wheel,” as my friends and I like to call it, even on basic menu navigation. The fact that the EA servers have to communicate when you're scrolling down the basic start menu in the mode, forcing you to stutter past the “make trade” option, is absolutely inexcusable. Worse still, you'll be waiting on the servers when accessing trade screens, team lists, scouting options and all sorts of other menus. Now, I'm not going to say this is an absolute deal-breaker for the mode, but it needs to be addressed quickly. It definitely blunts my enthusiasm for what is otherwise a great addition to the franchise.
The other new mode on display is NHL Moments Live. This is one of those “recreate history” modes that sports games often trot out after a while. I actually think there's a really cool concept here, but the execution is honestly quite lacking. Most of the moments just end up being a race to outfox the AI so that you can jam in several goals really quickly, and none of them recreate any passion or intensity. The “moments” featuring legends are particularly egregious, as you'll see Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky out there on their own, playing with modern rosters. Obviously they couldn't license all the older players, but couldn't they just put the correct numbers on the other jerseys?
EASHL / HUT / BAP / BAGM
The EA Sports Hockey League continues to be a strong mode in this year's game, with the addition of regional matchmaking to help speed up matches and improve latency issues. The mode has always been stable in terms of connection, and this year, while initially a bit bumpy, seems pretty good in that regard. It's also nice that you can designate captains and alternates for your team (finally), and the addition of specific leaderboards for six-player games is great. There's also a backout penalty now, so let's hope that stems a bit of the issue of teams bailing early when they realize they don't want to play a particular team.
Hockey Ultimate Team has also received a few upgrades this year, as you now pick your favorite team to start out. This means that you'll start with that team's jersey and a few minor players from that organization so that you have a bit of a personal investment in the baby steps of your team. There are new items for assigning captaincy, which grants a stat bonus, and you can even get an item to change teams so that you can maximize the chemistry for the players on your team. The interface for viewing chemistry and applying collectibles is a bit clearer and cleaner, and you'll now see that goalies factor into the chemistry of your team. The fact that there is no career length limit or salary cap, teamed with the more temporary nature of the training upgrades, means that teams might just end up being laden with superstars, but there are still plenty of options for those who want them. There's also a mobile app that you can use to view your collection and participate in the auction house.
The Be A Pro mode is present and accounted for, but the additions to the mode this year are minor. You can elect to retire anytime you want, and at that point you can survey that stats and accomplishments in your career. You can also request a trade this year, but you'll be warned by the GM if he feels you aren't good enough to warrant the trade. Simulating games and skipping shifts that aren't yours more or less works as before, and you'll get the same types of tasks, encouragement and chastising that's been present in the last few years of the mode.
The series' franchise mode, Be A GM, is also buoyed by the new “GM Brain” feature, which aims to create smarter long-term vision for CPU general managers as well curb issues that came up in terms of limitless player growth. Since there are more defined roles for players now — minor starting goalie, third-line checking forward, top-four defender — CPU managers will be able to more effectively assess specific needs for their team. It's cool that when they propose trades or you propose them, you'll get feedback about what their surpluses and wants are for the team, and they'll give you specific answers if your trade doesn't meet their trading block requirements. The new player growth model, which projects potential based on historical models, should also please those wanting to see less superstar players later on in the mode.
While I certainly don't think the new skating engine is quite the revelation of the skill stick, it is one of the most meaningful changes for the NHL franchise in several years. Players are now forced to think before they commit to going all out, and the added defensive and goalie capabilities keep things lively. The GM Connected mode is also a welcome addition, but it's just a shame that the off-ice portion of the mode suffers from the constant interruption of the EA “spinny wheel.”
Learning Curve: It will take a bit longer for some users to wrap their head around the new skating engine this year, but I think that effort will be well worth it.
Control Scheme: Holding down the left thumbstick to speed boost is a bit different this year, and the puck chop move, while awesome, takes a bit of getting used to.
Visuals: The added replay packages, dynamic post-whistle presentation and graphic overlays are nice, but some of the cinematics in this series, as well as the player faces, should really be enhanced.
Audio: Thorne and Clement do a serviceable job, as always, but they should probably be switched up soon. The rest of the sound effects and audio presentation is still high quality.
Value: As always, there are lots of modes to play, and the gameplay provides even greater depth this year thanks to the added emphasis on realism.