The One Hour Play Test: NHL13

As sure as night follows day, each autumn sees the annual ‘updates’ to EA Sports mega selling franchises. Madden 13 has hit the shelves already, Fifa 13 is looming large on the horizon but September was one for the ice hockey lovers as NHL 13 made its debut.

I’ll throw out a quick disclaimer here, I am a massive fan of the series; of the sport. I’ve followed the NHL since I was but a lad, and I’ve only recently retired from playing the sport myself after 10 years trekking around the ice rinks of Great Britain.

But it’s not just the high standards of hardened fan that means NHL13 has a little more riding on it. It may be the only NHL hockey fans get to experience this year, thanks to a labour dispute between the league and players association which has led to the second work stoppage in 8 years for the league.

So, no pressure EA Sports!

The initial feeling of NHL13 is much the same as its recent predecessors. The menu layout has a very familiar look and feel, leading to a plethora of game modes both old and new. Put simply, there is more to do here than I can fit in for a one hour play test – giving the game extensive playability for fans of the series.

I decide to stick with the tried and tested ‘Be a GM Mode’ (if you’re familiar with Fifa, think ‘Manager Mode’ and you’re basically there) to help get me up to speed with the changes the new incarnation have brought along.

After some brief alterations to the line up of my beloved Colorado Avalanche I take to the ice.

Again, the ‘intro’ cut scene that brings the teams on to the ice is very familiar, but I guess ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. It’s pretty much identical to last year, but with greater polish. And that’s what takes it up a notch – whilst much remains the same; the added effort with the presentation really pays off. The facial mapping of the leagues stars during cut scenes, the look of the Arenas; all much more recognisable and authentic – in this regard, where NHL12 was good, NHL13 is outstanding!

But I digress, pretty cut scenes add to the experience – what makes it is what you can actually do ‘on the ice’; and this is where it really seems to have shifted up a gear.

EA Sports made a lot of noise about their improved skating engine; which was supposed to better represent the real thing. And it’s kinda hard to argue with these claims. It’s different, very different for someone who got so used to the more rigid, robotic style of the old games. But it’s better, without doubt it’s much better.

Trying to balance speed with puck control to beat the opposing defence has become more of an art form – slow down and maintain puck control? Or look to make a quick dash through to catch the defence unaware, but risk losing control of the puck?

I admit, at first it was a shock. As I said previously I have become accustomed to what was ever so slightly robotic functionality of the on ice action. NHL13 feels much more organic, more realistic.

The double edge of this is that it may seem a little less user-friendly to those new to the series, but it can really pay off for gamers willing to give it a serious chance. There are few things more satisfying in gaming than landing a perfectly timed body check, or executing a perfect ‘deke’ (think ‘skill move’) to skip by an opponent and score.

With my hour up, I can only conclude that fans of the series will love NHL13 and any sports games fans would do well to give it a look – even via rental – as it has a tremendous amount of depth thanks to the sheer amount of stuff to do (both on and offline) as well as the time it requires to really master it.

If this is the only NHL hockey I get to experience this year, then thank you EA Sports for taking the sting out of the tail of the sorry saga the real thing is being dragged through right now.

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