The last two years have been nail-biting ones for professional sports fans because of the negotiations and economics behind the scenes. Last year, fans of the NFL almost experienced a lockout when the owners and players couldn't reach a bargaining agreement until the last minute while NBA fans had to endure a shortened season for the same reason. This year, the NHL and the NHLPA are facing the same problem, and fans of hockey are hoping not to experience a repeat of the 2004-2005 season, which was canceled due to a bargaining dispute. Should the unthinkable happen, their only source of hockey would have to be NHL 13, and while it isn't a perfect substitute for the real thing, it's a good alternative.
As it is for most EA Sports titles this year, the NHL 13's emphasis is on physics. Skating now takes into account speed and momentum, so faster skating means taking wider turns and taking some time to slow down before being able to go in the opposite direction. Hustling down the ice means taking longer to brake and less control of the puck while the strength of body checks takes momentum into account, giving you a wide range of hits from simple shoves to full-on tackles. That same speed and momentum is also applied to your shots, so players coming in hot from a breakaway will have a higher likelihood of missing a shot or shooting it wide, but going at a brisk pace assures better aim. This is all reflected in a control system that feels more analog than before, and it's also more nuanced since it gives you more control over things like skating backward and controlling when you want to glide or vary your power.
The other focus in this year's game is on the AI. Your teammates try to be more open on offense while doing their best of defense to cover their zones. On the flipside, your opponents act more aggressively on offense while still putting up some great defense, so breakaway opportunities and one-time setups only occur if you keep switching control from player to player and allowing it to happen. Both sides adapt well to strategies, so finding a magical play to ensure goals is going to be much tougher. It's also more difficult to fake out goalies, and once you factor in the ability to control individual limbs on a goalie, getting goals becomes a matter of skill rather than brute force. The AI is bolstered by your ability to tailor it to strategies and tendencies, giving you the chance to make more aggressive or defensive teams.
Those two elements combined represent some of the biggest changes in NHL 13's mechanics since the move to the right analog stick for stick handling. It also changes the way the game is played, moving it away from a serious arcade game to one that's more of a sports simulation, and the improved AI only reinforces that. No longer will you do quick cuts and instantly turn in a different direction to fake out the defender. Every check you make won't always result in knocking down a player. Skating quickly is no longer an instantaneous thing, and slap shots won't always scream by at 90+ miles per hour. The only drawback is in the readjustment period that all players — even veterans — have to face when booting up this title.
With the fundamentals changing, it's good to know that the game still has plenty of modes. Gamers may feel overwhelmed with the modes, as it is one of the more robust lists. The usual suspects are still here. Play Now is available online with up to 12 players and offline with up to four players, and it lets you pit any team from just about every professional league. The Winter Classic features the daytime version from this year and last year's nighttime version, with the ability to either play as any team or the scheduled teams. Playoffs, Practice, Season, Shootout and Tournament mode are represented as Battle for the Cup, where you fight for one of several championship cups, including the prestigious Stanley Cup. Be a GM lets you take on the managerial duties of any NHL team, and Be a Pro lets you create a player and take him from the minor leagues to retirement. Then there's Be a Legend mode, where you take on the role of some NHL greats like Wayne Gretzky and Jeremy Roenick. Every single mode from last year's game is available in this year's iteration, with a few changes here and there. Not content with this, the development team threw in two more modes.
One of the new modes this year is dubbed NHL Moments. Similar to modes in MLB: The Show and the NBA 2K series, NHL Moments has you reliving some of the highlight moments from the past season to re-create or rewrite them. A chunk of these comes from the playoffs, and while some let you control a whole team, most ask you to take on the role of a single player. There's also the promise of letting you play some of the big games of the current season a day or two after they happen, though this is heavily dependent on whether a new season exists this year. As great as the mode is, one part that doesn't play out as well is the re-creation of more classic moments in hockey history involving guys like Doug Gilmour, Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. The moments you get to relive are significant, such as Gilmour's game-winning goal in second overtime and Gretzky's 50th goal in 39 games, but these classic players are forced to play with and against current team rosters as opposed to the ones from their time period. It might be fine for those who want to indulge in what-if scenarios, but those seeking to play these moments with some historical accuracy will be out of luck.
The other new mode is GM Connected, an online offshoot of Be a GM mode. You can create your own 30-team league, from the schedule length to simulating games against the CPU. An added layer is the role of the commissioner, who approves trades and sends out news and events to the league. What makes this more ambitious is the number of people the game allows. With each team comprised of 24 players and one general manager, the league can balloon up to 750 members. Even though only six of the league players will only ever get to play online simultaneously in this mode, this is the closest a sports title has ever come to matching the scale of a typical MMO.
GM Connected mode gets deeper than expected thanks to a companion app from EA. While you can't play any matches, you can do lots of other things, such as send league messages, check out team schedules, make player trades and check up on team standings and player stats. Usually, something like this isn't available until a few years after the mode has been in existence, so seeing it in the mode's debut shows how prepared the team was. The only drawback to the app is the fact that it isn't platform agnostic. While the app can be used on both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions, it is only available on iOS (iPod Touch, iPad and iPhone). Android users can't access this app and are locked out of the mode's extended functionality.
The other problem with GM Connected mode has to do with the menu flow. The depth of the mode requires several menus of information, and trudging through this can be daunting but worthwhile if you want to avoid the offline CPU's sometimes-odd trading decisions. Just about every menu page you hit sends data to the servers, slowing down menus so badly that it can take a few minutes to get through one menu. If you're "lucky" enough to handle a 750-person league, you'll spend some significant time staring at loading and uploading instead of working on your duties. Unless you're very invested in making the league work, the load time burdens will make you want to scratch the league before you get anywhere.
As expected from a sports game this late in a console cycle, the graphics haven't changed much, if at all. Player models look good, with some of the more recognizable faces like Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby showing off good facial work. Animations looks fine, though there are a few hitches, and the crowds also look good, even if you can easily tell that some people are performing the same movements at the same time. Close-up camera angles do a better job of depicting fan reactions instead of relying on canned animation sequences. The arenas look great and feature some nice ice details as the periods wear on, but the environments of the Winter Classic remain the most impressive. Whether it's the midday sun of the 2012 version or the snowy nighttime view of the 2011 version, they remain sights to behold. The game still features some flaws, namely with stuttering and frame rate drops in cut scenes, and while it may be too much to ask for a fix to that in this console generation, the hope is that this will no longer be an issue in the new consoles.
The sound is in step with the graphics. The sounds of skates carving up the ice and bodies being slammed across the boards are authentic, and the soundtrack pipes in a good mix of classic rock sports anthems with modern rock, though the pipe organ is noticeably absent. The crowds are at just the right pitch and reactive at the right times. You expect them to cheer loudly when the home team scores and gasp after a big hit, but it's a nice touch to hear them cheer a second time when the announcer gives the post-goal summary. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement still provide commentary, and while a bulk of their lines isn't new, the duo still works well. There are a few moments of dead air, but the commentary is lively and dynamic, interrupting a line when it seems a big play is about to happen and doing commentary on a player's recent accomplishments if he gets the puck. There's even a bit of history thrown in if you choose a big rivalry game or some insight on player behavior. It feels so much like a real broadcast that there would be big shoes to fill if replacements are used in upcoming titles.
It may be the only hockey game out this year, but NHL 13 is good because there's so much packed on the disc. Even though a good chunk of the modes is dependent on an online connection, there are plenty of things for hockey fans to do outside of the main game. It can be overwhelming — in a good way. With the game, the tweaks to the physics and AI make it stronger than previous iterations, and it feels different despite the lack of change in the presentation. There's no need to convince die-hard hockey fans to pick up the title, and casual fans looking for something that's more of a simulation will like this as well. There will be a period of adjustment, but if you can be weaned from typical arcade hockey habits, you'll welcome this title with open arms.
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