Owners and general managers willingly circumvent salary cap rules and sign players to $100 million contracts, but they argue that the NHL is in dire straits despite generating record revenue for the past seven years. Now the league is moving toward its second lockout in less than a decade, which means EA’s “NHL" series may be the only place to see your team hoist the cup this year. Though “NHL 13" is in no danger of losing a season, it has its own formidable issues with virtual upper management as well.
For the past few years the Be A GM mode has been undermined by sketchy AI logic that resulted in questionable trades, restricted free agents sitting out entire seasons, and teams stashing legit NHL players in the minor leagues. To address these issues, developer EA Canada spent a lot of the offseason trying to give these wayward AI-controlled teams smarter brains. While bone-headed decisions happen less frequently in “NHL 13," they still occur enough to shatter the illusion that you’re competing against the likes of GM whizzes Ken Holland and Ray Shero. Teams let highly touted prospects pass through waivers midseason, trade for a player only to put him on waivers the next day, and favor skating career minor leaguers over giving prospects ice time in the AHL. Even the players suffer from brain damage, demanding ridiculous contracts at the back end of their careers and sitting out entire seasons when nobody matches their asking price.
EA Canada’s rewritten trade logic also suffers the same broken results. Teams more accurately enter fire sale mode at the trade deadline when they are out of playoff contention, but they typically only offer over-the-hill veterans or prospects years away from making an impact. AI-driven GMs also stubbornly hold on to positional surpluses and brazenly offer trades nobody in their right mind would make.
If you don’t want to contend with the broken GM logic, you can head online to compete with friends in GM Connected, a new online franchise mode that gives you most every feature you have in the offline Be A GM mode. You can coach a team, play traditional versus games, join Be A Pro-style online team games with five other human players on your squad, or build an AI to compete for you while you work on improving the roster. This is a great addition to the NHL franchise, but the menu navigation is painfully slow and league commissioners lack the tools to make their jobs easier. If you want to play in a single-player league, I suggest skipping GM Connected altogether and sticking to the offline Be A GM mode because it can take over 10 minutes to sim CPU games and process transactions each play period. Compared to “Madden," which advances instantaneously and has no menu lag, “NHL" performs like it just got done with a bag skate.
Like the NHL’s current collective bargaining woes, these franchise mode gaffes undermine the stellar action on the ice. Thanks to a revamped skating system, tweaks to the AI strategy, and smarter goalies, this is the best playing NHL game of this generation. It may seem unforgiving to newcomers, but if you play the game like a real NHL team — dumping and chasing, cycling the puck and peppering the net with shots through traffic — your efforts are appropriately rewarded. Being able to turn on the jets to blow past defenders gives the game a more realistic sense of speed, and EA Canada smartly made it tough to shoot at high speeds to prevent players from abusing the feature. Thanks to AI improvements, defenders forecheck with more effectiveness, have very active sticks and are generally well positioned, all of which results in more turnovers in the neutral zone.
The major knocks I have about the gameplay this year are largely physics based. Players get knocked down from behind far too often, and the puck physics are wildly inconsistent to the point of being unbelievable. Sometimes the puck loses all momentum when clanging off a post, dropping directly downward. Other times it ricochets off goalie posts like it’s being shot out of a cannon. Refs also don’t call enough penalties, even when the slider is maxed out.
As is the case in nearly every sports game, the slew of other modes jam-packed onto the disc only received minimal improvements. None of the minor tweaks makes or breaks the experience like the broader strokes painted by the gameplay and franchise mode changes. Like its namesake league, “NHL 13’s" stellar on-ice product is compromised by the questionable decisions of the men at the top. I’ve never had more fun competing between whistles, but once you skate off the ice and take a seat as the general manager, the poor AI driving the other teams breaks the fantasy.
8 (out of 10)
PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
EA Sports, EA Canada
ESRB rating: E10+