I’ll be frank; I’m not a hardcore devotee of the sport, call me the occasional spectator, but the enticing combination of speed, elegance, and barbarity in hockey is unparalleled and I respectfully bow to those willing to step foot into the skating rink. The rhythmical nature of the sport translates superbly to the gamepad, and with each tweak EA brings to the gameplay mechanics the series inches closer to perfection. Last year’s NHL game was one of the most polished hockey experiences available, and with the latest offering the franchise has reached its peak in both presentation and gameplay.
On the surface, NHL13 seems like a small tune up to last year’s game. It’s certainly not as revolutionary as NHL12, but it thrives on finely tuned mechanisms that tighten up some loose ends. It’s when you’re hustling in the rink that you’ll notice the improvements that make the latest title a more complete package. Cutting on a dime while skating at full speed is now impossible because you need to be aware of your momentum. Star players have an easier time stopping, turning, and starting, but they’re equally affected by physics. With over a thousand new animations, gameplay feels more fluid and precise while preserving the unpredictable nature of the icy surface.
"Last year’s NHL game was one of the most polished hockey experiences available, and with the latest offering the franchise has reached its peak in both presentation and gameplay."
There’s a notable weight to players as they sway across the rink, and with greater emphasis on Puck control the overall flow of matches is less arcade-like. You’re more likely to tumble and loose precision if your tempo is off. Hockey is all about harmonizing rhythm with perfectly timed, grizzly attacks and NHL13 portrays that notion beautifully. You now have the ability to skate backwards with the Puck anytime and this ads more diversity to your play style. As you’re surrounded by the opposing defense near the goal, you can quickly maneuver out of a clustered situation while maintaining flow. NHL13 forces you to balance speed with control. Shooting at high speeds rarely results in a goal and players have more balance when gliding. This added realism makes the game more challenging, but also considerably more rewarding.
But it’s not all thumbs up with EA’s latest. The developers have spent more time on the AI than the last three years combined, but it seems they’ve dialed things up one notch too high. Opponents are notably more intelligent, but sometimes to a point of being superhuman. They always seem to be a step ahead and their passes connect with unfair accuracy. Your teammates, on the other hand, repeatedly act like complete morons. Sometimes when the Puck is loose, they’ll daze off as the opponents swoosh by. By the time you’ve tapped the shoulder button to switch players, it’s too late. Luckily, the goalies are always on top of their game. They’re less predictable than last year and offer a commendable challenge. As a whole, the AI is a step in the right direction but needs further tweaking to strike a more realistic balance.
In terms of game modes, you’re not going to see significant improvements or changes. The popular GM Connected mode returns and allows you now to coach, manage, or play with your friends, or against them. The Hockey Ultimate Team mode, which lets you manage, trade, and collect players to form an unstoppable crew, features an overhauled design and enhanced reward system with a new playoff format. The developers kept their eyes peeled on community message boards to address complaints and iron out bugs, but aside from small enhancements, you’re getting almost an identical package to last year.
"The gameplay is really all that matters in games like these and that’s where the developers have made all the right calls."
One thing that EA continues to fail at is menu designs. They’re either convoluted like in Fifa, or they look like a psychopath’s grocery shopping list. With every EA sports release, I feel like I’m fighting through menus to get to the game. Here’s a thought, use the same designers that worked on the NHL13 website to layout the menus. The site is cleaner, more stylish, and significantly easier to navigate. While it’s still easier to get around NHL13 than other EA sports titles, the design is uninspiring and drab. Contrary to the menus, the in-game visuals are absolutely spectacular. Step a few feet away from your television and NHL13 looks like you’re watching a live game. The character models are sculpted with great delicacy and care and the reflective surfaces are near photo realistic. Each audience member is rendered differently and it truly ads to the immersion as the camera zooms in and out of the rink.
On the audio front, the cheering fans and the sputter of the Puck swishing across the rink makes you feel like you’re in the midst of a match. As your player takes a sharp turn and pins the opponent against the wall, you can hear every screech and crack of your tackle. The subdued echoing of your skates follows your every move and the shrilling buzzer of a scored goal will send shivers up your spine. Commentary, on the other hand, suffers from aggravating repetition. There were times when I could swear the same lines of dialogue were recycled from last year. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement bounce back and forth between enthusiasm and dinginess, but at least it’s never annoying to a point of disturbing the gameplay.
If you’re expecting a tremendous leap in the franchise, you might as well hold onto your copy of NHL12. However, if you’ve been begging for refinement to last year’s masterpiece, and you’re the kind of person who values small tweaks and improvements, NHL13 is a worthy purchase. The gameplay is really all that matters in games like these and that’s where the developers have made all the right calls. NHL13 feels more realistic, more challenging, and it looks absolutely remarkable.
Review by: Tin Salamunic | Reviewed on: Xbox 360