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Review: 'NHL 13' packs simulation but misses the 'Hitz'

NHL 13' is available now on Xbox 360

NHL 13' is available now on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Credit: EA Sports

EA Sports and their NHL franchise has be long praised as one of THE best sports games available ever since puck heads like myself were introduced to the 'Skill Stick'.  Yet each year somehow, the series has just kept getting better.  Now with Madden pulling their own wild cat offense and shaking their series up for the better does NHL 13 once again raise the bar?  

Don't expect to be able to pick things up where you left off from last year's installment. NHL 13's overhauled gameplay nudges gamers to think more like a hockey player. However, many will not be so happy to learn that what worked every time for them in NHL 12 might not work in NHL 13.

I was very frustrated with the game out of the box at first because it seemed like the AI expected everything I threw at it. Sure, Casual mode made scoring easier and bigger hits were about as common as a Rick DiPietro injury but Pro mode does not offer a balance between simulation and arcade. One reason for this is that while the skating has improved, the puck acts as a magnet at times despite in-game slider adjustment. Intended passes instead become poorly placed shots on goal and pucks seem to become trigger events for goalie animations that can either make for dazzling saves or force goalies out of position. The 'biscuit' is still a make or break within the gameplay and hopefully the dev team can progress it for the next release.

Yet while the puck has its issues, goaltenders have stepped their game up. I especially like that now the net minders survey scoring chances better. On a two on none in the past, you could pull the goalie to the biggest scoring threat but in NHL 13, goalies can better judge where the shot will be release from and cut down on the easy goal.

Cross-ice passes for one-timers are no longer guaranteed goals and players who will adapt rather than repeat the same move over and over again will find new ways to find the back of the net. The laws of skating physics and momentum are no longer ignored and players will find out that scoring chances don't necessarily need to be on the stick of the team's fastest skater. The added ability to manually skate backward is a great addition and makes moving the puck to teammates more natural.

Player ratings now reflect larger gaps between franchise stars and third liners. Skaters known for their speed bursts will now be able to display that explosiveness when the skating stick is pushed upward. Only problem is that big jump feels over exaggerated at times. Thankfully there are plenty of sliders to adjust the game and regular tuner updates to download.

NHL 13 is stunning in on ice presentation. No better proof of this is the Winter Classic, which is served up between either of the two previous season's epic outdoor event locations. Even better is the ability to choose the teams to play as.

Many of the game modes return but it's nice to see the Memorial Cup included apart from the Be A Pro mode. Since it's been introduced, Be A Pro has offered an immersive hockey experience as played from the skates of one player…you. Even female-created players can hit the ice in NHL 13. But it has its setbacks, still.

For starters, every game begins the same. The animations are boring and do not add any anticipation like they once did. Commentators do not mention the Be A Pro player that often either, but that's just the dressing missing from the salad. Coachs' on-ice performance ratings miss some important factors like prolonged shifts and shift performance ignored once your line is scored upon. Quick whistles after face offs can find you planted back on the bench, which is frustrating when you have time based requirements to please your coach. Still to me the most annoying part of Be A Pro is the tapping on the ice sound effect when calling for a pass. Who would want to feed the rock to a teammate that obnoxious? It stands out like a sore thumb in an otherwise well-orchestrated re-creation of a live NHL game.

A new mode that has been featured in other EA Sports titles is NHL Moments Live offering gamers to relive or alter scenarios from the previous NHL season as well as the 2012-13 campaign once EA pumps them into the game as downloadable content that comes to life right from the main menu's background. Right now that option is just there to mock us hockey fans due to the ongoing NHL lockout, but that's not EA's fault.
I would have liked more Legends to choose from to play, such as Bobby Nystrom's Stanley Cup-winning goal for the New York Islanders.

Speaking of the Islanders, we all know the Nassau Coliseum has its flaws but I am still confused why the entrance ramps are from behind the benches rather than from the corner of the end zones. Licensing issues still prevent both New York teams from having their arenas announced by their proper names but there just isn't anything unique about the pre-skates with exception of the Sharks. No Sparky, no Ice Girls. Cameras do have more of a broadcast presentation but the pre-skate animations feel outdated especially compared to Madden and FIFA.

The commentary team also needs some fresh faces. Yes, Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, Clement hands of cement are great together but its time a new twosome come in and call the game. There also seems to be little added color commentary, where the same factoid from previous titles occur during games. If I may, I prefer Doc Emric and Chico Resch…

Online gameplay is rich with content thanks to the return of card collecting your own Ultimate Team and the insanely deep GM Connected mode. So deep that it would need a standalone review. It's beyond epic. The only downside to the online modes is that your successful sim play offline does not carry over well online. After all, this is a video game and many players you will meet will try to play it like one.

With over 1,000 new animations to help drive the new True Performance Skating, this is a step in the right direction for the most true to life hockey simulation for gamers. Gamers might actually learn to stick to systems as much as the Devils had once made famous with the trap. But EA should look into bringing back the NHL Hitz franchise for those of us who crave crash and bash arcade hockey.    

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