“It’s a great day for hockey!” said “Badger” Bob Johnson. Time again for hockey season to get going… well maybe not. Once again there is talk of a strike/lockout. I guess it only took 8 years for the players and owners to forget how much money they lost the last time this happened. Thankfully, EA never strikes or cancels their season and here we are with NHL 13.
This time in the life cycle of every console is the greatest. Rumors of the next generation system signals the impending doom of current gen consoles. The developers have pushed processing power of the systems to their limits so all that’s left is to work on the little details of the game to make people crave the upgrade every year.
I’ll start off by saying NHL 13 is the best hockey game ever made. Period. The details and tweaks of the game are countless and EA really did a great job fixing some little issues from last year. Add to all that the new GM Connected mode, new “true performance skating” engine, and improved presentation and we have a real contender for Sports Game of the Year. Unfortunately their GOTY competitor is the guys down the hall doing FIFA 13. But both games are outstanding examples of the capabilities of the Xbox 360.
I didn’t think NHL 13 could get any better than last year graphically. They have really focused on the little details of the game that make it look even more real. There are over 1,000 new animations. The skating engine has been totally redone so now players have to be aware of their momentum. You can’t skate full speed and cut on a dime. Players go crashing into the boards and turn much more realistically. This year things like a helmet coming off and broken sticks are even mentioned in the commentary. Everything from the camera box in the goal to cuts on the players’ skin is in this game. Fantastic!
More time was spent on the A.I. in NHL 13 than was spend on the last 3 years combined. The list of improvements is long. There are 5 times the number of team strategies available and a new forecheck system. Forwards will now come back and give passing options to a defender if he curls back with the puck. Also forwards don’t camp out together at the offensive blueline anymore. Defensive has greatly improved with their backchecking and they now finish their hits even after an opponent has completed their pass or shot. Goalies now are more ‘aware’ of players away from the puck and they anticipate shots and passes – sometimes even cheating to take away the best shot chances.
“Play Now” mode gets you right into the action. You can pick from teams from the NHL (30 teams plus 2 all-star teams), AHL (30 teams), Elitserien (13 teams), SM-Liga (14 teams), Del (14 teams), Extraliga ledniho hokeje (14 teams), National League (12 teams), OHL (20 teams), QMJOH (18 teams), and the WHL (22 teams), 21 National Teams, and 2 “prospect” all-star teams. All the above hasn’t changed in 2 years. The only addition is 3 Legend teams which really are not. Team Ruggiero and Team Wickenheiser seem to be included just to give the girls something to do. The NHL Legends team is half legends and half not. Brent Seabrook is certainly not a legend. More on this shortly.
Online Versus Play is a pretty standard – get you online and playing quickly – mode. It’s great fun and EA has improved the online experience points system so it is a little more rewarding for sticking around until the end of the game even if you are getting schooled. “Battle for the Cup” mode allows you to go straight into a playoff series for various Cups. You can pick from the Stanley Cup, Calder Cup, EA Cup and Memorial Cup. Specific animations and cup winning graphics and audio have been improved for your viewing pleasure. “Winter Classic” mode is back from last year. NHL 13 includes both the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh and the 2012 Winter Classic in Philadelphia (assuming it actually happens). Both have unique presentations with snow, fireworks and audio for these events.
Hockey Ultimate Team is the hockey version of FIFA’s Ultimate Team and a highly addictive one. It’s basically a fantasy team using a trading card motif for player pool and resource management. You get a pack of cards to start out (be aware that the NHL team you pick as your favorite when the game boots up for the first time will be the team jersey cards you get for HUT). Each pack includes some players and various resources (like training, contract extensions, and healing) to improve your players or team. Packs are purchased using EA Pucks which are earned during gameplay. You have to set your roster and lines for each game looking at the player chemistry (which is effected by country, team affiliation etc.). Packs come in several values with Bronze (600 EA Pucks), Silver (2,500 EA Pucks), Gold (5,000 EA Pucks), Premium Gold (7,500 EA Pucks), Premium Gold Jumbo (15,000 EA Pucks), and occasionally you might get freebie packs. If you played the NHL 13 demo you get a freebie pack.
Once you get a couple packs purchased, you organize your team. Your player chemistry is very important. Everything from nationality to team affiliation is a factor. Set up your lines so your players have good chemistry and the passes will be better and players generally will perform better as a unit. You can also allow the CPU to arrange your team if you would rather just play. You then start in an 8,000 seat minor league style arena. Your games are pretty sparsely attended. That will change as your team picks up some wins. You can play single games or tournaments locally or online. The higher the skill level, the more EA Pucks you earn for trading.
Tournaments are another fun aspect of NHL 13 once you get a few player packs. There are tournaments that are limited to certain team characteristics such as: you must have a minimum of 10 right handed players or no player above CHL level on roster. Before long you will have enough players in your club to have several different ‘teams’ based on certain criteria. You can populate your teams only with players from Canada, or certain team or league or divisions, all of which affect the team chemistry.
One of the really addictive things about Ultimate Team is the trading system. You earn EA Pucks from games and winning tournaments. You can then buy or sell players or other cards in an online open market. It’s basically an eBay style marketplace. The thrill of finding a player that will have good chemistry with your team and bidding on a player auction is incredibly fun. The really great thing EA did this year for NHL 13 (and FIFA 13) is add a companion iPhone app where you can build your Ultimate Team during your lunch break at work. The app also works for the GM connected mode of NHL 13.
This is where EA’s money making machine kicks it into high gear. EA sells a package called “Season Ticket”. Basically for $25 you get a year of benefits for several EA Sports games including NHL, FIFA, NCAA, Tiger Woods and Madden. You get to download and play the full game 3 days before it’s released to the general public, then you buy the game on release day and get 24 Gold Premium Packs (1 a week) plus 20% off any future NHL 13 DLC’s and card packs. That’s over $30 worth of value just for NHL. Plus you get the same benefits for FIFA 13, NCAA , Madden, and Tiger Woods. All for $25. It’s a great deal for anyone else who is addicted to Ultimate Team – especially if you were going to spend money on packs anyway.
New to NHL 13 is the GM Connected mode – it’s sort of an online version of the Be a GM Mode. This is an online mode where you can put together a league of up to 750 people (yes, that is 750). This mode allows you to take on the role of league commissioner, general manager or player. You can setup or join a league with a good list of variable settings – so it’s easy to turn on/off trades, sim games, waivers, salary caps and fights. This mode allows you to set up a 30 team NHL league with up to 750 other people. If you get tired of someone fighting all the time, you can trade them to another team. Again, the iPhone app is a great and addictive addition to the game which allows you to make trades and sign free agents.
The “Be A GM/Pro/Legend” modes return to NHL 13 with another long list of improvements. Players can now start as a 15 year old in the OHL and work their way up. Once they have been drafted they can be sent back down the CHL at any time just like in real life. When players do make it to the NHL, they can now request to be traded. If players continue to request to be traded they will be demoted from their line or may even be sent down to the minors. The sim engine has also improved so you can now interrupt a game at any time.
EA has licensed a few different “legend” players in NHL 13. This year brings us Jari Kurri, Dominik Hasek, Doug Gilmour, Jeremy Roenick, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and the first female “legends” of the NHL series, Hayley Wickenheiser and Angela Ruggiero. Gone from last year are Gordie Howe, Chris Chelios, Ray Bourque, Patrick Roy and Steve Yzerman. It’s too bad you can’t ‘import’ them for people who have NHL 12 already.
EA tried to make some inroads with the female gamers last year by allowing females in the “create a player” mode. This year they even signed on Wickenheiser and Ruggiero as their token female “legends”. But once again this demonstrates EA’s willingness to dangle their toes in the water but not jump in. NHL 13 is again devoid of any female club, college, or national teams. What purpose does it serve to have Ruggiero and Wickenheiser playing alongside NHL stars? If my wife wants to play as a female player she wants to play with other female players – especially the Olympic teams.
NHL Moments Live is EA’s effort to bring some classic games to the NHL series. With the inclusion of a few licensed classic players it does provide some entertaining moments, but the “moments” are the classic players thrown in with the current teams. I couldn’t care less how Gretzky would play with the current Edmonton Oilers team. That’s not recreating the “50 goals in 39 games” moment. I want to see the classic teams – the REAL classic teams. The legendary players also had some pretty amazing teammates that helped make them legendary. Besides, it’s a little silly playing the 1989 Mario Lemieux “8 points in a game” vs. Philadelphia and having him skate against Jagr. Wouldn’t it be great to play with the 1987 Canada Cup team featuring Gretzky and Lemieux? Their series against Russia in the cup final is still considered to be the best hockey ever played. What about the “Miracle On Ice” 1980 Olympic semi-final where USA beat Russia? Those games teams were available in 2K Sports’ NHL 2K8, but never in EA’s NHL series.
The NHL has been around since 1917. NINETEEN SEVENTEEN!! That’s over 90 years’ worth of great teams and players. Add to that all the great Olympic teams, Canada Cup, World Cup of Hockey and other leagues like the ECHL, USHL, IHL, Central Hockey League etc. and there is potential for hours of fun. Ever wonder how Gretkzy’s Oilers would do against last year’s LA Kings? All that would be possible if EA would just give players the tools to make their own teams. NCAA Football has a great Team Builder and FIFA soccer has an even better Creation Centre mode with internet based team creation. There are hundreds of user created teams available, but not for hockey.
What about men’s and women’s NCAA college hockey? While NCAA hockey probably wouldn’t sell very well as a standalone game, it would be a great addition to the NHL game in ‘be a player’ mode to have a choice of going to a junior team or starting out in college. I don’t want to rant on this topic forever, but it keeps coming up year after year. EA is leaving a lot of money making opportunities on the table with possible “official” league expansion packs or users paying for increased downloadable team slots.
Once again the audio is top notch. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return to the broadcast booth again with updated commentary and do their usual outstanding job. Thorne particularly does a great job of sounding excited about the plays and Clement provides some good commentary. They have improved the system now so their commentary can be interrupted if a big hit or other event happens in mid-sentence. NHL 13 sounds like a real TV broadcast. Just like it did last year and the year before, but even better. It would be nice if they added a couple other commentators for minor league games or different playoff locations.
The EA Trax music is another “make a hit” parade of songs I’ve never heard – even at the hockey rink. If they really want to create a real game atmosphere EA needs to license the songs they use in arenas. I assume these songs are some type of money making product placement from the music industry. Thankfully EA put a volume control in so I promptly took the opportunity to turn the noise/music off.
Creation Zone “create a team” mode hasn’t changed much the past couple years. This is a huge disappointment. Creating a team is ok but also very limited. You have to select from a specific list of cities and team names so it’s not possible to make the Fort Wayne Komets. Not only is Fort Wayne not on the list, neither is the misspelled Komets. Logo selection is again limited to NHL teams and generic logos. You can’t select or customize arenas. You can’t create your own logos. You can’t input your own text for team names. You can’t upload your team for others to play. This is the one major weak point in NHL 13 that will keep it from getting my Sports Game of The Year vote. In all other areas, NHL 13 is the best it’s ever been. But FIFA 13 has this game beat.
NHL 13 is a huge game, and it would take weeks to play through every little mode that’s available. NHL 13 is so good I might not want the NHL league and players to settle their strike issues. It’ll give me more time to play! NHL 13 is a ‘must buy’ for any hockey fan.