It's not easy being a hockey fan these days. But honestly, has it ever been? With an all-but-official lockout looming over the NHL like a dark cloud, there's not much to be excited about. Sure, the optimistic puck-faithful seem to agree a deal will be reached before Christmas, but what's there to do in the meantime?
As luck would have it, NHL 13 hits the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles just a few days before the NHL's collective bargaining agreement is set to expire. Whether or not the team owners and players association decide to shut up and love one another, there will most certainly be hockey -- just of the virtual variety.
For the second year in a row, EA Sports' NHL title runs totally unopposed by any other competing hockey sim. While one might write that off as a lack of incentive to innovate, NHL 13 makes some significant strides in gameplay and presentation, but a few annoyances have returned and popped up as well.
Diving right into the overall experience, NHL 13 is the most realistic hockey videogame I've ever played. As a die-hard hockey fan, I've noticed a handful of additions -- some minor, others more pronounced -- that give NHL 13 an injection of realism. Players raise their hands when a puck goes out of play, a goal scorer stares up at the scoreboard to watch the replay, and players grab their face when they feel they've been high-sticked.
It might not be the sexiest selling point to the casual fan, but the reason NHL 13 feels even more true to the game than its predecessors is the sharpened focus on skating. Anyone who has played ice hockey will tell you that skating is by far the most important element of the game. What NHL 13 does is tether the experience around ice-skating physics. More so than any game before, your control over a player is dictated by how well you come to understand what's possible on a pair of ice hockey skates.
Skating full speed down the ice will no longer yield a perfect turn behind the net. There are consequences to going full sprint and NHL 13 makes you responsible for your actions. The slower you skate or glide, the more control your player will have and the more accurate his passes and shots will be.
To the casual fan who just wants to light it up with a series of dazzling moves, this might sound like a death sentence -- but NHL 13 also makes the all stars of the league shine. The Evgeni Malkins and Claude Girouxs of the game are on a different level, with an inherent ability to better handle themselves and the puck. You'll notice when you've got a superstar on your hands, and splitting the defense with one of them has never been more fun.
Answering the last line of defense are the goaltenders, and this year their animations and behavior are top-notch. Goalies now have independent limb control in game, which results in some fantastic-looking saves. They will dive across the net mouth in desperation, poke at cross ice passes in the crease, and avoid going into a butterfly position on high shots.
To complement the new skating engine, players can now skate backward with the puck, opening up a veritable laundry list of possible moves. It can take a bit of getting used to, but once it clicks, it's like you've unlocked a new level of potential creativity.
Also new this year is something EA Sports is calling Hockey IQ. It's essentially a gamewide revamping of its artificial intelligence, ensuring that other players on the ice are doing what they should be. This means things like keeping one man back on defense, covering/pinching the blue line, staying onside, hugging the boards, anticipating puck dumps, and tons more. Players appear where you'd expect them to. For someone who understands the game of hockey, it'll seem like a stroke of brilliance, to others, it'll prevent those heartbreaking moments of frustration.
Speaking of which, there are a handful of items I'd like to point out that I'm not so satisfied with in NHL 13. Above I mentioned how Hockey IQ will keep players onside. While it does work, the game's governing referees have a knack of making the intentional offsides call at the wrong time. This results in a defensive face-off whereas a normal offsides would put the puck right outside of the offensive zone. Yes, it's nitpicking, but face-off locations can be huge, especially towards the end of a game or during a power play.
I also think slashing gets called too easily when using the "lift stick" button. This issue has creeped up in previous games, but it seems hypersensitive in 13. With the default level it's currently positioned at, I find myself avoiding using it like the plague. This is something that can be addressed through an update, so all hope isn't lost on it just yet.
NHL 13 again improves on the puck's behavior within the confines of the rink, but I've begun to notice it acting a little sketchy once it enters the net. Something just isn't right with the puck once you score. Very rarely does a puck hit twine and then fall flat to the ice the way it often does in NHL 13. That's not to say all goals look odd like this, but there's a bit of unnatural physics sneaking in on some goals. A puck rocketed to the side of the net has tendency to wrap around inside the perimeter of the cage. That doesn't really happen in NHL 13. A shot sniped top-shelf should ricochet like a pinball, but instead it usually just drops like a swatted fly.
I'd also like to see much more of an effort made to emulate dramatic goal reviews. While NHL 13 does include quick play reviews for kicking motions and other uncertainties, I think "going upstairs" or "going up to the war room in Toronto" would add even more tension to the game (just like challenging a play does in Madden), especially since goal reviews are more commonplace than ever before. Pucks will sometimes enter and leave the net faster than referees or goal judges can see, so including it where applicable would offer a whole new dimension of realism.
The introduction of new gameplay and presentation mechanics are a welcome addition, but it's gratifying to see the implementation of some new game modes too. Almost every mode has seen some type of refining or update, but the most impressive has got to be GM Connected, giving players the option to bring the Be a GM mode online. The system can support up to a shocking 750 players per league in one of the most ambitious online hockey endeavors I've come across.
NHL 13's overall presentation has gotten a number of improvements and tweaks, including a similar blurring aesthetic like we saw in Madden 13, direct cut-to-player camera angles upon stoppages, and other real-life broadcast mechanics. Instant replays seem much more contextually appropriate (something I hated about last year's game) and the recaps seem much more produced than previous games. Even the Winter Classic's presentation has been upgraded. To top it all off, all of this eye candy is serenaded by NHL 13's banging soundtrack, featuring bands like Anti-Flag, Foxy Shazam, The Gaslight Anthem, and The Offspring.
So what's not to like? A few things, actually. You'll need to forgive me if I sound like a broken record, but something has got to be done about the announcers. While NHL 13 has added a few new lines of analysis and commentary, there's a lot of rehashing going on here. Last year I declared it time for Mike "Doc" Emrick to get the job, but now I'll settle for anyone other than Gary Thorne and Bill Clement. Don't get me wrong, these gentlemen have done a great job with the series, it's just that this element of the game needs a fresh voice. I also don't think anyone needs to get as excited as the game makes Gary Thorne out to be at an empty net goal.
The NHL and its team owners may have a "they'll be back" mentality when it comes to fan behavior post-lockout, but the corresponding video game doesn't necessarily have the same luxury. Although there isn't another option for a hockey sim this year, fans should find comfort knowing there is some competency in the realm of ice hockey for the 2012-2013 season; it just comes in disc form.