NHL 13 might be the only game in town this year for hockey fans. The threat of an imminent lockout leaves the latest addition to the long-lived EA Sports franchise as the lone outlet for puckheads through what could be a long and lonely fall and winter of listening to talk about salary caps and revenue sharing instead of the more agreeable slap of stick against puck. Thankfully, neither Gary Bettman nor Donald Fehr is in the game, despite what EA Sports' famous tagline claims. But things are in a holding pattern here just as in the real NHL's labor negotiations. This is a bit of a stay-the-course release, although there are some impressive additions under the hood, such as a superb new skating physics engine and smarter artificial intelligence. Some issues with the AI and the lack of noteworthy new features are disappointing, however, making this something less than a revolutionary improvement over NHL 12.
With all that said, it can't be denied that NHL 13 is a great hockey game when taken strictly on its own merits. Realism is the cornerstone of just about everything that happens on the ice. Players skate, shoot, slash, and brawl just like they do in the real NHL. Playing positionally sound hockey is a necessity, as is some sort of understanding of the actual game and the ins and outs of the NHL. If you need to Google what a diamond is or have no idea that cycling here does not involve wearing really tight shorts, you might want to do some reading before picking up a gamepad. This looks like an arcade hockey game, but it plays a lot like a simulation when the puck is dropped.
Features and frills are so numerous that you expect the game disc to bulge out of the box. There are modes of play for every taste. You can play single games, tournaments, and full careers, with most options being available online and off. As in NHL 12, you can take over franchises, set yourself up as a GM, create a player to lead from the junior leagues to the big leagues, take over a legend and try to lead him (or her--two female stars have been included this year for the first time alongside male greats like Gretzky and, um, Roenick) to greatness again in today's NHL, and much more.
Hockey Ultimate Team is back for a second season of card-collecting, micropaymenty goodness, and a new GM Connected mode of play supports up to 750 people playing in online leagues in nearly every role imaginable, from front-office boss to first-string goalie. The new NHL Moments Live borrows a trick from Madden and puts you in historic situations. There you have to either live up to what legendary stars like Gretzky and Gilmour accomplished in classic contests or finish off games by mimicking the highlight reels.
Another tweak is with the ratings system, which has been revised to rate players on a universal scale by position. This removes the confusing system from last year, which scored players based on how good they were in their individual roles. This inflated the overall ratings of marginal players who were good performers in their jobs, most notably tough guys. This year, goons have been dialed back to sensible numbers. Still, the ratings are odd in spots and still skew high for the most part. Whoever handled the ratings played some favorites. There is no other way to explain the declining Alex Ovechkin clocking a 93 as the second-best player in the game.
Some players also get dinged unfairly. It's hard to believe that Phil Kessel wound up with a lousy 86 after his 82-point season, especially when the likes of Mike Richards scored 87 with just 44 points in arguably his worst regular season in the NHL (nice ending, though). Stars are a little too dominant in general and have been given ratings more by history or reputation than current performance. Ryan Getzlaf and more than a few others haven't been this good or this motivated in the real NHL in a few years. Still, most players in the game perform in a true-to-life fashion.
Depressingly, none of the new features in NHL 13 amount to much. Changes to the standard modes of play include such dull additions as the ability to demand a trade in Be a Pro and some supposedly revised AI in the trade logic in Be a GM. Those AI revisions were insufficient, though; you can still rook the opposition into absurd trades by loading up on quantity to get quality. Revamped player ratings clear up some confusion but are not stop-the-presses material. The two new female "legends"--Hayley Wickenheiser and Angela Ruggiero--add an interesting twist to Be a Legend, although they add little glitz to the already disappointing lineup of hockey stars.
The handful of other additions--Doug Gilmour, Jari Kurri, and Dominik Hasek--won't exactly light the world on fire either, and some of last year's heroes, such as Borje Salming, have been dropped. This whole concept needs a massive expansion, with full old-time teams. GM Connected looks promising, but also rather intimidating. The idea of being in a league with hundreds of other people could well offer an entirely new multiplayer experience. It will take quite some time before this ambitious mode can be deemed a success or a failure, though. There are some technical problems as well, because the game moves very slowly, even when moving between stat screens in leagues.
NHL Moments Live is pretty much DOA. Just a few historic moments are present, and they are marred by having to re-create history with mostly modern lineups. So when you try to stage Doug Gilmour's big 1993 OT goal against the St. Louis Blues, you do so with linemates like Phil Kessel, not Dave Andreychuk, and try to put the puck past Jaroslav Halak, not Curtis Joseph. That takes a lot of the fun out of everything. Most of the moments are from the 2011-2012 season, which was a pretty forgettable year for the NHL. Still, you would think that EA Sports could have come up with better game choices. Nobody wants to watch the Columbus Blue Jackets play the Ottawa Senators once, let alone replay this sort of sporting-world snoozefest over and over again.