Last year’s NHL12 was the best ice hockey title that EA have come up with in the 20-odd years that they’ve been releasing annual hockey games. With a range of new features and incredible depth, it was difficult to see just where the series would go next. As it happens the folk at EA didn’t have the same troubles and have delved deeper into their box of tricks to deliver one of the most complete sport games you’ll be able to lay your hands on, but it’s come at a bit of a price.
The biggest problem that most people in Europe have with American sports is getting their head round the rules. If the NHL is alien to you, and people skating around trying to get a tiny puck into a tiny net guarded by a heavily padded huge bloke seems like a weird dream that you want to play no part in, then you should probably look away now. In the same way that you enjoy FIFA far more if you’re a football fan, NHL is geared towards those who know their Penguins from their Panthers. In another parallel to the FIFA series it’s entirely likely that fans will have bought an NHL game in the last couple of years, so is there enough new here to warrant another drop of cash?
There’s certainly a lot to do once you’ve fired up NHL13 and redeemed your online pass. In addition to the hefty collection of modes in NHL12 we’ve now got NHL Moments Live, which takes after similar game modes in Madden and FIFA with regularly updated scenarios for you to try and match or reverse based on real life season moments. This in itself is a welcome addition, and something that gives some longevity throughout the next 12 months as new moments get delivered in-game on a regular basis. But if you think that’s the best way to keep you busy, keep reading.
This year we’ve been given the GM Connected connected mode, allowing you and 29 others to run an NHL team in an online league. Sound a bit passé? What if every team could have a roster full of actual human players, managed and organised by the human manager, leading to a GM Connected league consisting of anything up to 750 gamers sat in their own lounge all contributing towards a full online season. It’s entirely possible to play it on your own against the usual AI army, and that in itself will keep you going for a bewildering amount of time, so factor in enough people to fill a small town and you can imagine just how huge this is. You can also imagine how much of a logistical nightmare it would be to organise your players to turn up for a game… It’s an impressive addition, but whether it’s ever used to its full capacity remains to be seen. It seems unlikely to be honest, but at least you can play it on your own and still get plenty out of it.
So a couple of decent new games modes. Great. Anything else? Well yes actually. There’s a few new presentation bits and bobs that makes it even more TV-like, but that’s not all that exciting. What is exciting however is the way the skaters move now. Gone are the days of instantly getting up to speed or being able to defy physics by changing direction at full speed without having to slow down at all. The new True Performance Skating system sounds pretty fancy but basically means the skaters move in a way that’s far more accurate than ever before. Whether it’s the momentum around the ice, the way the players hit the ground after a fierce body check and struggle to get up afterwards or the importance of defensive positioning it’s amazing how much difference the system makes to gameplay. It’s tougher, that’s for sure, but only in a way that makes Gran Turismo tougher than DiRT Showdown. Taking away the arcadey player handling has made it even harder to grab a win during a close game, and those last gasp defensive dives and blocks will become far more important than previous entries in the NHL franchise. Those new to NHL games might play this and think it feels sluggish, but play a few games then watch an actual NHL game and it’s incredible just how close to reality EA have got the game. I’m undecided as to whether this was a wise move – yes it’s more accurate and realistic, but it makes the learning curve almost vertical and pushes the NHL series away from casual players and firmly into the camp of the NHL obsessive. Ultimately, whether or not this works for you will depend on what you’re after. If you want quick action with huge body checks and instant gratification then last year’s game might suit you more, but those of you striving for accuracy have definitely come to the right place.
Elsewhere things are looking as good as you’d expect, with player models and animations being plucked out of the top drawer, polished even further then being dropped into the game for you to enjoy. Commentary is still an example of just how it should be done in a sports title, and general in-game presentation is great. The menus are a bit of a mess though, and starting a Be a Pro game with your own character is far more long winded and confusing than it should be. It feels like loads has been out into the game without anyone stopping to think how it should fit into the menu structure.
You can probably tell by now that NHL13 is a game of two sides, and your enjoyment will depend fully on what you expect and what you want. It’s a great game, there’s no doubting that, but it’s lost some of the fun for casual players and it can be quite tough to find what you’re after. If you love your ice hockey and want the pinnacle of skating accuracy then you should be all over this like a rash, but those looking for a quicker fix could be better served taking a step back 12 months.
Reviewed on PS3