NHL 13 (Xbox 360) Review

It is late summer, kids have returned to school and Canada’s national past time is on the minds of most; hockey season is right around the corner.  While this year’s season may be in doubt with labor troubles, we can always rely on EA Canada in Vancouver, B.C. to punch out another stellar sports game, and in this case it is NHL 13.  This year’s game promises a few key changes in its core gameplay, and perhaps the biggest physical change to hit the franchise since its inception.  While I hate that summer is fading, I always look forward to each new NHL installment.

I figured I would delve right into how this new version of our great sport handles.  Right off the hop I found that NHL 13 feels tighter and easier to control then previous releases in the series, and the older games control pretty well too.  I love how the Xbox 360 controller feels and controls.  The buttons are responsive and easy to navigate.  One of the key highlights to this year’s game is the new True Performance Skating.  EA deems this as a game–changing innovation for the franchise as the skating is now physics based as the mode tries to authentically replicate the explosiveness, momentum and top end speed displayed by today’s NHL players.  I struggled with the Skill Stick innovation some years back, but have made huge strides after much practice.  I believe the same can be said for True Performance Skating, practice is going to make perfect.

I found that I am having some issues getting a grasp of not only the physics but the actual control of this new skating system.  I have a habit of holding on to the puck too long and letting d-men close the gap; sometimes they knock the puck off my stick and rush up the ice on an odd man break.  It is frustrating, but you can see in real life NHL games where a player dipsy-doodles too much and the other team makes them pay.  I really like the implications of the new True Performance Skating on the power play too.  I can manipulate the puck along the blue line or cycle in the corners with way more creativity than ever before.  I think there will be some gamers that will get control of the new innovation and absolutely destroy opponents right off the start.  In the end I like the change of the skating system and I think that EA has really stepped in the right direction with the new control scheme.

NHL 13 has also changed how players accelerate and glide in and out of situations.  This is one of my favorite changes to the game, as faster players get up to speed much quicker then slower lumbering d-men or forwards.  Of course there is a trade off, players at the top end of their speed can easily lose their skate edge and are more susceptible to shattering hits.  The game takes into account the size, speed, and stick handling prowess of each player.  The result is by far the most realistic game EA Sports has ever iced (pun intended).  EA Sports claims that there are over 1000 new animations to feast your eyes on, including many in this area, and although I didn’t count that high, there are a lot of new animations for sure.

Of note is the new 45 degree move out of a glide.  Players are more agile when going into a glide and can make cuts in any 45 degree direction left or right.  This is effective on flatfooted defenders as an explosive cut either way can set you free to get around.  This also takes a bit of practice to perform as hesitation will result in getting hammered into the boards or ending up your butt.  Although I am far from skilled in this area I can break free on the odd rush.  You can really end up with some real nice highlight reel stuff once you get the idea down though.

NHL 13 is also much smarter than before as new A.I. governs the behaviors of players, goalies and team systems (yep, that’s what they say).  In previous NHL games, players were only aware of skaters in their immediate proximity and goalies could only react to the player in control of the puck, but EA Sports claims that with their new Hockey I.Q., all players are now fully aware of every other player on the ice, resulting in quicker, smarter, and more true-to-life decision-making.  I have to say that after my time with the game to date you can actually see examples of this in action as players will adjust to the play as fi they are thinking ahead.  I have noticed on numerous occasions that they do not wander as much; sticking to their strategic systems, almost steadfastly, providing a more solid defensive pattern.

You will also find that defensemen (when you play as one or not) have a few tricks up their sleeves.  With the new skating system I found that you can close the gap between forwards and defensemen way more effectively then in previous games.  This is a fix that I really like as in the past I was constantly frustrated by how the defensemen were at the forwards mercy in previous outings.  Defensemen can also angle better this year forcing forwards into the boards, and making life difficult.  This particular tweak gives NHL 13 a much more solid feel, which really helps with the games playability, and most importantly enjoyablity.

Defensemen now have very active sticks, or at least more so then I remember.  This year it seems as if the players automatically put their sticks in lanes to break up passes.  Cross ice passes are no longer easy as defensive players are very effective at taking away passing lanes on the power play.  The ability to skate backwards at anytime helps a great deal, again giving more control to the user.

A brand new mode of play is the much talked about GM Connected.  The mode is the largest undertaking of any sports game in history.  Over 700 people can play together in the same league, around the world.  The mode effectively lets users set up their own 30 team league which you and your friends can play in.  This drips with anticipation to the hardcore gamer or hockey nut that aspires to be in the big chair.  Gone are the days of making trades on the Sega Genesis with a static picture of some guy posing as a GM (I always thought that was hardcore enough). This is some serious stuff, as the mode offers unrivaled accessibility and depth by allowing players to manage, play, or coach as they make their way down the road to building their dynasty team.

Now, in a really cool twist, GM’s can also take their experience with them with a mobile companion app, ensuring that they never miss a single moment.  The Companion App keeps you in touch with your league even when you are not signed into the game, and lets you see information regarding the league that is up to date.  You can stat track, look at player info, get league standings, and look at your team schedule.  Even cooler is the ability to make trade offers, sign free agents, and post messages to the league through the mobile app.  It sure beats having to log into your game by firing up your console or having to access a PC just to see what is happening around your league.  In the end the app puts your league in your pocket and makes it available for you to see 24/7.

Within the GM connected is the role of “The Commissioner”.  He is basically the GM’s go to guy.  The Commissioner is the person who starts up the league, and he has some responsibilities in keeping the league running.  The Commissioner has the ability to approve of any moves made by any GM.  He can review the transactions and give his seal of approval or deny the deal.  I can’t imagine being this hardcore, but the idea does appeal to me, and makes a ton of sense on the realism front.

The GM connected mode is going to take some time to feel out, as having a 30 player/team league is a bit of an organizing undertaking not to mention the huge amounts of time needed to manage it.  In the offline mode I found I could get away with some of the details, rubber stamping trades etc., but human GM’s should be an interesting challenge to say the least in something this big.

One of my favorite new additions to NHL 13 is the NHL moments live. This concept wasintroduced some years ago by other sports games.  Each scenario is introduced with the real NHL footage from the game in question.  I thought including the actual footage helped in raising the intensity of the moment, and made me want to finish the task at hand.  I remember playing a similar mode in 2006 FIFA World Cup and it was next to impossible to finish some of the scenarios which led to much frustration.  I am having a great time going through the moments from the 2011-12 NHL season which ships on the disc.  The difficulty is high on some, but not impossible.  New moments from the 2012-13 NHL season will be added when available too.  Currently there are 24 moments from the 2011–12 season including Sam Ganger’s 8 point game and Sidney Crosby’s first game back in Pittsburgh.  You can choose from four different reward settings, which range from Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.  Each level is given a point reward they vary with Bronze having the least and Platinum having the most value.  The points are actually Hockey Ultimate Team Pucks, which can be used to buy packs in your HUT.

One overlooked option, in my opinion, is the on-the-fly strategies used by players.  The new additions and tweaks seem to make differences in games this time around.  EA claims they have spent more time on the A.I. this year then they have in the past 3 years combined.  The new system has piggy-backed off the old basic system of Offensive Zone and Defensive Zone.  After tinkering with the settings I do believe they work quite well.  I like to play aggressive; my forwards were always deep and hanging high in the neutral zone.  I felt that it was the first time my commands were truly executed when called upon.  Once again EA is definitely on the right track here.

NHL 13 has an amazing amount of content I have not even touched upon. The standard stuff that makes a return like Be a GM, Be a PRO, AND Be a Legend, among others are all still included with updates and tweaks. Don’t forget the Ultimate Team, which also has daily and weekly updates.

One of the first things I noticed was when I started playing was how the game looked.  The entire visual output of the game, from the players to the individual arenas, all have added animations and graphical upgrades that make this a better looking game.

I have been saying for years, model arenas after their real life counterparts.  NHL 13 now includes real life buildings used around the league.  EA Sports has taken great steps to include reflections from within the building on the ice surface.  The shadows created are super realistic, as players are now lit with realistic lighting as they cast shadows not only on themselves but on other players.  The development team even took a special 360 degree camera into Rogers Arena, where our beloved Vancouver Canucks play, and captured images for reflections off of helmets and visors.  The attention to the details is quite impressive and shows how much work is involved in making the NHL series one of the best looking sports games out there.

Another area you will notice a difference is the “Full Limb Control” for the goalies, and on a limited basis the players.  Goalies have complete control over their own individual limbs.  What this means for those playing the game is that even after making a save goaltenders can adjust their limbs to move to where the puck is travelling for even more control.  Soon after starting play I noticed this happening on the very first few shots as netminders stretch incredibly across creases and lunge back if they are caught out of position.  The visual effect is quite realistic with some saves seeming like real life situations. Players on the other hand react to other bodies big or small.  The bigger they are the bigger the animation.  I noticed the Canucks big defensive core hammering players into the boards as they came across the blue line.  The bigger players hit with such force it would knock the smaller offensive players into the boards violently and disrupt their skating flow.  Smaller player also bounce off big d-men with reckless abandonment, reminding me of those little guys that get under the skin of other players during play.

The games framerate seems to be a little more stable than in previous outings, although there are times where there is some noticeable stutter.  I noticed a bit more issues online this time around too, but EA usually tweaks their servers as more and more people end up online.  After about a dozen or so games online I only experienced one out right drop, and very few graphic issues.  Overall EA has not only addressed the aesthetics of the visuals, but has overhauled major chunks of how the game looks with fantastic results.

This year NHL 13 offers up a new soundtrack.  The musical selections range from staple hockey melodies to some full out metal tracks.  Once again the game sounds just as good as it looks and this includes the music.  The playlist adds some local rock moguls as well as international stars.  The ability to add your custom tracks is still there which can make for some very interesting sound quips.

If the game has one downer it is the commentary team of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement.  Personally I have had enough of these guys for some time now.  They do an admirable job dictating the games action, but their script is once again very predictable.  I only had to wait for a few minutes to hear them explain that the Vancouver Canucks travel the most out of all the NHL teams; in fact I believe this tidbit of knowledge is 4 or 5 years old now.  It is too bad that other crews cannot get the job such as Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson, which would be nice.  Maybe EA could include commentary relative to national broadcast teams.  In the west Hughson and Simpson do the Oilers games, Flames games, and some of the Canucks games.  This would add to the realism to the broadcast presentation.  I know there are legalities and issues surrounding this kind of stuff, but the ice for me is wearing a bit thin and it is becoming increasingly annoying to hear the same inane speech over and over.

On the positive side, the rest of NHL 13’s sounds are still top notch. The in-game experience is entirely encoded in Dolby Digital Surround, which gives you an aural experience that rivals the live games.  There really is nothing like cranking up the game with roaring fans and heavy hits, and should you have a subwoofer this will be amped up even more.  The crowds are even more interactive this time around as they howl with protest of a bad goal or poor play and they roar in delight if a goal is scored by the home team.  They also go bananas for each and every hit thrown successfully by the home team, whether big or small.  The sounds of the arena changes to accurately reflect my position in the rink; on the ice or sitting on the bench, it is quite an amazing effect.

I’m not sure of how much more EA Sports can do to make their fantastic NHL series better.  NHL 13 is by far the most complete edition yet, surpassing the stellar NHL 12 by a long shot even if the commentary has some shortcomings.  I like that EA Sports has gone aggressive this year making monumental changes in the gameplay to address issues of the past, and improved the games already solid visuals.  At the end of the day NHL 13 is truly in a class of its own and it stands as the high water mark of the franchise that is to be met.

The Good


The Bad