STAFF REVIEW of NHL 13 Stanley Cup (Xbox 360)

Thursday, September 27, 2012.
by Matt Paligaru

NHL 13 Stanley Cup Box art EA Sports gained a huge advantage in the sports game market this past weekend under less than ideal circumstances. With the NHL and NHLPA unable to come to an agreement about well, anything, they have commenced their 4th work stoppage in the last 20 years. While the hockey enthusiasts in us hope the stoppage is closer to the 1992 edition, it could very well be close to the 2004 one. With that in mind, the only hockey anybody may get for the rest of this year, let alone this 12-13 season is through NHL 13.

Being on the cover of NHL 13 doesn't quite curse you to injury and career shortening like the Madden series, which is something this year's cover boy Claude Giroux can be proud of. Giroux has gone from being a great player to a breakout superstar the last couple seasons, and could challenge for the Art Ross trophy in the next few years if he stays healthy. This year's cover was decided by fan voting as well, with two representatives of each team submitted to ballot. EA tried to stray a bit from previous cover athletes, which made for some strange candidates. In the end, and unfortunately for the Twitter support campaign spearheaded by Jeremy Lambert of Man Cave Thoughts, the Washington Capitals' Brooks Laich finished somewhere between Doug Houda and Me on the final ballots.

Numerous changes were necessitated by the need of EA's continuing efforts to create realistic sports experiences for gamers. The rating system changed. No longer are players rated on the TYPE of player they are, but the position they play, just like you'd been used to it for the last x number of years before they changed it. In trying to create a more interactive experience as well, you can take charge of everything on your team, from rosters, to the uniform colors you wear out on the ice to your team's entrance. Yes, borrowing a page from the WWE games, you can customize your on-ice entrances. Sadly, you cannot flip your opponent over the boards to eliminate him from an NHL Royal Rumble, but it's a start right?

Trade AI has vastly improved. The GMs are smarter than to accept your "Steven Stamkos for a 9th round draft pick, a bottle of Roberto Luongo's hair gel and a used DVD copy of the movie mannequin" trades now, and have reverted closer to the system dating back to NHL 95 on Genesis which sort of knew when you were trying to pull a fast one.

As with previous growth spikes in the NHL franchise, there are well over 100 teams in this game, from Sweden and back. I don't believe there to be any new leagues over last year, however, you do get updated rosters, and can once again begin the search of playing as random teams to find out where some of the NHLers of the last decade ended up.

New to NHL 13 is the "NHL Moments" mode which you've seen before in some of EA's other sports games, including FIFA. In it, you're to relive (or recreate) some of the best moment from the season past, as well as this current season (no jokes please) and some of the other record book-changing moments over time, including helping Wayne Gretzky recreate 50 goals in 39 games (don't worry, you start with 48 goals and 14 minutes left to go in the 39th game,) and Mario Lemieux scoring 8 points in one game. This game takes place in the same camera vantage point as the "Be a Pro" mode, so those easily prone to motion sickness probably need not apply. This year's challenger for the "Fifa World Cup 2006 ridiculous challenge" trophy is recreating the final 84 seconds of last October's Columbus / Ottawa game where Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza scored seconds apart to give the Sens a thrilling last minute victory. You can probably rest assured that this is halfway to impossible on All-Star difficulty, but then again, you're facing 2011 Steve Mason in net, who is slightly less terrifying than 2008 Steve Mason. The biggest authenticity setback I have here is that the retro scenarios find you playing (for the most part) alongside current players. One of the things I absolutely loved about NBA 2K11 was the fact that they managed to the majority of Michael Jordan's teammates and opponents in their retro scenarios. If I wanted to feed BJ Armstrong, I could. If I wanted to bench MJ in favor of Craig Hodges, I could. Here, I'm Doug Gilmour screening Jaroslav Halak while Dion Phaneuf takes a shot from a point that I try to tip in. Bit of a buzzkill, but it's a start! I look forward to this mode growing in the next few years.

The best of all of the additions added to this game, far and away, is the True Performance Skating. This is going to be really frustrating to those that poured dozens, if not hundreds of hours into NHL 12, but trust me, it's worth it. Make sure to watch the tutorial. It's not very hard to understand how it works (you could even do it in a game or two yourself) but the video will teach you the art of controlling your player better in just a couple of minutes. Many of the skating mechanics are similar, however, rather than having mass slowdown while turning behind the opposing nets, you can now control your player and skate backwards at will much easier.

I've chosen not to report much on the other modes this year. I admit, much of it didn't change a whole lot. Be a Pro for the most part is the same, down to starting out as Jeremy Roenick, though Angela Ruggiero and Hayley Wickenheiser can be unlocked later on. You can demand trades and retire at will, though this doesn't really enamor me to write another 1000 words on it or the other modes that I didn't admitted already take the time to do in the NHL 12 review, which can be found here:

Finally, I admit I don't buy into the disdain that seems to exist in the industry about the fact that EA Sports and its competitors don't take enough time to teach fringe gamers about the basics of the sport, to which I ask: Why is the job of a video game to do this? It's EA Sports' job to cater to the NHL's customer demographics, almost all of whom know what hockey, and its basic functionalities are. Granted, not every fan knows the current (expired) collective bargaining agreements, but they certain know what a stick and a puck is, and that the object of ice hockey is to put the puck in the net and outscore your opponent. Everything else comes with time. I've met hundreds of people that have played the NHL games, and not a single one got their first taste of hockey from a video game. They've all watched at least one hockey game before giving the game a try. Let developers sell games first, and let the leagues brand awareness first.

Graphics: 9/10. I'll be honest. Maybe my eyes don't work as well as they did once upon a time, but graphically, I see no difference between NHL 12 and 13. In fact, I kind of liked 12's layout and out-of-game presentation more than 13's. The splash of colors was a bit more appealing visually, though I suppose the futuristic control room angle 13 takes isn't bad either. Last year, my main gripe was that the jerseys looked terrible on the players. Once again, that is my major stitch. Perhaps we haven't yet progressed our graphical capabilities to allow for loose fitting clothing to interact with the body of a playable sprite which is forgivable, but I don't know that it would be much of a stretch to ask for real fonts and better looking numbers on players. I again stress that it's a very minor detail, but it's just there all the time in front of your face, so it's worth mentioning. Outside of that, not many more complaints. The graphics are very good, down to small details of the ice getting carved up as you play through periods. In-game slowdown is non-existent unlike the Madden game, and player interaction is much cleaner. Graphically, I don't know that there's much to improve on going in outside of my yearly gripes above.

Sound: 8/10. The on-ice sound effects are great, and the play by play commentary continues to be passable. The soundtrack lacks. They tried to go back to the NHL 2004 method of the breakout bands playing random tunes that seemed to suit the mood. It worked that year. It was a strangely memorable soundtrack from which I still remember a few tunes (Ataris - Radio #2, Bowling for Soup - Punk Rock 101, Mesh StL/Modern Day Zero - Down, Adema - Co-Dependant, Jet - Get what You Need.) In comparison, the only song I'll remember from this soundtrack 8 years from now is the tribute cover of Bro Hymn, and not for a good reason. Look, I like Bro Hymn as much as the next guy, but EA's rampant obsession in ensuring it all but has to be played after every whistle in this game is almost draining. I talked myself through a 3rd period one game, and it basically went something like this.

Me: This new skating engine is cool...whoops offside.
Referee: *Tweee*
Me: Oh nice is that Bro Hymn? The 46 UFC fighters that have entered to this song must be marking out right now.

45 seconds later

Me: Oh that'll be icing. Bro Hymn?
Referee: *Tweee*
Me: Yep

30 seconds later

Me: Whoa nice goal. Wait...Bro Hymn?
Me: What a surprise

1 minute later

Me: Offside? Oh don't tell me...
Referee: *Tweee*
Me: Come on man!

2 minutes later

Referee: *Tweee*

Final whistle blows

Bill Clement: What a game! Here's the highlight reel from the game!
Me: This should be good. At least there's no Bro Hymn right?
Me: *cry*
(XBox is shut off and thrown in the garbage)

All these playthroughs of Bro Hymn, and Matt "The Hammer" Hamill doesn't even make one appearance. What a gyp! I guess it's fitting if nothing considering every second NHL club plays this as their goal horn song, but still. I never thought it was possible, but you CAN get too have Bro Hymn.

Control: 10/10. How do you make an already pretty perfect control system better? True performance skating. Last year, I bit the bullet and admitted EA finally did everything they needed to make for a perfectly flowing control system. They, of course, did nothing to change it outside of tweaking a few things to make it even easier, and implement easy to supplant skating controls. I'm normally one averse to change. I will admit I've gone back to previous iterations of games and played them after playing the newest one because I was too stubborn and set in my ways to adapt to new controls or gameplay mechanics. That being said, I won't be going back to NHL 12. Not on my own XBox anyway.

Gameplay: 8/10. Everything that was egregious about last year's game has started the process of cleanup, or has been resolved altogether. The overdone goalie collision detection is a thing of the past. In fact, the collision detection in general is far better, resolving the imbalance in the penalty system from last year. The only problem with the detection now is, well, it's still pretty big. To be fair, though, it is the same problem that Madden has, that FIFA will probably have, and most sports games with a reactive detection engine have. Colliding sprites have a strange rubber effect on each other. If you hit these sprites from certain angles, the colliding force "bounces" unnaturally off the person they were hitting. In Madden 13, this wasn't that bad because it always happened on a play ending tackle, so it would never affect the game's outcome. In NHL 13, however, you can check somebody at the boards behind a net, and bounce all the way out in front of the net and away from the puck. That's a terrible flaw to have in your checking engine, especially considering that if the player is not shaken off the puck and they're in the offensive zone, it basically gives them a clear path to the net. With so many of the other modes being similar to last year (or with no massive changes worth writing home about,) there's not much new detail I can go into, however, it's not a bad thing. NHL 12 was one of the best hockey games of all time afterall. I do have a massive "Be a Pro" gripe though, and that's over the fact that I have to start for a second consecutive year as Jeremy Roenick. It's kind of painstaking knowing that you have all these neat and brand new legends to play as, but you have to unlock them by starting as the same guy again.

A strong title was needed to upset UFC Undisputed 3 as sports title of the year. This comes close. I'd say it's right up there. When handing out year end awards, I'll have to revisit all these games again (since I admit it's been a few months since I've played UFC Undisputed) just to see, but for now, I believe it's probably on par. If you can still find an NHL 13 Collector's Edition (good luck) with the bonus features, it's worth shelling out the extra $20. Otherwise, this isn't as clear-cut as past years if you own previous editions. NHL 12 still has a lot of mileage to give than NHL 13 doesn't, and there's a good chance that without an NHL season to run concurrent to it, a lot of gamers might stay away for the time being. Still, if you find this one in your gift pile this holiday season, fear not. Somebody still thought pretty highly of you, and you can sit back and enjoy the best hockey experience out on the market right now.

Overall: 8.7 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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