Game: NHL 13
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Available On: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Reviewed On: PlayStation 3
It is that magical time of year, where the big hitters roll out the latest versions of their sports video games, a time that sees us fans pore over the latest incarnations of some of the longest running series in the media, and try to work out whether we have been served up an innovative, progressive instalment, or a £40 roster update. We recently looked at EA and Tiburon’s stellar new slice of American Football simulation, and can safely say that the developers were not resting on their laurels by churning out a generic sequel; such were the incredible additions to the package that made a genuine difference to the way you approach trying to secure a virtual Superbowl.
Last year, I played, what I felt, was the best latter day attempt at an ice hockey title, as I hit the ice on behalf of GodisaGeek to pick apart NHL 12. It was a stunning effort, so to say I am expecting nothing less than excellence with their next annual effort is an understatement. EA Sports have promised big things, claiming that NHL 13 is stacked with the “biggest changes to the franchise since NHL 07”, which is considered by many to be the point that the series really entered the big leagues and began to feel “next gen”. NHL games have always been the most accessible of all American sports gaming fare to casual gamers, with fast moving, fisticuffs-packed action (it is basically Speedball 2, but for real) that has been dazzling console owners since the Megadrive days of yore. Have EA Canada really pushed the envelope and delivered a game that usurps its predecessor as the premier virtual puck slapping experience?
GRAPHICS: Like with Madden, EA have decided to change the menu screens and attempt to make them resemble a real-life sports show, and everything looks dazzlingly professional off the bat, after a stunning intro which gets you properly pumped up to hit the rink. The pre-game spiel looks incredible, giving a real big-game feel and introducing the action with panning views of the licensed stadia. All of your favourite licensed teams are there, with the players looking the absolute business with accurate depictions of uniforms and all of the foibles that are associated with individual players; the level of detail is amazing, but then again, it was last year too. A new Team-First Presentation feature means that the game will be tailored to your individual preferences. For example, if you are a huge Bruins nut, the game will be bookended by customised Boston menus and videos. So far, so NHL 12. Fear not, however, as it is the in-game graphics that have been given the most noticeable lick of paint.
Just as Tiburon overhauled their Madden sequel with the incredible Infinity Engine, EA Canada have introduced the True Performance Skating physics engine, which does as much for the visuals as it does for the actual gameplay. In attempting to more accurately mimic the explosive speed of the NHL, the new set up features well over 1,000 new animations which really add to the spectacle as the players reach dazzling speeds and skate around the ice with unparalleled realism. If that was not enough, the new Hockey I.Q. A.I. system means that the beautiful looking depictions of your favourite hockey superstars behave as you would expect them to, reacting to and interacting with, every other player on the ice, not just the man in possession of the puck. Running at a smooth 60 frames per second, it is the most believable hockey game yet seen.
SOUND: Prominent sportscaster Gary Thorne, who is famous for his work with ESPN and ABC covering both NHL and Major League Baseball, returns to the commentary booth with his sidekick Bill Clement. Yet again there are hours and hours of observations from the pair, and they seldom become repetitive or tiresome.
The in-game stuff is as reliable as ever, with all of your favourite hockey sounds, the squeaks and scrapes of blade on ice, the pummelling sounds as a player is crushed into the side of the rink, and the rousing organ music that is so synonymous with the gameday experience. The licensed tracks are also carefully chosen to represent tunes that are popular in NHL stadia, meaning there are some mildly irritating inclusions like the ubiquitous remixed Zombie Nation. There are also some quality tunes, mind, such as New Jersey’s Springsteen-esque rockers Gaslight Anthem serving up the ace “45” and punk heroes Anti-Flag blasting their way through the winningly appropriate “Broken Bones”. I must give a shout out to my home town heroes, Southampton’s own Band of Skulls, who mark their NHL début with “The Devil Takes Care of His Own”.
GAMEPLAY: With new A.I. and physics, the game plays like a dream. The CPU controlled players react far more realistically than ever before, meaning that it is easier to pull of game-changing plays without a bumbling team-mate ruining the move by being out of position. You can customise the game to suit your style of play, developing your own plays and strategies or even mimicking down to a tee the plays that your favourite team use in real life. As I have mentioned previously, the way players react to what is going on around them makes the world of difference. Forwards have the vision to identify scoring opportunities, whilst those on defensive duties are able to get themselves in to more effective positions to shut down the attacker. The goal-tenders, surely the most undesirable of all sporting roles, are more intelligent than ever, without being superhuman, and those with an appropriate skill level are able to pull of stunning “desperation” saves.
True Performance Skating is EA’s way of authentically replicating the on-ice performance of real life players, breaking things down into three categories, explosiveness, top-end speed and momentum. Along with the Skill Stick, and the new ability to skate backwards by holding the left trigger, the new system allows you to control your players like never before. You can hit insane speeds with certain players, but this will be to the detriment of your shooting and passing abilities. Increased explosiveness will allow a player to accelerate away more effectively from a standing start or when gliding across the ice. The game feels more realistic, the physics mean that players behave how you would expect them to in real life, so you can no longer run and gun through an entire match up, it is more difficult to recover from mistakes, and the focus is now on tactics and pulling off plays with a bit more thought and precision.
Player ratings have been given an overhaul, meaning that individual players are rated based upon their positional role in the team and their skill at that specific position. What this means is that instead of the players being given a rating out of 100 based upon their style of play; they are rated on their respective skill levels. Case in point, in NHL 12, Senators winger Chris Neil was rated in the 80s for his abilities as a Grinder. To the uninitiated, a Grinder is a player who is particularly adept at checking his opponents. In NHL 13, Neil is now ranked as a 78 overall, taking into account his overall skill level (he is an excellent player who can score goals just as well as he can smash the crap out of people).
LONGEVITY: There are a ton of modes to enjoy here. Some, like ‘Be A Pro’, ‘EA Sports Hockey League’ and card oddity ‘Ultimate Team’ return from NHL 12, with a few tweaks in some cases. particularly the ‘Be A Pro’ which now allows you to request a trade from whichever team you are playing for. There are teams and leagues from all over the world, although yet again the Russian league is conspicuous by its absence and there are no official uniforms for the international teams. The Winter Classic makes a most welcome return, this year being held in Philly.
The two major new additions are the GM Connected mode and NHL Moments Live. GM Connected is the EA Hockey equivalent of the excellent Connected Careers mode which débuted in Madden NFL 13. It allows you to embark on a glorious career, during which you can take on the role of a manager, coach or player, participating in online leagues against other human-controlled players. There is a tie-in mobile phone companion app, which I was unable to test for this review, but which promises unrivalled connectivity with your NHL experience, allowing you to negotiate trades, manage your rosters, view upcoming match schedules, or even send your rivals offensive messages. It all sounds very innovative and is something that iOS-device-owning NHL 13 fans should be able to have a lot of fun with.
NHL Moments Live is a separate entity which allows you to take part in and recreate real-life scenarios from the previous NHL season. The game disc comes packed with “moments” from the 2011-12 season, and allow you to play through key incidents, with the gameplay interspersed with some killer NHL footage. The scenarios include such tense moments as a Coyotes Vs. Kings game poised at 3-3 in overtime, with your aim being to win the game. There are other interesting scenarios, such as playing as a goalie with the aim being to secure a clean sheet. It is a hard-hitting slice of fan service, and a superb contribution.
VERDICT: EA Canada promised improvements, and has undoubtedly delivered. The game feels more realistic, there are a host of super new features, and there is an unprecedented amount of customisation and attention to detail on display. It is difficult to see how they could have possibly done any more to provide the best hockey game available and, as such, the bar has been raised yet again. It truly is a magnificent time to be a sports game fan.