As a die hard lover of the sport of hockey, this has been a rough few months for me and my kind (Canadians). Our Saturday nights have been devoid of the loving embrace of the Canadian Broadcast Company's airing of Hockey Night in Canada, a sports broadcast that is less a television show and more of a ritual for most of Canada. An NHL lockout, while insignificant to most of the world, has managed to eat away at my soul for the last two months as I search for any way to get a hockey fix.
Luckily, I live in a city that has some very good minor and junior league hockey, but as my phone likes to remind me on a regular basis (I downloaded an app that put every Canucks game in to my calendar and i do not know how to delete the info) I need the NHL in my life.
This is where EA Sports annualized NHL series should come in to play. During the last lockout I played the ever loving crap out of NHL 06, and regard it as one of the best iterations of the series to date. So, with another lockout in progress, I turned to NHL 13 as my personal savior and prepared to fall in love with imaginary hockey all over again.
Unfortunately, the soap and warm water never materialized. I do not mean that I hate the game or that it is terrible in any way. In fact, it is an incredible looking game and some of the changes brought to the skating system this year are some of the most innovative strides to date for the series. It is, for the most part, a very well put together game. However, in spite of all the great things about it, I still find it to be lacking that extra lasting appeal that I have found in other games in the series.
Part of the problem has to do with the annualized nature of EA Sports franchises in general, in that for many of them (most notably the Madden and NHL ones) they feel like little more than roster updates with a couple of new game mechanics tossed in to the fold to make it seem like a brand new game. If I were to compare NHL 13 with NHL 07, the games would barely resemble each other aside from a few core mechanics. If I were to compare NHL 13 with NHL 12, the changes seem less apparent on the surface, even though some significant changes have been implemented.
The biggest change to the series is the True Performance Skating, which basically makes the players skate as if they were actually on a sheet of ice. It takes in to account things like momentum and individual player skill while you skate your players up and down the ice. An example of this would be that if you were to skate at a high speed up the ice, your turning radius would be much wider than if you were moving more slowly. It took more than a few matches to get used to it, but once I managed to get it in to my head that the game felt like skating on actual ice would, it all came together.
Everything about this game should scream homerun whenever I play it, but as stated previously, it lacks that hook that would make it one of the best hockey games ever made.
My biggest complaint about NHL 13 is the terrible EA servers and the difficulty I have in finding online matches. This has been a problem in most of the modern NHL games, and one would hope that after six years of making games for this generation of hardware they would get this issue figured out, but once again they fail to create an online experience that is passable let alone good.
Another issue I have with the game is the skill of the goaltenders. I have spent most of my life either watching or playing the game of hockey, and I have seen maybe six or seven incredible miracle-type saves in my life, yet the goalies in NHL 13 somehow make two or three of these a game. It is frustrating to out play an opponent, get the puck down low, make a cross crease pass for a one-timer, and have the goalie stretch across and grab the puck out of mid-air with his glove.
The game modes are another point of contention with me this year around, as the innovation seems to have died this year. The game includes all of the returning favorites such as Hockey Ultimate Team, Be A Pro, Exhibition, Race for the Cup, Season, Shootout and a myriad of others that have been found in almost every game since 1999. The big new mode added is the GM Connected mode which is a fantasy hockey league for you and up to 750 friends to join together and run teams, play as specific player or teams and have a grand old time doing so. The problem with this mode lies in the fact that I do not know that many people that play NHL video games, and like most online modes in every game ever, playing with strangers is not that fun. The more people you have to play it with, the more fun it seems, but I find it hard to this mode sustaining itself for more than a few months before everyone abandons ship. Another game mode that probably would have been cooler if it had been done properly is the NHL Moments mode. What you do here is play a classic moment in NHL history, and either try and reenact the moment or change history. As a fan of the Oilers from the 1980's, I was incredibly excited to reenact Gretzky's 50 goals in 39 games by scoring 5 goals against the Flyers. I had visions of Gretzky and Kurri skating down the ice while Dave Semenko watched their backs. Unfortunately, all the mode does is put classic players on modern teams, so Gretzky skated down the ice with Taylor Hall rather than Jari Kurri. In a mode like this I assumed that attention to detail would be the huge thrill of actually playing it, but the lack of classic teams really soured me on the mode.
All in all, this is not the worst game hockey game ever made, but the annualized release schedule coupled with the lack of competition has created an environment of staleness within the NHL franchise. For a series that was once at the forefront of innovation when it came to hockey games, it is disappointing to see it churn out very similar games with very similar problems year after year. Until the actual NHL returns, this will be how I get my fix, but I would be content if they took a year off of making it in order to put out the best product on new hardware in 2015.