It’s almost the perfect game.
In retrospect I may have been a little too high on NHL 12. I don’t feel the same way about that game as I did 12 months ago when I reviewed it. There were still a couple of money goals which became apparent over time and broke any fun I had with the game because I couldn’t play my hardest without breaking the AI. While the skating was slightly improved, it paled in comparison to what we were promised this year. The new Be A Pro mode last year did deliver a much more authentic experience. However, everything else in the game pretty much remained stagnant.
The new feature list in NHL 13 is by far one of the most comprehensive list of enhancements since NHL 09’s addition of EASHL. A new physics based skating engine, goalies with full limb movement and the GM Connected Mode which allows you to play online in co-op or versus modes in what amounts to an online version of Be A GM are the highlights of the additions to NHL 12 and sound like a recipe to deliver a near perfect sports game for its time.
But it is exactly that— a near perfect game.
The new skating engine does wonders for how the game is played. It makes playing locked onto a single player on the ice a joy. When playing while locked onto a player, you learn quickly that you have to manage your energy by gliding when there’s no need to expend yourself, otherwise you’ll get tired and then start to get consistently beat out to pucks or not be able to advance out of the neutral zone with the puck due to reduced mobility. The effect isn’t nearly as pronounced in a regular game where you aren’t locked on a single player as you’re always switching to a player who has lots of energy and is in a better position to pursue the puck.
There are still some small quirks with the new skating engine. When collisions occur, whether with the boards or another player, the illusion of momentum on the ice can be broken as players will freeze at the boards while turning if they are making a wide turn.
I haven’t seen any sure fire ways to score in any online games I played. There seems to be variety to the goals which is nice as it’ll encourage diverse play on EASHL and in conjunction with the enhanced defensive AI just makes it feel more rewarding to score a goal. But I have seen too many cases where the goalie has failed to cover up the puck and that has resulted in goals.
The new skating engine also makes it harder to avoid checks if you’re going at top speed due to momentum, but it’s also harder to line up checks from across the rink due to momentum as well. This adds a nice wrinkle to how you control your players and is another reason you’d want to glide. In fact there is a new mechanic where you can have explosive strides to the left or right from a glide which gives players another tool to get past defenders.
Poke checking at the puck is far more effective this year. But it helps balance out the fact that offensive players are far more capable due to the new skating engine. It can still be a little awkward, the animation doesn’t always look great, and if you want to aim your stick in a specific direction to block a passing lane rather than to poke at the puck, you’ll have to press and hold RB/R1, wait for the initial poke at the puck animation to finish and then you are allowed to move around the Right Stick to direct your hockey stick. It should be smoother than this.
Similar to last year, holding down the Left Stick button will make your player put all his effort while skating in a straight line. This year when you have the puck though, the player will automatically push the puck. It’s a nice feature in theory but there are a few problems because of this. First, it’s immediately obvious that the puck is glued to your player’s stick while he’s automatically pushing the puck as the puck unrealistically moves back and forth with your player’s stick when it really should only be moving forward. And even if this was implemented to be a true loose puck, it still would be nice to have the option to push the puck manually like you could in previous games. And when I mention previous games, I’m really talking about the push puck feature from NHL 09 which let you push the puck manually and let you continually one touch the puck while pushing it, making it extremely fluid. Having an option like this could help in getting around defenders coming in to check you by letting you push the puck a little forward, and then you could do an explosive cut around the player to get back to the puck. Currently you’re only resigned to either getting checked, getting poke checked, or having to dump the puck.
I’ve played the game on Pro and All-Star, and with both Default and Hardcore slider settings and the one major thing that I feel like is missing still is sloppiness to the game. CPU Players regularly make tape-to-tape passes, and players can cleanly pick up pucks behind their back and go on their merry way. Others can backskate through the neutral zone and then spin back around without losing possession of the puck. Players in NHL 13 are able to handle the puck equally well in any of these situations, when in reality players are not able to handle pucks equally well in all of these situations. There also seems to be a reduction in the amount of penalties this year as well, to the point where you can get away with some egregious tripping with the Poke Check button.
Make no doubt, the EA NHL team has made great strides over the last 7 years in making their game more authentic, but at some point I think they hold back at adding too much realism because they want to keep the game fun to play. I say they need to look in the mirror and think about what type of game want to make. If they want a fun and accessible game with the trappings of an authentic NHL experience, maybe they need to make that separate from the hardcore hockey sim that they also seem to be trying to make at the same time.
EA Sports Hockey League, the mode which lets you play with teams of 2-50 people (only 6 people are allowed to play in a game at a time) is made exciting again just by having the new skating engine and (so far) the lack of money goals this year also keep the fun going. The only bummer is when you get scored on due to your AI goalie failing to handle the puck. Hopefully EA can release a tuner set which addresses this issue. And as in previous years, the more friends you have playing EASHL with you, the more fun it is. It’s always a heightened feeling of excitement when you can create some magic on the ice with a real human player against real human players as compared to doing it with and against AI. The only major issue I have with EASHL is the slow menus. There should be a quicker way to progress your player after finishing a game that results in you gaining XP which allows you to increase the Attributes of your player.
Now one thing that actually confused me at the get go was GM Connected. Unlike Connected Careers from Madden 13 which combines both offline and online Dynasty modes, this mode is primarily meant for online play. And not knowing this could be really frustrating for those wanting to play offline. I created a GM Connected Career and immediately noticed how slow the menus were. It a long time just to load up your GM Connected Career. And once you are in it, it can take several seconds just to navigate between the different screens in the mode. And simulating 2 weeks of play easily takes 10 minutes in this mode.
Thankfully the offline Be A GM mode still exists, and can be used to play offline instead. This mode stays largely the same as last year, although the trading interface has been slightly improved, and GMs are a lot smarter in evaluating their own team long term and understanding what their needs are not just now but 5 years from now.
But back to GM Connected, which is the big new thing here. It’s awesome to finally be able to play a fully-fledged season mode against human players. However, without the ability to change the length of the season or the number of teams in the league, such a mode can become a grind to be a part of. I’ve run online leagues in the past, and it’s hard to even get a league of 10 people to coordinate to play a 9 game season, let alone an 82 game season.
Now there are some tools in the league which make it easier to get by. You can allow others to play against your AI, and there’s an entire Build Your AI mode to dictate how you want your team to play. There’s also an NHL 13 companion app on iOS, but it only lets you manage trades. But I think there needs to be more here to make this mode more viable. It needs a web interface so players can adjust their lines, make trades, view stats, and simulate games from wherever they are.
The other big feature that GM Connected brings, is the ability to play co-operatively with friends. And in fact, you can mix and match and have some teams in your league just be CPU controlled, some controlled by 1 player, and some controlled by multiple players. I played a little bit of co-op GM Connected with a friend and it really brought me back to the days I could play through the playoffs in NHL Hockey on the Sega Genesis cooperatively— except now, I don’t need to be in the rare case of having a friend physically over at my place all the time to play this mode.
Other than the painfully slow menus, the other major flaw with GM Connected is it lacks the ability to have multiple local players play in it, whether that be cooperatively or versus. Now you could do that with the Season Mode, but it’d be nice to give players the option to mix and match online and offline play in GM Connected. Giving the ability for one Gamertag to control multiple teams could be one way they could solve this issue in the future.
The one other curious thing I have to say about GM Connected is that the interface is a little weird. It doesn’t feel like a fully-fledged season mode because you don’t get the calendar view like you do in Be A GM, just a list of the teams you have to play. And some of the screens that are menu options in Be A GM are just jammed in as another pane (accessed by using the triggers on your controller) rather than their own separate menu item. I understand why they did this (to allow you to play games out of order in the 2 week block you have to play games), but I think the way they present all of the info in this mode (including the stats) makes it look more shallow than it actually is.
Ultimate Team is largely the same as previous years, but it adds a Line Assistant option which essentially configures the Best Lines for you. This is a nice step forward to make this mode more accessible, but I’d like to see them take the next step and remove the arbitrary restriction between the cards you have Active and the ones that are in your Collection. You have a maximum number of cards that you can keep as Active, and the rest have to go into a Collection. Why is there this limit on Active cards? I don’t know, because you can freely swap in and out cards from your Collection. It just ends up being an annoyance. I’d also like to see the ability to customize your Ultimate Team’s jerseys just like you can in EASHL, because your Ultimate Team is personal to you, you should be able to fully make it your own by creating their jerseys.
Legends mode from last year remains (which has some new legends this year, such as Jari Kurri). There is now another new mode called NHL Moments which presents you with situations that have happened in the past (like Henrik Lundqvist’s shutout against the Capitals in the playoffs or Doug Gilmour scoring his famous OT goal against St. Louis) and lets you either recreate the moment or change history in favour of the other team. Unfortunately, for situations that use Legend players, the rest of the team in the game will use current rosters. This is understandable given the licensing situation, but the now defunct line of 2K Hockey games in the past did do better with its historic teams (and they continue to do so with their NBA 2K series).
The graphics this year have improved quite a bit. Lighting has been revamped, and this makes the Winter Classic look absolutely gorgeous, and players’ faces look a lot more realistic now. A True Broadcast camera has also been added which strikingly looks like you’re watching a game on TV, although playing from this angle is a little difficult. It’d be nice to watch a game this way, but unfortunately there still is no way to spectate games that your friends are playing online.
NHL 13 is fantastic and is by far the biggest step this series has taken since NHL 09. If you’re wondering whether this is the year to get an NHL game, it is. However, there are just some small issues in the new features and improvements to the game on the ice and GM Connected, and players manage to control the puck too well. These reasons keep it from being a perfect game.