Giant Bomb Review

47 Comments

NHL 13 Review

4
  • X360

On the ice, NHL 13 is the strongest sequel in the series to date. Off it? That's a bit more complicated...

NHL 13 is a tale of two games. On the ice, its EA's strongest hockey effort to date. It pushes the series into a more realistic setting, where on-ice physics exist and size and speed matter a hell of a lot more than ever before. Off the ice, however, problems begin to emerge. Lingering issues that plagued areas like the franchise and online modes have reared their ugly head yet again, and new additions, like the GM Connected mode, are frankly kind of a mess. This is probably the biggest valley between quality of gameplay and feature set in a sports game that we've seen since this console generation began.

Skating physics have been overhauled this year, and the result is a terrific on-ice feel.

I stress, however, that the on-ice action in NHL 13 is second-to-none. Largely, this is due to the new "total control skating" feature, which is essentially a buzzword for physics. Yes, the NHL series has certainly had physics before, but one thing that never really felt right was in the speed of players, versus their movements on the ice. In reality, a speedy skater going full bore down the ice would make it quite difficult for him to make a strong cut on the ice. In the game previously, you could basically just floor it down the ice and make wraparounds and directional changes with only minimal effort. This year, that's not the case.

When you dart toward the goal, your momentum will carry you forward. Tight turns are more difficult for less agile players, and stopping and reversing direction requires a more pronounced stop and start that's true to real skating. The speeds of individual players register much more realistically now, too. A speedy sniper going up against a lumbering defenseman now gives you a legit opportunity to skate by him for a potential scoring chance. By the same token, those lumbering d-men are harder to knock around and push past now.

What this leads to is a game that requires more accurate and thoughtful positioning when attempting to score. Passing can still be kind of a pain in the ass, but once you get accustomed to the quirks of the puck physics, setting up plays in the offensive zone simply works much better than in previous years.

That's especially important due to the new goalie animations installed this year. Every couple of years, EA proclaims that goalies are better, and half the time that actually appears true. This is one of those times. Though it's subtle, the addition of free limb movement for goalies has made certain saves, and certain vulnerabilities, appear in more realistic fashion. You'll still see some weird, bouncy goals that seem more the result of wonky physics than actual skill, but by and large, "money goals" appear to be absent this year.

With all these things combined, the simple act of getting on the ice and playing 60 (more like 20) minutes of hockey is fun again and again. Unfortunately, the rest of the package that surrounds that admittedly primary act of the game is less laudable.

Goalies are much more adept at making crazy saves, which works both for and against you.

Of course the old standbys like the Be a GM and Be a Player modes are on-hand, and basically as they've been for the last few years. The GM mode's primary tweaks come from the computer AI. EA evidently went to great lengths to try and make your opposing GMs more shrewd in dealing with the player, and indeed, you will find it exceedingly difficult to put one over on another GM, as they're stingy with their players and picks. In fact, they're so stingy that trading becomes something close to useless in many situations. Trading blocks are meant to be more transparent this year, but AI GMs seemingly only abide by them arbitrarily. Whether it's a ludicrous concern over salary cap (even if the team has ample free cash), or a GM flat-out rejecting a trade for a player that fits their exact needs for something of equal value, trading has never felt more scattered in its usefulness.

Outside of that quirk, the GM mode is just fine offline. Online is where it runs into more trouble. Taking a cue from Madden's Connected Careers mode, NHL 13 features a GM Connected mode that lets up to 750 people--yes, really--participate in a single league as a player or GM. If any active league actually reaches that 750 number and finishes a proper season with all games played, I'll eat a shoe, Herzog style. That said, if even a fraction of that number of people could get together under those circumstances and play a fun, easy-to-use online league setting, that would be amazing. Sadly, easy-to-use is the last thing this mode deserves to be called.

The core conceit is good, and the mode basically works as advertised, but navigating the menu system set up for it simply isn't worth the effort. It's nowhere near as streamlined as the in-game player and GM modes, and it's frankly a nightmare to sift through. Things are rarely where they seem like they ought to be, and by the time you do learn the ins and outs of this cursed thing, you'll still have to contend with the endless load times. I have no idea what it is that GM Connected requires constant, unfettered online access to, but its regular need to sync up with online servers means simply moving between screens can take between five and ten seconds, if not longer in some cases.

There's a chance that these online issues may improve over time, but they're not the only online issue that needs addressing. Online play in general has kind of a laggy feel to it, which is exacerbated by the new physics system. Before, if you ran into lag you'd mostly just have to contend with adjusting the timing of your shot, but now you have to adjust for the timing of everything. Simply moving toward the net can feel completely different from the offline experience, and requires a great deal more thinking ahead. In the rare game I managed to play that was basically lag free, it felt better, if not perfect. But when the lag hits, it can get pretty ugly.

Trying to set up offensive plays in laggy online matches is, unsurprisingly, not especially fun.

Other modes, like the NHL Moments Live and Hockey Ultimate Team features, are well-meaning, if not altogether exciting additions. Ultimate Team functions similarly to Madden, with its card collecting and microtransaction-focused feature set, though in an odd twist, card packs earned and/or purchased are strangely lean on actual player cards. Nearly all the packs I picked up skewed largely toward consumable cards, used to temporarily upgrade players' stats. The NHL Moments feature is similar to its Madden counterpart, with the one important tweak of allowing you to earn Ultimate Team currency by completing its challenges. The NHL Legends feature is back as well, though it once again only houses a small number of legendary players, and doesn't feature any of those players' supporting casts. I like playing as Wayne Gretzky, but it's pretty weak that none of his most famous teams are playable.

Thus is the dilemma of NHL 13. It is a game that plays extremely well, yet offers little beyond the expected in terms of supplementary entertainment. Offline, GM mode is about as much fun as you'd generally want it to be, and the Ultimate Team stuff can be amusing in stretches, but the remaining features are mostly minor distractions at best, and outright arduous to use at worst. Still, no matter how many ancillary modes fail to live up to expectations, nothing trumps the core gameplay in terms of overall importance, and NHL 13's is too good to dismiss. This is a game you'll want to come back to play again and again, offline and online (provided the servers get fixed). The variety might not be there, but the gameplay most certainly is.

Alex Navarro on Google+
47 Comments
Posted by GenocidalKitten

Huh, forgot that this was coming out, might check it out.

Edited by Peanut

It's an off year for me, so I'm skipping it. Can't wait for the scraped together "next-gen" version we may see next year.

I may break if we get another lockout this year, though.

Posted by Djstyles92

100% agree

Posted by nick_verissimo

This seems to be the same thing year after year. The on-ice stuff gets better and better, while the off-ice management/meta-game parts are good, but never really stack up. I generally pick these games up every second year, so, at the end of the day, I'm here to play hockey and if the hockey is good, then I'll keep buying these games. While his is my off year, I'm hoping that they finally figure out the meta-game stuff next year, because that's about all that separates this from being the best sports game franchise out there.

Posted by RandomAtom

As a Hockey fan I can say this is the first game since NHL '96 that I've actually enjoyed playing.

Posted by Eldredpe

Sportsman Alex strikes again.

Posted by 1960sSpiderman

Are these games fairly easy for new players to get into? It's been a while since I've played a hockey game and I'm assuming they've evolved beyond the "I want to be the fat guy because he fights good" era.

Posted by NateDogg

Ah thank you for reminding me that the game is out and nice review. Been buying the series on console since 07 and watching the game change progressively over that time has been great.

Posted by Brandino

I usually don't buy the yearly sports games every year (usually every 3-4 years since i don't play it online) but picked up Madden this year for the new physics even though i bought Madden 12 and im loving it. Same thing with this NHL, picked it up last year but i hear the AI is much better, the skating backwards etc. is all super appealing to me so i am defiantly going to pick it up.

Posted by Hockeymask27

Can't wait tell payday to pick this up.

Posted by RE_Player1

Every Canadian by law has to buy an NHL game every year. This year will be no different for me even if it's not a huge leap.

Posted by AjayRaz

gotta get my hands on this. as a Canadian, it's mandatory for me to enjoy hockey games

Posted by salmy

Sounds like the problems people have with Madden this year. Its weird that EA is doing it this year. Its kind of a first game of the next generation problem.

Posted by Devise22

Considering we may not get an NHL season this will have to do.

Glad to see most opinions of the game thus far are on board with the improved AI and the skating/goalie refinements. I was super excited about Be a GM connected stuff but if the loading times are harsh I may be less than enthused. Still having offline Be a GM with competent AI as well as all the new features in regards to trading block is a plus. Not to mention the simulation upgrades that came in last years game. Be a Pro seems like it had a few nice features they announced this year but Alex's Review doesn't touch on it too much. Curious his thoughts.

Ultimately I'll get this game as I have gotten the NHL games the last few years, since 10. However I feel like if EA didn't pressure the studio to do a game every year we would see the real package. I mean we look at this great AI and skating improvement and it seems at least from a distant all to be apart of a realism approach that was started in NHL 11 with real time physics and a new hitting engine. Last year we got live goalies and things like helmets coming off and sticks hitting the ice and being interacted with were included. If the studio in Vancouver just had like three years, I imagine they could hammer out a real gameplan in terms of what exactly they want to do core gameplay wise, as well as take the time to test a plethora of modes and features so everything is in mint condition on release.

I swear I almost buy these games every year on principle, just because it's nice to see a studio despite the one year cycle still trying to include new modes (even if not perfected) and core gameplay improvements. But the time constraints obviously effect the overall quality of the games every time. Anyways, good read Alex.

Posted by shadowwolf9

The game is certainly promising, but I'll have to hold off for now and stick with NHL12. They completely defeat the purpose of Ultimate Team with their stupid "special edition" offers. Seriously, what could be such an interesting game mode is made pointless out of EA's greed and player's stupidity. Although, I may have to cave if there's no season. :/

Go Rangers!

Posted by Hemlock

Pretty spon on review. Thankfully for me, I almost exclusively play 1v1 and EASHL over Xbox Live, so the meager feature set doesn't bother me too much. It's so much more effective to play straight up, safe and realistic hockey now, the gameplay finally feels complete.

Posted by Patman99

Online Team Play has to be, by far, the most enticing game mode. I mean it lets you control a single player and actually play hockey with 11 other guys. It's like the organised drop-in game of pond hockey. Past renditions have had the mode and it hasn't changed much but each year brings a slightly tighter and more authentic hockey game which makes OTP just that much more fun. If only the menus did not take an eternity to navigate.

Posted by Brodehouse

I like hockey a lot, that's why video game hockey always bums me out. It's unreasonable to expect they can nail the actual feel and look of hockey, but it's what I notice as soon as I play. I guess that's what someone who was deep into cars would feel about Forza.

I hate golf, and yet I love video game golf.

Posted by csl316

Aside from Tekken Tag and Kessen, the first PS2 NHL game rounded out my first three games on that system. We played that game's mp for months and month and I haven't played one since. Curious how this series is after 10 years. Apparently pretty good?

Posted by CosmicQueso

@Brodehouse said:

I like hockey a lot, that's why video game hockey always bums me out. It's unreasonable to expect they can nail the actual feel and look of hockey, but it's what I notice as soon as I play. I guess that's what someone who was deep into cars would feel about Forza.

I hate golf, and yet I love video game golf.

RIGHT?!?!? I love hockey. I watch almost every Kings and Coyotes game every year and get to at least 20 games in person per season. And while NHL is a good video game, I guess, it's a crap hockey sim. Madden is a much better football sim (even with some of the online cheesing) than NHL is a hockey sim. It's terrible. Oh well.

Posted by FreakAche

Go Jets!

Posted by DoctorWelch

Each to his own, but the randomness of the physics makes makes the gameplay more annoyingly unpredictable than last years game. There are many occasions where your players will simply fall over for no apparent reason because of the "more realistic physics". Plus, the game still has the same back door goal exploit that the past few games has had. It's also a shame the other features didn't turn out great either.

My friend and I were looking forward to this years game, but it's been a pretty disappointing. I would much rather play NHL 12, and for half the price it'd take the lack of a roster update for a much better game.

Posted by Vrikk

Go Caps!

Posted by DM

The new skating is an amazing introduction.Took awhile to adjust my game to it but I've been having a blast playing.

Posted by beepmachine

As a Canadian...I really don't care about these games. They've never come close to the real thing for me. Glad to hear they're getting better though.

Posted by Huey2k2

@FreakAche said:

Go Jets! Thrashers!

Fixed that for you.

Posted by ThatRoss

I only play offline Be a GM, so I'm not fussed (or surprised) by the online glitches. The new skating is fantastic so far...slow guys are actually slow, fast guys are fast! In NHL 12 you never had a hope of beating a d-man or catching up to a forward, every player was the same speed and feel.

Still not as much play along the boards as real life, but whatever, at some point it is a video game after all.

NHL 12 I felt like I was playing the same match over and over...13 seems to have more random stuff happen so far, which is most welcome. Glad I could buy the download version right away this year...tired of discs.

Edited by Zinc

I think the last NHL game I got was '08. It's about time for me to upgrade.

Also, GO RED WINGS!

Edited by Kosikutioner

@CosmicQueso said:

@Brodehouse said:

I like hockey a lot, that's why video game hockey always bums me out. It's unreasonable to expect they can nail the actual feel and look of hockey, but it's what I notice as soon as I play. I guess that's what someone who was deep into cars would feel about Forza.

I hate golf, and yet I love video game golf.

RIGHT?!?!? I love hockey. I watch almost every Kings and Coyotes game every year and get to at least 20 games in person per season. And while NHL is a good video game, I guess, it's a crap hockey sim. Madden is a much better football sim (even with some of the online cheesing) than NHL is a hockey sim. It's terrible. Oh well.

I watch an absolute ton of hockey too. I would disagree it's not a good sim. I think it can be, but a huge problem is whether people you are with (or yourself) play smart hockey. Especially in recent years, it's done a really good job of allowing you to cycle the puck effectively, and hitting is much less effective (in previous years it was way too easy to just have a strategy of 'hit a lot of stuff').

If you play it arcade-y it's not representative of hockey, but I do think it's possible to play 'well'; and you will also tend to be rewarded for it.

Edit: I don't mean to sound douche-y like, you're playing it wrong! It's just, I agree. In the past it wasn't possible to play right. Lately it's been more and more capable of allowing you to play proper however.

Posted by JSwan13

Great review Alex! I'm loving this years version so far.

Posted by PatODay

I'm really intrigued by the new physics, but somewhat irritated to read that the game is still plagued with lag issues. You would hope that a game with a required online pass might have instances of lag intermittently instead of the other way around with lag-free games being few and far between.

I'll probably still pick it up on the chance that this might be the only hockey I'll be able to see for a while this season.

Posted by Chewii101

I dont think I'll buy another NHL game until EA overhauls their graphics engine. Sure each installment looks better but only incrementally. I have NHL 07 and NHL 11 and see reused generic player/face models. And despite the new skating engine, weak modes and laggy online around the core game makes this a pass. Guess I'll buy FIFA this year.

Posted by matti00

@Huey2k2 said:

@FreakAche said:

Go Jets! Thrashers!

Fixed that for you.

Jets 2.0 should retire Kovalchuk's number when he hangs them up.

Posted by CosmicQueso

@Kosikutioner: Haha totally not douchey. I'm referring more to the online game where I can try to set up an offense and then some schlub from Vancouver steals the puck, goes right through the defense like hot knife through butter then spins and scores on the same cheeseball shot every time. I know, don't play online, right? But I can't help myself. It's all my own fault.

Posted by dropabombonit

Good review. I hope Alex does a Fifa 13 review because what I have played of the demo tells me that it will be something special

Posted by nemt

Deduct a full star for having Giroux on the cover.

Posted by Subject2Change

I seem to buy NHL games in the Odd years, 09 and 11 were my last 2 (ended up returning 10). However I won't be buying this if there is a lockout and will wait for a price drop as I rarely play online anyway.

Posted by ProfessorEss

@DoctorWelch said:

There are many occasions where your players will simply fall over for no apparent reason because of the "more realistic physics".

I'll except that but only if the commentators say "Blew a tire" when it happens.

Edited by omdata

Question for the folks who play these games all the time: I haven't played a hockey video game since '05 (during the last lockout, ironically)- if I just plunk $8 online for a used 360 copy of NHL '11, am I gonna want any of the stuff introduced in '12 or '13?

I know that's pretty subjective, so maybe I should ask: if you switched back to '11 from '12 or '13, would it feel like a significant downgrade?

Not looking for any online play or anything *terribly* simmy, but Alex's comments regarding the physics introduced in '13 give me a little pause since I know hockey fairly well and wonder if that would add to the enjoyment of it.

Posted by Kosikutioner

@CosmicQueso said:

@Kosikutioner: Haha totally not douchey. I'm referring more to the online game where I can try to set up an offense and then some schlub from Vancouver steals the puck, goes right through the defense like hot knife through butter then spins and scores on the same cheeseball shot every time. I know, don't play online, right? But I can't help myself. It's all my own fault.

Oh, ok. Yes. 100% correct! haha

I play a lot of NHL 13 online, but it's with a lot of close friends and family in fact. I barely go online for match made stuff at all. I find when I do either they are laughably bad and it's only fun once, or they do exactly what you say. There aren't many 'good' matches outside the friends I play with.

Edited by jeffrola

@1960sSpiderman said:

Are these games fairly easy for new players to get into? It's been a while since I've played a hockey game and I'm assuming they've evolved beyond the "I want to be the fat guy because he fights good" era.

Honestly, the answer is "probably not." As a rabid NHL fan, and someone that has played EA's hockey franchise religiously since 2004, I can say that this is both the most rewarding entry in the franchise and probably the most inaccesible to casual players. To really succeed and thrive in this game - at the very minimum - a basic understanding of hockey is necessary. If terms like "forecheck", "defensive pinching", "dump and chase", "grinding" and "cycling" are foreign to you, it's going to take you a while to get into this game.

Let me say this, though...with patience and a willingness to learn more about hockey and the strategies that are necessary to win, this game will teach you a lot about the game in general and will probably make you yearn to watch more of the game (though, that's not looking good for this season right now). I have a lot of friends that never were that into hockey that have become hockey fans solely through playing EA's NHL franchise over the years.

FedEx is dropping off my copy tomorrow but, based on the demo that I have played ad nauseum, this is a truly rewarding game and the definition of striving for sports simulation.

Sucks to hear about the weaknesses of the game outside of the actual gameplay and the new engines/animations that have been incorporated. Luckily for me, none of that affects me too much.

Edited by MetalMoog

Before I'm sold on buying this years iteration I just need to ask one thing.

Chicago Blackhawks fans: Is the UNITED CENTER in this game? Loading up a game last year and seeing a generic incorrect arena titled Chicago Stadium blew me away. How can a game that offers so much realism fail to deliver an authentic arena for an original six team? It's been in every version of the games as or late, so seeing it missed in NHL 12 was a joke. I mean if you're gonna call it Chicago Stadium, make it Chicago Stadium with the organ and all of it.

Posted by jeffrola

As a lifelong Blackhawks fan and season ticket holder, the designation of "Chicago Stadium" did seem weird. For 13 it, again, is Chicago Stadium. I imagine it has something to do with EA not getting the rights from United to include its name or likeness in the game. Blah.

But, that would be a cool idea: retro stadiums.

Speaking of which, wouldn't it be nice to be able to design your own stadium for your customized team? Doesn't seem like too much of a stretch. I'd also like to see something updated with the presentation. Team up with NBC and produce an "NHL on NBC" type broadcast. Bring in Doc and Eddie O to freshen up the commentary, too, which is WAAAAAAY overdue.

It's nice they continue to make the game closer and closer to real hockey every year - and that is admirable - but it's time to really start fleshing out this other stuff.

Posted by mulder000

@1960sSpiderman: The base controls are quite difficult to grasp. You do have the option to use classic controls and the controls from way back in the day of Genesis NHL 94.

Posted by granderojo

Kind of really bummed there is no PC version.

Posted by dozerking

Since we most likely aren't going to have a season, this will do, sadly. I haven't picked up an NHL game since '09, so it's been long enough to warrant another purchase for sure. Not to mention, Claude's on the front cover, can't go wrong!

Posted by KyleSellers

It's nice to see an NHL game getting some love on Giant Bomb. As a long suffering Kings fan who has finally gotten to see the Cup raised in LA (and the parade, the rally, and even a pic with the Cup!), with the full championship team returning, this NHL lockout is particularly frustrating.

I've been considering picking up a copy of NHL 13 for awhile, so I can go ahead and see the repeat I've been dreaming about since June, but have had a hard time keeping up with the controls/mechanics of post-16 bit era hockey games. This review makes the package seem pretty compelling--maybe all those hours I am not spending watching my beloved Kings can now be channeled into learning to play hockey on Xbox, so I can have another annual franchise to look forward to.

Wait, that sounds expensive...