Over a five-year run of consistently acclaimed entries, EA Sports' NHL series has communicated that you better come to it with more than that on your hockey résumé. I have found it to be the simulation most dependent on an external familiarity with its sport, whether as a longtime spectator or someone who has actually played it. More than baseball. More than football. More than American football.
Hockey may seem to be the most arcadelike sport in its structure, freeflowing play and singleminded objective. But to EA Sports' credit, NHL has continually refined itself to require gamers to behave more strategically, to use proper spacing, to defend passing lanes properly and check judiciously. NHL 13 renews this demand, through a new physics-based skating system that, even with a simplified control set, will not enable a shooting gallery approach of firing on goal or blasting a puckhandler for lack of anything better to do.
Because I have no understanding of fundamental hockey play, I've never reviewed NHL. Go check my publication history. It's not there. More arcadelike games like NHL 2K and NHL Slapshot, sure, but under the maxim of keeping your mouth shut and being thought a fool, rather than opening it and proving it true, I've held off on offering an opinion of NHL. Until now.
So, watch out. Might want to grab a beer. Or two. Or three.
The big new inclusion of NHL 13 is True Performance Skating, but it is only half of the equation in how to play winning hockey in this game. The other component is a revamped AI, for both offensive and defensive players controlled by the computer. You must use your player's skating to get to the computer's intelligence, and vice versa, to produce the optimal result of biscuit-in-the-basket and fog horn behind the scoreboard. For an initiate like myself, it took a lot of trial and error, because AI is a two-way street. Defenders are still oppressively difficult, even on lower settings.
But when I finally reined in my urge to send Jonathan Toews on a sprint toward the goal, and instead shielded the puck, gliding on my skates and presenting myself as the threat, Marian Hossa came climbing up the right side, took the pass, and stuffed it into a practically vacated Columbus net for his second goal. So what that it came against the Blue Jackets. I've gotta start somewhere.
This is where I think a newcomer like me and a longtime series fan can break bread. NHL 13 is simply a tougher game for us both, when the defense is smarter (and still plays as aggressively as it ever did on higher difficulties) and the skating system doesn't indulge stop-and-go decisionmaking. There's real momentum in this, and you sacrifice control for speed, and vice versa.
That makes hustling after a puckhandler, with the intent of airmailing him into the plexiglass, a highly risky action. Even with a step on a guy I undershot my pursuit angle and whiffed on the check repeatedly because I went at his line too fast and therefore had too shallow of a turn into him. But when I did connect, it was righteous. On the other side, you no longer have the crutch of always playing dump-and-chase hockey, probably the one form of the game I do get. The inability to stop on a dime and start from that position while maintaining perfect control means you can't just win a race to the puck and start your attack from there.
I likened controlling my skater to the kind of flick-steering I employ in driving titles, because jamming the stick in a single direction, top speed, is going to produce broader turns (and you'll feel your controller rumble through them) and less control, both in passing and shooting. Conversely, gliding by leaving the stick neutral, then flashing left or right at a 45 degree angle, produces an authentic speed burst that gets your skater into the clear to make a better pass, or take a better shot. That, more than anything, connected Toews and Hossa for the satisfying goal.
On the ice is where you'll get your most satisfaction from NHL 13 and that's no damnation by faint praise. The introduction of two new modes of play holds promise but, structurally, shows that they may grow stale more quickly than advertised.
NHL's big new offering is a career mode called GM Connected. It sounds amazing at first blush—offering 750 players in a single league (up to 25 on each team. That would be, truly, the sports MMO that its Madden sibling aspired to this year. But the functional number of actual players is more like 180, as only six players per team can actually compete in a live game.
It's still impressive, but these players aren't performing some kind of personal role the way a team's GM is. They're they guys who show up when it's the league night, and handle one of the six positions on the ice, not an individual player. It's a blending of NHL's Be a GM mode with Online Team Play, not Be A Pro. Having 25 guys affiliated with a team doesn't deliver much of a benefit beyond having a lot of extras if someone doesn't show up for a game as promised.
As such, it's going to take some time to judge this mode's true impact and appeal. One day into NHL 13's release, there were hundreds of created leagues with single members, which suggests to me people heard the 750-player figure and didn't understand how focused this mode was to Online Team Play. Unlike online career modes in EA's Madden and NCAA series, there are no management features or league update devices here to make it worthwhile to solo a GM Connected career.
The inability to search for a league by difficulty level also is a dispiriting omission. So is the fact you can't narrow your search according to the population of a league (say, finding any with more than two teams represented, or more than 10 players overall). You must hunt through every search result to see this information, and the loading times to retreive it are prohibitively long. This means you will likely have to do your work outside the game, coordinating with friends who all have a copy, to find a GM Connected league you'll really enjoy.
The other new mode making a big splash without much to back it up is "NHL Moments Live," which takes a page from similar challenges offered in FIFA and Madden. The premise is straightforward—recreate signal events of prior seasons, most of them from 2011-2012, but a few more from further back. The problem is you'll be put in the shoes of a player going up against the present-day lineup of his competition, not those he faced when he pulled off his historic feat.
None of this diminishes the fact that NHL is a beautiful game, faced with the unique demand of presenting indoor and outdoor play, thanks to the Winter Classic mode, which is what uncultured hicks like me think of first when they think of ice hockey. NHL 13, even on the Xbox 360, challenges best-in-class performers like MLB The Show on the PlayStation 3, allowing for the occasional frameskip. It's still a solidly pleasing broadcast that had me thinking twice about buttoning through stopped-clock sequences.
There are some repeated camera angles and scenes, especially coming out of a period intermission, but the mid-game highlight packages are organic and topical (some will center on missed opportunities; others will focus on big hits or breakaway chances.) Gary Thorne and analyst Bill "Clement, Clement, Hands of Cement" keep up with the action, with a few unfortunate exceptions, and interrupt themselves on big hits or shots on goal. My pet peeve in free-flowing games is how so often the call simply names someone receiving the pass, leaving a lot of dead air. Thorne, one of the most versatile and organic commentators in sports video gaming, will point out what the guy getting the puck did with it the last time he went into the other team's zone. I like that. A lot.
NHL 13 is not for everyone. The basic barrier to entry is an interest in hockey. If you're not a fan, or willing to learn, this will not cater to your whims to fire away, even on rookie settings with a casual set of gameplay sliders. Longtime fans will still have multiple modes—Be a Pro, Hockey Ultimate Team and offline Be a GM are all here, untouched by GM Connected—to provide a deep, fulfilling experience in a year that may not see any NHL season, thanks to an ongoing labor impasse.
Where NHL 13 really shines is in core gameplay improvements that demand you to be a better and smarter performer. These aren't adjustments that compensate for bad behavior, they showcase the elite instinct of professionals on the ice. Even if I'm unable to rise to its challenge immediately, NHL 13 gave me a captivating trip into a world I've never seen before. In the end, that's what the best video games do, sports or otherwise.