The newest effort from EA Sports' perennial sports game of the year candidate hockey franchise arrived earlier this week and I've nearly burned my eyeballs out playing it. This year's title boasts a new skating engine, smarter goalies, GM Connected mode, and plethora of other enhancements.
Here's five reasons why you need to own this game:
True Performance Skating
NHL 13 features an all new physics based skating engine that attempts to simulate true to life explosiveness, momentum and top end speed. The result is slower gameplay, but a more realistic hockey experience. There's a fine line between speed and control now, and even the highest rated players will display a decreased ability to hold the puck, pass and shoot at top speed. You're also given the ability to skate backwards at anytime by holding LT (Xbox 360) or L2 (PS3), which can lead to some creative passing and behind the net plays.
There's a moderate learning curve to mastering True Performance Skating, but it presents an unprecedented level of individual player control as a prize for the few frustrating hours you'll spend to get the hang of it.
Camera angles on replays have been reworked to provide more of a broadcast feel to the game. As a realism seeking gamer, I can only applaud this move. In-game replays and intermission recaps give the game more of a story feel by expanding focus to include things missed opportunities, a strong passing performance and blocked shots.
NHL arenas have been re-rendered and offer more accurate depictions of their real life counterparts. Cut aways and replays offer a good look at the nosebleeds, rafters and re-creations of all 30 teams' banners. It's all about the little things.
Defense and Goalies
Strategy is of the essence in NHL 13. More coaching options are now available, allowing you to tailor your playing style any way you see fit. Team strategies as well as full forward and defensive line biases are fully customizable. Finally, you can create a true checking unit that, by default, leans more toward dumping the puck, playing physical and is willing to sacrifice the body.
Breaking out of your own zone versus a trapping team isn't so easy to work around in NHL 13 as it has been in previous instalments of the series either. Defensive AI fine tuning, coupled with numerous goalie improvements make scoring and dominating on the offensive end less attainable... in a good way. Goalies have the ability to recover from save selection errors with full limb control. A puck destined for the back of the net can be swatted away at the last minute with a flailing arm or desperation kicksave.
GM Mode is Still King
The interface is not all that dissimilar than that of NHL 11 and NHL 12, but enough upgrades have been made to warrant a round of applause. You'll receive more trade offer feedback from prospective partners and be given more directions as to what other GMs are seeking in return/willing to give up.
Another excellent enhancement to GM Mode is the refined roster management offered by the new "GM Brain". Things like player age, position scarcity, cap hit and waiver eligibility are now taken in to account by the AI engine. You won't find Cory Schneider sitting on waivers midway through the season (anyone who played NHL 12 knows what I'm talking about, amirite?).
NHL Moments Live
This one comes with a caveat. NHL Moments Live is a game mode that has all the right intentions, but could suffer from the impending lockout. There are nearly 25 moments from the 2011-12 season that are available to be relived, either by controlling an entire team or an individual player. Sam Gagner's 8-point game, for instance, is an NHL Moment that gamers can choose to try and re-create.
It is EA Sports' intention to offer moments from the 2012-13 season for download as they are made available, but a work stoppage threatens to dampen excitement for any such possibility.
Sports game franchises are a work in progress from year-to-year, and NHL 13 almost feels like the penultimate entry in the series for this generation of consoles that it's destined to be. It's not perfect, at least not yet, but it's pretty damn close.
EA Sports doesn't always deliver as advertised out of the box, but a fix eventually arrives. There's some frame rate lagging issues and hit physics could stand some refining, but most negative talking points are things that can be patched with a title update.
True Performance Skating is not gimmicky. It's an aggressive step forward that's bound to scare off some casual gamers, but serves as the backbone to an exceptionally realistic hockey title. This innovation combined with the numerous graphic/presentation changes and improved AI easily vault NHL 13 into the sports game of the year discussion.