EA Sports has worked hard lately to make its sports games even more realistic. With updates to yearly franchises, including FIFA and Madden, the sports games are getting more than cosmetic upgrades. There's a clear mission to make our favorite sports titles play and look like the real deal. For the longtime fan of these games, the realistic gameplay is likely a welcome addition, but there's also that risk of alienating newcomers. For NHL 13, the very basic change to the skating system is enough to throw off even the most diehard loyalist. If you give it enough time, you'll find this is the most realistic--for better or worse--hockey experience to date.
It took me several hours to enjoy NHL 13. I must say, the game disappointed me out of a box, and that's saying a lot for someone who puts EA Sports' NHL series right up there with the greatest sports titles ever. The skating mechanics are dreadfully slow, there are some issues with hit mechanics, and animations are occasionally off. It feels like you are controlling a tugboat instead of an agile athlete. I don't consider myself an elite hockey gamer, but I always do pretty well in any sports game. However, I was surprised at how difficult NHL 13 is in the first few play sessions. Is that a bad thing? No, not at all. By the end of my time reviewing NHL 13 I felt a sense of accomplishment by learning how to properly skate and use my teammates' terrific A.I. I can't say this is my favorite NHL game, but EA Spots laid some new groundwork this year and future editions will surely improve upon these basics.
True Performance Skating is the biggest change to the series and one you'll recognize instantly if you've played any of the titles in the past. It's a physics-based system that replicates real-life skating style of actual hockey players. The system takes away the arcade feel of previous installments and instead slows things down a bit. You won't make fast dashes or turn quickly at top speeds without turning up a ton of ice and ultimately coming to a stop. In the long run, this works extremely well and forces you to rethink how you'll play. But right out of the box it feels terribly slow. Give it some time and you'll learn the ropes.
Goalies also had some work this year it seems. They are far more agile and will stretch to grab a puck. It means that scores will be minimal, again adding to the realism. I liked this tweak and think it's one of the strongest parts of NHL 13. Poke-checks also seem much stronger than in years past. It's pretty easy to get a defender in line to block an opponent's shot.
There are a few things that feel a bit confusing given the new skating system is clearly an attempt at real life hockey. For example, the opposing A.I. rarely fouls you or gets called for icing or offsides. You could argue that the A.I. has improved--and, in many ways it has--but it's hard to feel like you are playing a realistic hockey game when your opponents turn the puck into a magnet.
All of this combines together to force you to rethink the game, rethink your play style, and rethink how you coach your team. The new Hockey I.Q. is touted as delivering more real-to-life hockey with every player on the ice reacting to everything that's happening, not just what's in front of them. It feels like you have a lot more choices this year as players do a better job of handling and cradling the puck.
This all took a while to grow on me, and I'm still not convinced I love the outcome, but the improvements to gameplay are welcome and I am hoping next year irons out some of wrinkles. Some may argue that slower skating is more realistic, and that's true, but its translation in your fingertips may turn off newcomers or longtime fans.
One thing that is inarguable is that this is the best looking NHL game ever. There are a ton of new animations, players are replicated with precision, the sounds on the ice are stunning, and commentary from Bill Clemente and Gary Thorne is as good as it gets. There are some random glitches in the engine and on a number of occasions I witnessed my player jump from the boards to in front of the net quite randomly. In addition, there appears to be some issues with the hit mechanics as it wasn't uncommon to see a player hit react unrealistically to a hit. Still, the overall presentation is superb.
You can still take a team in a career mode or lace-up as a single player, advancing in an almost RPG-style progression. But there are really a small handful of new features and modes. GM Connected features a bit of an online community, allowing you to compete with up to 750 people playing in a single league. You can simulate games so the progress won't take you years. This is essentially an online version of Be a GM. In theory, this is going to offer diehard hockey fans a ton of content to sink their teeth into, but in early practice there wasn't much to see during my review. Still, it's a worthy addition and I'm sure you'll have a great time bringing your team to compete with a seemingly endless number of human opponents.
The other new mode this year is NHL Moments Live, which, like other recent sports games, allows you to relive history by playing in a number of scenarios. You are essentially tasked with reliving these historic moments, many are from the last season with more said to be available throughout the year. These are definitely a fine break from your career mode. But it feels odd to recreate a memorable moment as Wayne Gretzky but playing up against modern players.
Ultimate Team also gets some improvements at it attempts to compete with its bigger brothers. It now borrows from Madden and FIFA by making it so players don't have to retire. Trading in all modes is more realistic too as you won't find much mismatched buys. These are notable changes for diehard fans, but minor for the newcomer or those that will play NHL 13 for a few days then move on to their next sports game purchase. EA Sports Hockey League adds regional matchmaking and a new leaderboard system.
As is apparent in just about every sports game lately, the menu screens are lagging and load screens are pretty long. But aside from that there are no real problems with the game. The new skating system is about as big as it gets this year, when we're talking overall changes, and even that may turn some off. This was a necessary step for EA Sports to help take the NHL series in a more realistic direction. But how fans respond is yet to be seen. It will certainly take some time to get used to, but in the end you'll probably feel more accomplished, more in tune with your team, and more knowledgeable about actual hockey. How this translates to enjoyment, well that depends on how much time you want to invest relearning to skate, or how quickly you can pick it up.
-The Final Word-
NHL 14 takes the ice in a new way, and it brings with it retro and new players alike with NHL 94 Mode. Even if the menus are slow and the AI is stupid, 14 is still a strong outing that any hardcore fan, as well as the retro and new, will gladly pick up and play.