Sep 152012

The NHL lockout looms more likely with every day. Faced with the possibility of no ice-time come October many fans will have to settle for the digital arena. A few years back, EA Sports redefined digital hockey when it introduced the “skill-stick.” Since, the Vancouver developer coasted on the achievement, adding only marginal changes to the series. They promised all of that would change with the latest installment, NHL 13. Is this new sim worthy of your time to replace the real thing, or does it disappoint just as much as Bettman’s decision making?

 Welcome to the wonderful world of hockey. First thing you’ll notice is that the interface has been reworked. It is still rather poor for a game with as many options as this, but it does simplify some things. Just like in Madden, most of your usual online modes are tucked away in the sub-menu. The developers do this to highlight the new and updated modes that will get more play, such as Hockey Ultimate Team and Connected GM. All of the regular options are still there as well, making this one of the deepest hockey games ever when it comes to choosing how you want to play.

The hits are just as vicious

The Connected GM mode is the new draw for the fans. You can jump into an online league with most of your friends. You can each pick a team and play each other. If competition isn’t your thing, you can always play together on the same team as the mode allows for up to 13 players to be on the same team simultaneously (with one serving as GM). It’s hard to say how hectic the mode will get if anyone ever manages to fill all 30 teams, but so far I can say that it has been a great deal of fun playing in a league with a few of my friends. This is the kind of mode that will appeal to the fantasy buffs and their friends. Instead of running that league, run one of your own, with your own trades and for your favorite team.

Hockey Ultimate Team is back for the addicts this time around. The principle remains the same. Put together a scrappy team at first and then play to win games and “EA Pucks” in order to buy new cards and hopefully better players. This mode is available both online and off.

The last mode worth mentioning is Hockey Moments Live. The new mode allows you to re-create or change history from some of the most iconic hockey moments, or at least that’s ho EA advertised it. In reality, there are only three historic moments, and even those put a superstar on a modern team (Gretzky on the 2012 Oilers). Most of the other moments are  from the previous season. It is still a great deal of fun to replay iconic matches from a season ago, but EA missed an opportunity to play on nostalgia of the average hockey fan, especially with the lockout looming.

On ice action realism is unparalleled

Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are back to reprise their roles as play-by-play commentators. They do an admirable job. NHL has always been one of the better commentated series out of the EA Sports‘ fall line-up and that doesn’t change there. The sound of the action is also authentic. Every hit, every save and even the sound of skating itself. All of that is ratcheted up a few notches. The fan chatter adds to the atmosphere. The soundtrack doesn’t appeal to me this year, and some of the arena music feels almost inappropriate for the ice rink.

Visually, the game still looks great, with the developers giving more attention to recreate the broadcast feel all sports games strive for. Some of the better players are easily recognizable during close-ups and there are additional fan animations. NHL 13 now uses in-game engine for between-the-action breaks visuals. It’s a neat touch that allows for a more dynamic presentation, but you will quickly learn to skip these moments as they come.

The gameplay is the most notable improvement, making this one of the best series sequels to date. The new physics engine (EA refers to it as True Performance Skating) changes the way NHL is played. Like Madden and FIFA before it, the series takes a new approach to realism on the ice (not that Madden or FIFA ever took place on the ice). EA added over a 1000 new animations through motion capture for this year. Three main factors impact every one: momentum, explosiveness and top-end speed. No longer can you just stop on a dime or recover from a missed hit effortlessly. Pulling of dekes and shots at top speed also decreases efficiency. The new engine forces players to pay more attention and approach the game with a more realistic outlook of the action on the ice.

Goalies go from practically useless in some situations to your worst nightmare

Still, there are a few glitches that show holes in the system. You may often line up a perfect hit only to bounce off the striding player. Minutes later, you will barely touch someone and they will go down as if assassinated on ice.

EA also worked hard to improve opponent AI and goalie intelligence. Digital net-minders are now significantly more capable than a year ago. Gone are the days of the effortless one-two into a one-timer goal, of the cheap wrap-around, an easy deke. Goalies behave more consistently with their real-life counterparts (although I don’t think digital Luongo falls apart in the playoffs). Playing the game for a week straight I’ve already seen my share of spectacular saves.

The opponent AI is smarter as well. The CPU will now react to the action on ice. The AI analyzes play, and breaks down defenses much like a real hockey team would. The opponent will work to fill passing lanes, create scoring opportunities and even accommodate the play-styles of superstars on the roster. This contributes to a much tougher, and more realistic opposition.

Verdict: It is tough to constantly rebuild the same game year after year, and sometimes a risk is necessary. NHL 13 is the next great leap in digital hockey. The new physics engine brings more realism to the game than ever before. The improvements to CPU AI and goalie performance also go a long way to deliver the most believable hockey sim ever. An overwhelming amount of modes also ensures that you will have a lot to do in this game for some time. Despite some technical hiccups and a few minor problems, this is the next true hockey sim. 


*you may notice the new format for scoring. Yup, I switched to the “out of 5″ system. 


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