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.
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.
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.
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.