All it’s missing is the Zamboni

With another NHL lockout looming over the 2012-2013 season, folks who prefer frozen ponds to pitches and gridiron are itching to get their fix. That means that there may be added pressure this year for EA Canada’s NHL franchise to step up and deliver a lifelike experience, since this game might have to tide hockey fans over for the entire winter. Fortunately, in most regards, NHL 13 does indeed rise to this challenge.

The most notable addition to this year’s game is the True Performance Skating physics system. More so than ever before, momentum and contact with other players will affect your skaters in the most realistic ways ever seen in a hockey videogame. As soon as you start a game—whether in Exhibition, Be a GM, Be a Pro, or any other of the classic returning game modes—tactics that you’ve used in the past need to be thrown out the window. In fact, you’ll have to think more like an actual NHL player now if you hope to succeed in this game.

Once you get used to accidentally slamming yourself into the boards over and over again, you’ll probably notice the improved positioning and difficultly in getting around your opponents—and that’s because of an overhauled AI system. Opposing skaters, more than ever before, move exactly as they would in real life; you’ll feel like you need to pull out a dry-erase board before too long and start drawing up plays to get around it.

But even if you should find a way by the AI players, there’s always the goaltender waiting at the end. He’s the most important part of any team—and the best teams are always built from the netminder outward. And since a lot of flaws from last year’s version are now fixed—the wraparound glitch foremost among them—goalies now have dozens of new animations that allow them to react and play the puck better than ever before. If you’re not smart, you could end up making some scrubs like look brick walls, but no matter what, you’re going to have to work for your goals.

So, the gameplay’s seen a facelift for the better, but as far forward as NHL 13 may go in terms of the on-ice action, in other areas, it seems like EA Canada’s taken a step back. The new, broader rating system is one of these areas. I personally liked having players rated by their roles in a system, and I liked knowing if my winger was a tough guy or a sniper—it helped me lay out my four lines accordingly. Instead, players are simply broken down into forwards, defensemen, and goalies, and I have to look more closely than before at everyone’s individual stats to decide if this is the guy I want on the ice to send a physical message, or if he’s going to be taking faceoffs for me on the power play.

Another knock against NHL 13 is that even though the opposing GM AI is touted as “improved,” I think it looks more like it’s been lobotomized. I appreciate that the game highlights players who are more likely to be traded than others by an organization. But if you try to acquire a player who isn’t highlighted, the computer seems adamant on preventing you from getting him. Even when I tried to do the real-life trade the Rangers did with the Blue Jackets for Rick Nash, the computer refused! (Obviously, I played before roster patches went live, so I was trying to make the league as accurate as possible). I even tried sweetening the deal so it was better than the real-life one with extra first-round draft picks. And still, the computer refused me!

Despite a handful of infuriating moments like these, NHL 13 is still probably the best hockey experience yet once you actually take the ice. Plus, a lot of the other modes have a few new goodies sprinkled in to liven up those experiences. Be a Legend has all-new faces, including a pair of female Olympians, and the game also offers a new playoff format for Hockey Ultimate Team. Finally, the Be a Pro mode features the ability to demand a trade once you become a big enough star. All in all, this is a step in the right direction for the NHL franchise, and it gives me a lot of hope for future iterations.

SUMMARY: The actual gameplay is leaps and bounds ahead of NHL 13’s predecessors, but the GM AI has taken a couple steps backward in noticeable—and discouraging—ways.

  • THE GOOD: New physics system adds previously unseen levels of gameplay nuances.
  • THE BAD: Presentation and GM AI is worse than in prior years.
  • THE UGLY: Having my New York Rangers stand by and watch as the Los Angeles Kings raise their Stanley Cup banner to start the season! Argh!

SCORE: 8.0

NHL 13 is available on Xbox 360 and PS3. Primary version reviewed was on the Xbox 360.