Prior to picking up this year’s iteration of the popular NHL series, I missed out on last year’s offering, after purchasing NHL 09, 10 and 11. As such, I was looking forwards to a big difference between my last NHL game and this one, as it was a two-year gap between them. This year’s offering boasts a completely overhauled physics engine, which definitely takes some getting used to. In fact, with this game I’d say that it separates real hockey fans from more casual fans, such as myself. It’s no longer as easy to pick up a controller and play, as the physics in the game, although overhauled, make it a far more challenging experience. This overhaul is referred to as True Performance Skating. It takes the game more fully into the simulation aspect of the game, and makes it far less like an arcade game experience. For fans of hockey simulation, like most of the buyers of this game, this is a good thing, but it makes more casual gaming a bit more challenging. I personally think I’m a more casual gamer of hockey games, and as such found the learning curve a bit steep when trying to figure out how to best utilize the physics in this game. Thankfully, the learning curve isn’t too steep, but is most definitely challenging.
There’s a variety of game modes presented in the game, but at times they seem a bit too complicated, rather than just complex. The Be a GM mode has been revamped, the Be a Pro mode has returned, as has the Hockey Ultimate Team mode. A new mode that has been added this year is called “NHL Moments Live,” which is a challenge-based game mode, quite different from the game’s standard offerings. This mode allows players to both re-play and re-live past moments from the 2011-2012 NHL season, as well as try to change history in classic games. Depending on the challenge provided, the player must either score a certain amount of times in a defined time period, hold a shutout over an opponent, or even score the winning goal with a particular player. These new challenges can be quite challenging, but do provide a whole different experience for the player, as there are specific goals to be achieved. If and when the current NHL lockout is resolved, the mode is also supposed to be updated throughout the year as new moments from the 2012-2013 NHL season are uploaded.
The Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) game mode has been revamped, most of it good, although there are some drawbacks. It’s now much easier to get started in HUT, as the initial packs that the player gets have more quality players from the NHL level, as opposed to previous years. Another important change is that now a player can play forever, instead of having a set amount of years left on their contract. In prior games, a player would eventually expire, making the card useless, and affecting its value during trades with other players online. But now, as long as the player applies contract extensions to their players, they can be part of your team forever, which is a great feature to see added this year. There are more options in terms of the card packs offered, but it’s also much harder to actually pull players by purchasing these cards. I’m not a great player by any means, which can make it difficult at times to build up enough EA pucks to purchase more packs. Most of the packs are made up of contract and attribute cards, and the lack of additional players can make it hard to keep your team active without having contracts constantly expire. In prior iterations of the game, you could just cycle out a player with no games left on their contract for another player on your team, but with a limited amount of players making up your squad, it’s almost impossible to do that. There are new additions in these card packs as well, as now you can get special cards that denote a Captain for your team, as well as change the team that a specific player comes from. The latter card is extremely helpful, as it can significantly change the chemistry of a line if suddenly the former Canucks forward is now a Leaf, to go along with the Right and Left Wing who are also Leafs. The manner in which the attribute cards are used has been altered in a more realistic yet less-enjoyable fashion, as now the training cards only last for one game. I can understand not wanting them to last indefinitely, but I would have greatly preferred a set amount of games as the limitation, instead of just one game. It makes the card a lot less valuable and worth using or having. The difficulty of the HUT games is still quite challenging, but starting the game off with higher-caliber characters than previously makes it easier from the get-go.
Alongside the more noteworthy changes mentioned above, there are plenty of tweaks that have been made to the AI in the game, both on-ice, and during game modes like Be a GM. The overall presentation of the game has been improved, as the in-game transitions are much smoother and more natural, aping what watching the real thing on television would look and feel like.
This is a great-looking game, which has taken strides towards being a more realistic hockey-playing experience. Although the changes in the physics engine make the game more challenging, it also makes the game play experience more rewarding when you start to figure out the nuances, and start making the True Performance Skating work for you. Online game play is still fairly smooth, and although there were initially some issues with online game play when playing as part of an EASHL team (which have since been patched on the PS3 version). This is a great game to play online, whether with friends or with complete strangers, but also has a bevy of offline content to keep the player content.