Developed by: EA Canada / Published by: EA Sports / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone [Mild Violence]
Usually when the annual NHL game from EA is released in early September, it’s my signal to start getting excited for the season. Training camps are opening, the pre-season is about to start, and before long, the quest for the Stanley Cup will begin anew. And this year, for the first time in my life, my beloved LA Kings are the defending champs. My excitement is tempered, however, by the impending labor stoppage, which means NHL 13 may be the only hockey puck fans get this year, a situation that is the very definition of “silver lining”. Unfortunately, for every new improvement NHL 13 makes, it takes a step backward in what were previously entrenched, successful elements of the franchise.
We’ll start with modes because this is where two of the biggest additions have been made: GM Connected and NHL Moments Live. Of the two, I actually quite enjoy NHL Moments Live. The basic premise is this: a large list of last season’s key moments from through the season and playoffs are available to play in NHL 13 as digital recreations. Sometimes the game will task you with adhering to the real world results (i.e., defeating the Phoenix Coyotes as the Kings in the Western Conference Finals in OT, or scoring Steven Stamkos’ 50th goal); sometimes the game asks you to change history, by making this team or that team come from behind to win the game when in real life they actually lost. Sometimes you’ll play as a singular player, and sometimes you’ll play as the entire team. It’s a fun, bite-sized chunk of hockey that you can play quickly, and because there’s an objective, you’ll play each moment differently. Upon completing the task the moment gives you, you earn pucks for your Hockey Ultimate Team, a nice method to tie game modes together. It’s just such a shame that the actual NHL could be locked out this year, meaning all of EA’s plans for downloadable moments that could release into the game in real time will be shot.
Hockey Ultimate Team has made a few minor changes this year; gone are the days when players would retire after a certain number of games. Now you can use contract cards to extend your star players indefinitely, finally allowing you to build your ultimate team. The interface is slightly improved as well, which is nice, since in past years navigating HUT was akin to landing a spacecraft on Mars. I’m still not enamored with HUT, but if you like playing in tournaments with a randomly generated team that you then proceed to improve slowly by buying booster card packs full of new players, you’ll enjoy it this year like you always have.
But really, let’s speak on GM Connected, a mode that is at once both amazing and frustrating. It’s amazing because for the first time in an NHL game, you can finally create an online league with all 30 NHL teams and have each team’s destiny shaped over a number of seasons by another player. To add further depth, each team can contain up to 25 user-controlled players, making GM Connected fall somewhere between sports game and MMO. And because the mode takes place over many seasons, you can build your team through the draft or free agency as you see fit. Or you can throw away your future on an over the hill free agent that some crafty GM who lives in Georgia managed to convince you was the next Evgeni Malkin. And the online play this year is smooth as butter; in my tests, there was no latency or input lag whatsoever, a big improvement from years past.
It’s a shame, then, that the entire user interface for GM Connected is absolutely borked. Because the mode connects you to an external server so that all information can be distributed to up to 750 players per league, loading the menus takes for-freaking-ever. Checking your mailbox and then going back to the main menu is a task that is easily upwards of 45 seconds. Selecting menu options is also sluggish and choppy. And if you’re simming games? Forget about it. Go make a sandwich or something. Simply simming your league for one scheduling period is a 3-5 minute affair of loading screens and non-responsive controls. These performance issues are a huge blow to the enjoyment of GM Connected. When all I want to do is jump into a game and play against one of my league-mates, “hurry up and wait” is the last message I want to hear. What’s doubly infuriating is that the NHL 13 GM Connected companion app on iOS is a very useful augment to the game. In fact, it’s quicker for me to propose a trade via the app than it is in the game, even once I’m into the GM Connected part of the game.
Now I don’t want to seem like I’m pissing in everyone’s cheerios for this whole review. There are a lot of redeeming factors about the gameplay this year, most of which are led by the new skating engine. The control you’ll have over your players is a new precedent in hockey video games. Skating backwards, turning, doing reverse crossovers, it all feels unbelievably fluid. You’ve never had this much freedom to make plays and set up for passes and shots as you do this year. I don’t know how they did it, but the team at EA deserves some kudos for the stellar animation and impact on offensive gameplay.
Defense, however, is another story. With all these new tools at their disposal, offensive players can control the game better than they ever have. The same is not so for the defense. Hitting has been drastically toned down, which is good. You won’t see ridiculous hip-breaking collisions on every rush, and play along the boards is much more unpredictable and dynamic. Unfortunately, because of the new skating system and momentum-based physics it’s using, playing defense is incredibly awkward. Puck carriers can hit a boost of speed by really putting their legs into it; skating backwards on defense you get no such advantage, meaning your blueliners will constantly be flat-footed on rushes, giving up odd-man opportunities because the AI decided they should pinch at a horrible moment. I understand what EA was going for here, which was making defense all about gap control and passing lanes rather than huge hits. And in NHL 13, it partly is. But it’s also partly broken (see a theme here?). Skating backwards isn’t nearly as fluid and controllable as skating forward, so a lot of playing defense in NHL 13 is praying and hoping. Praying and hoping you can get back in position in time. Praying and hoping that the hitting physics will work properly. Praying and hoping the AI won’t blatantly exploit itself.
Yes, not all that glitters is gold, and this year, we have a problem. The hitting has been toned down, like I mentioned. Unfortunately, that all goes out the window when you’re standing still. At full ramming speed, I can maybe stagger a puck carrier when I check him. Stand behind him, while neither player is moving, however, and you can launch the guy into orbit. This is problematic, as you can imagine, when you’ve just grabbed a rebound and are trying to clear the zone. You don’t have any speed, you’ve been standing still. Suddenly some hooligan in a Flyers jersey standing right behind you decides he’s been hitting the gym, and he’s able to check you in the back, knocking your player flying, grabbing the puck, and scoring from the top of the circle.
Why the top circle? Because it’s a major hole in the goalie performance and AI logic. This year, more than any year I can remember, the money goal in this game is so transparently exploited it makes the game almost lose its fun. Skate into the zone to one of the faceoff circles, and launch a wrist shot to the near side post, top corner. It will go in 75 percent of the time. Try it. Worse, the CPU team AI will use this to its advantage to rubber band itself back into any game it’s losing. Did you just score an amazing breakway goal to take a two goal lead? On the next faceoff, the CPU will win it, skate into the zone, head towards a faceoff circle, and launch a wrist shot near side post, top corner. Goal.
It’s unreal. It’s also incredibly demoralizing and pointless to know that you won’t be able to hold a lead no matter what you do. Why? Near side post, top corner. This needs a fix, and a prompt one at that.
NHL 13 is not a bad game, don’t get that idea. It’s really fun when it isn’t bending you over a barrel and cheating its way to victory. GM Connected should provide serious replayability legs all year long, and will be the next best thing to real hockey if we don’t get a season this year. But it will also test your patience, and you’ll need a solid, reliable group of other real people to keep it going. The new improvements to the skating and physics are ambitious, but they needed more time in the oven. All of the ideas here are solid and fun, but they also aren’t all executed properly. That said, would I recommend you get NHL 13 if you owned NHL 12? Yes, simply because the gameplay advancement is one of the biggest jumps in a yearly sports franchise I’ve ever seen. The only caveat is that in order to truly have fun, you’ll have to find the mode that offends you the least, the epitome of a compromise gamers sometimes have to make with the games they enjoy.