NHL has arrived for the new season, at least in video game form. While the hockey players union and teams continue to battle it out in the US to the detriment of the sport, fans of the video game can at least take comfort, that this year, hockey is back on your console and its bigger and better than ever before.
EA Sports usually has a buzz word for the changes made each year and this time around that word is 'True Performance Skating.' This came about thanks to EA using motion capture to introduce new player animations. The engine has more benefits than that though, for example, your players can now skate more realistically and faster, although while at top speed the ability to turn or aim at goal and shoot are reduced. The new engine really makes a difference to how you play on the ice, giving a more realistic feel to the game, rather than allowing you to pull off the moves at full speed, that real hockey players can only manage while standing still.
Of course these changes do make a difference to the way you approach the game; when chasing down the puck at full speed or going in for the check, you'll need to make sure you both time it right and approach at the right speed, otherwise you could find yourself left in your opponents dust as he speeds off towards the goal. More than ever, NHL 13 is all about position and timing, get this wrong and you'll be in for a long game. Like I say, it will take a while to get used to, however once you do, you'll realise just how much better it makes the game feel.
Despite this new realistic feel, EA has still not quite grasped total realism of the sport. There are still small issues which make the game feel more arcade than simulation, such as the passing, which still feels far too error free. Missing a pass is hard, which is fine for those of us who couldn't hit a barn door, but for those looking for a more simulation style game, it does make a mockery of EA's emphasis on realism. The same can be said for other areas, such as goalies or your opponents, who seem to have a knack for staying onside, which is all very frustrating when it's always you getting the calls.
To be fair to EA, the changes the publisher has made are most definitely for the better. Player AI is a marked improvement, with goalies protecting their area to greater effect, almost neutralizing easy goals by your opponents. The goalies even look better too when trying to block goals, being a lot more acrobatic and not the stiff, barely moving walls which we are used to seeing.
Away from changes on the ice, EA has also included two new modes this year to mix things up a little and continue with its goal to provide the best Ice Hockey game money can buy. The first of these new modes is NHL Moment Live. Here you relive moments from hockey history, giving you a scenario to recreate. Most of the moments come from the season past, so if you're not an avid fan of the game, this may pass you by, however it's still a fantastic addition and very addictive. EA is also promising to add more scenarios via download, so it'll forever expand.
Perhaps the biggest change to this year's game comes in the form of GM Connected. This new mode allows you to connect and play with friends, up to 750 of them in a single league. This mode simply takes the popular Be a GM mode from previous games and connects it. So you can be a player, coach or sit back in the office as your team takes on the world. There's access to as many stats as you can digest, as well as the ability to trade or bid for free agents. You can even download an iOS app to make life easier. GM connected seems like a very ambitious mode, and it's one that I'm sure will go down well with fans of the series.
As you'd expect, NHL 13 certainly looks the part. Being in the UK, I've only ever seen NHL on TV a few times, however, I'm fairly confident that this game's presentation looks just as good as the real thing. The commentary, the crowds screaming from the arena and the on-ice action provide a high quality experience that are on par with any other game EA Sports has to offer. Everything about the visual experience is fantastic, so much so that anyone walking into the room for the first time when you're playing will probably have to double take just to figure out if you're watching the real thing or playing a video game.
I mentioned at the start of this review that it's looking less and less likely that Ice Hockey fans will have a real-life match to watch this season, so it's just as well that EA has continued to support the game, because it seems to me that NHL 13 is as close to the real thing that you are going to get this year.
EA has packed NHL 13 full of features, but it's also changed enough to make this year's version the most realistic version of the game yet. Get your blades and hockey sticks at the ready, because NHL 13 is about to kick off the virtual ice hockey season in style.
Review Policy (Version tested: PS3)