Ice hockey games have always confused me. I understand the worldwide desire for a FIFA game, and even a gridiron game for those crazy Americans and their crazy sports, but I’ve always wondered whether the maple syrup loving northerners really need an annual triple-A title to satiate their virtual puck-flicking hunger. There’s only ever been one Gaelic football game, after all. But somehow, despite having never watched a game in my life, I find myself looking forward to the release of every years’ NHL installment. The large roster of teams from all over the world, out of place fighting mechanism, and silly Canadian accents have a strange sort of appeal, however before NHL 13, the franchise has seemed like more of an arcade sports game than a serious attempt at a realistic ice hockey simulation. This year, that changes.
Following in the footsteps of its sport-season predecessor, Madden NFL 13, NHL 13 features the implementation of an all-new physics based game engine, giving largely the same effects as it did in Madden. For the first time in an ice hockey game, each and every time a player gets destroyed against the boards you’ll be able to feel his bones crunch and shatter. The hits are brutal, to the point where you’ll have a feeling of guilt when you cause an opposition player to crumble into the boards, releasing the puck.
Unlike in Madden, however, the new physics engine isn’t all about the hits – ice is a highly complicated surface to recreate in a video game, but NHL 13 is the first truly realistic implementation so far in the series. Momentum has a far larger role in NHL 13 than it has had in any previous title. If you’re travelling at full speed, changing direction will be more difficult, and control over the puck will be decreased, in a system that always feels organic and never forced. If you are skating towards a player and miss him, you’re going to have a much harder time in changing direction and making the trek back than you have had in any previous NHL game. Additionally, as an attacking player, while skating at top speed will obviously help you outrun opposition players, you’re going to find it near impossible to dodge any incoming players determined to smash you into the boards.
Another huge step in the right direction for NHL 13 is the AI, both teammate and opposition. For the first time in maybe any sports game, the opposition seems almost like a human player. It makes intelligent decisions based on tactics you’ve chosen and will react to your actions. The other players in your team feel like a breath of fresh air – like the opposition, each of your teammates could be being controlled by a human being, as they react to everything going on on the ice rather than just what’s directly in front of them. Without being asked, teammates will carve out runs, support the puck carrier and, in defence, attempt to prevent goals being scored at all costs.
As a gamer who thoroughly appreciates depth in games, I was disappointed by the lack of any addition to the licensed teams in NHL 13. In particular, I would have loved to have seen the introduction of the English professional ice hockey system, but it was not to be. Additionally, international teams are still not licensed, so no official international tournaments or jerseys are present. Despite the lack of any new introductions, however, it does still rank head and shoulders above Madden NFL 13, as its inclusion of 10 international and domestic leagues far outshines EA’s policy of releasing two NFL leagues in two separate games.
The idea of a television broadcast aesthetic seems to be running through the entirety of the EA Sports offices. Similarly to Madden NFL 13‘s mission to make the player forget that it’s just a video game, every aspect of the in-game presentation of NHL 13 has been overhauled to ensure that it looks as much like a genuine television broadcast as possible. Importantly, commentary feels far less forced than it did in its egg-ball predecessor. When terms along the lines of “goal to the attacking team” are used, they never seem too out of place, and never break the feeling of realism created by the broadcast aesthetic. I’m sure it would all mean a lot more to me if I understood the ins and outs of the sport a bit better, but I guess that’s what happens when I try to play a game aimed largely at Canadians, eh?
Sorry about that. NHL 13 includes a handy little interactive tutorial. Strangely, the second skill taught to you in this tutorial – before movement, passing or team plays – is how to start and compete in a fight. That’s right. Before this, the only thing you’re taught is how to shoot, and all of a sudden you’re being instructed to throw down your gloves and go toe-to-toe with an opposition player. Is fighting really that big a part of the sport that it deserves a full-featured mechanism in NHL 13? And we’re talking seriously detailed here – you need to dodge, yank on your opponent’s shirt, and choose the direction and timing of your strikes. I understand the reason for fighting in the sport – intimidation, retaliation, and time-wasting – but I’m skeptical as to whether it has the same positive consequences in NHL 13.
As in previous ice hockey games, NHL 13 features Be a GM mode, Be a Pro mode, and the card-collecting Hockey Ultimate Team mode. Online connectivity is fully fleshed out, but if you’re in Australia like myself, good luck finding a compatriot to play with. More often than not you’ll find yourself coming up against trans-Pacific gamers, which unfortunately results in an unfriendly amount of lag. New to the series is the addition of an online Be a GM feature, so you can play in a competition against other human-controlled teams, as well as a companion iOS app that allows you to track the latest scores in your campaign. This seems like it’d be a fantastic touch, but it’s not been released on Android, so there’s not much I can tell you about it other than what is on the NHL website.
NHL 13 is not one of those sports games that require thorough knowledge of the sport it’s based on. Ice hockey is a fast-paced, action-packed sport with only a couple of confusing rules that can be appreciated by everybody who picks up the controller. The exquisite balance of easy to play yet hard to master is a trait that has run through the NHL series for as long as I’ve been playing it, and the enhancements to the physics engine and artificial intelligence ensures that NHL 13 is by strides the best entry in the series. For the first time in (as far as I’m aware) any EA Sports game, you can play as a real-life female athlete. If you’ve never played an ice hockey game before, then now there’s no excuse.
Select Start Media was provided with a copy of NHL 13 by EA Sports. The platform it was reviewed on was the PS3.