NHL 13 Provides a Breath of Fresh Air

It’s hard to believe today, but back in the early 1990s, EA Sports’ Madden football franchise actually played second fiddle to the NHL videogame series. The NHL videogame was truly groundbreaking, and it provided many casual sports fans with their very first glimpse of then-budding superstars like Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny and Jaromir Jagr. Perhaps most importantly, the unique “above the ice” perspective gave those casual fans a much clearer understanding of what was actually happening on the ice than they were able to get with the traditional broadcast-style presentation utilized in predecessors like Konami’s “Blades of Steel.”

Without debate, EA’s NHL series has taken huge strides forward, and in recent years its critical acclaim (if not its sales figures) have consistently trumped that received by the Madden games. Continued revolution in both presentation and game control have made the NHL franchise perhaps the best sports videogame franchise (full stop), and the innovations in this year’s edition will certainly help that cause. Most notably, a new skating system – called True Performance Skating – actually manages to provide a far greater level of control over the players on the ice without making the controls needlessly difficult.

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For my first match-up, I went old-school, returning to my Long Island roots to have the Islanders (in their old-school blue uniforms) take on the Washington Capitals (in their classic whites) at Nassau Coliseum. The Caps have a serious skill advantage, but by employing an aggressive, hard-hitting style, I was able to contain Ovechkin and company pretty effectively. The ability to instantly get a defensive player to switch to skating backwards (using the new skating engine) was a huge help, and I came away with a strong 3-1 (including an empty-net goal at the end). While I was on the power play, I could clearly hear Louie from Oceanside yelling for my player to “Shoot the Puck.” Now, I don’t know for sure if it was actually Louie, but if it wasn’t, you sure could’ve fooled me. The atmosphere in the game was truly electric, evoking the Nassau Mausoleum at its most energetic, and the game played beautifully from start to finish. Perhaps most importantly, unlike in Madden – where the commentary conflicts directly with what’s actually happening on the field, often to a hilarious degree – the commentary here was consistently accurate and relevant.

In my next game, I tried out the Winter Classic experience. The default option was to play with exactly the same rosters the Rangers and Flyers used on New Year’s Day 2012, making the game experience a bit of a time capsule. The visuals were unquestionably stunning, with the game engine handling the much larger stadium environment very smoothly. I didn’t notice a huge difference in the on-ice play, though the announcers referenced potentially impactful wind conditions. If I had a quibble with the Winter Classic, it’s a very minor one: the audio seemed a bit muted, less dynamic and energetic than what I experienced at the Nassau Coliseum.

As the weather cools and the NHL’s labor dispute inevitably continues into the winter, NHL 13 will for many fans provide a much-needed substitute for the real game on the ice. With its terrific realism and enhanced skating controls, NHL 13 will help hockey fans get their fix, offering up a really exciting gameplay experience that extends online with Hockey Ultimate Team. This mode allows gamers to operate in a hockey world without career lengths or a salary cap, acquiring and assembling top players from around the world, then taking on friends or opponents from a massive online community.

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The Montreal Gazette is using NHL 13 to simulate the entire 2012-13 season, with Canadiens beat writer Pat Hickey and Gazette tech expert Eric Tobon doing the honors. In the latest game, the Habs defeated the Caps 3-1, with Carey Price stopping 35 of 36 shots. The Gazette is certainly not the only one using NHL 13 to replace the “real” NHL, so please feel free to share your experiences below.

NHL 13 is without question the most advanced hockey simulation ever released, and it manages to build on the impressive NHL 12′s best features without making the gameplay more complicated. It’s nice to see that despite having an exclusive license – there are no real competitors available on the PS3 or Xbox 360 – EA Sports isn’t resting on their laurels. Instead, they appear to be fully dedicated to aggressively innovating and maintaining what is a truly terrific hockey videogame experience, better each and every year (and in the case of this season’s offering, better by leaps and bounds).

NHL 13 is available now at Origin.comAmazon.com and Amazon.ca.

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