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Reviewing EA Sports' latest hockey game, 'NHL 13'

By Brian Stubits | CBSSports.com

EA Sports recently released the latest installment in its NHL video-game series, NHL 13. The best part about it? The lack of a lockout feature. It stops for nobody. That's the virtue of playing in the virtual world where HRR means nothing compared to triangles and circles or A, B, X and Y.

As you'd expect, NHL 13 has been billed as the best game in the series to date, considering it's another year older and presumably another year more refined. The additional touches this year vary from minor aesthetic changes to more significant ones that affect game play.

Of those changes, undeniably the biggest alteration involves the use of physics-driven True Performance Skating. The physical controls of skating are still the same with movements of the joystick and hustle buttons, but the way you skate has changed. It certainly takes some getting used to, especially if you're accustomed to previous versions of the game.

Certainly the move has allowed the game to live up to the company's slogan of, "If it's in the game, it's in the game" as it's much more realistic. Turns on a dime at full speed are no longer something you can do, now the controller will do its best impression of yelling at you by vibrating in your hands when you do something that's tough in the physical world. Needless to say, the controller rumbles a lot on me.

It's certainly something that takes getting used to and players who are far better than I am will probably love the new abilities once they have mastered them. The ability to switch directions and burst in another direction is a great change, that's for sure.

Another big change in the skating system is the ability to skate backward at any time. It's a small change from an adjustment standpoint but it can make a big difference in game play. Now it's easier to circle around the net and square your player up for a shot on target if there's room. Same goes for skating into the zone and then turning around to open the ice for passes. It's hardly a revolutionary change but it is certainly noticeable. A welcome addition.

Defensive abilities in the game have been upgraded, too, which in turn makes it tougher on offense. The defenders control the gaps better, cutting down on passing lanes and the goalies have improved AI, including much better anticipation. Forechecking also seems to be improved; it's tougher to move the puck out of your own zone but is a lot easier to be able to pin the puck in the offensive zone. A lot of that is probably credited to the new skating engine.

I have found scoring goals with forwards to be very difficult, but I'm not the best player you'll ever watch. However, getting into the high slot with a defenseman and firing away is something that can be done, and often with a lot of success.

If you have a keen eye you will notice a lot of other changes to the game's aesthetics. For example, shadows on the ice are now cast the way they would be in real life based on the lighting above. The game has a better production feel with some dead-puck animations and replays that are a bit more central to what's happening. The replays of almost nothing but open-ice hits are done; you'll now see shots or great plays with commentary at least directed toward said play. Look a little harder and you'll notice that not only do the LED lights on the power rings in the arena now change and reflect the game's action, but they light up the fans a bit.

But it's the attractions beyond the game play that I think most people come for. Frankly, I would take the game play of Blades of Steel all day long if it was only added into more modern game modes.

The big addition this year is the GM Connected mode, something EA hails as "the largest sports dynasty ever in a sports game." In it all 30 teams can be operated and there can be 25 people working on each team for a total of 750 players possible in one league. How? The GM is a given, one player runs the team. Then as many as 24 games can be individual players on said teams. Obviously this is played online to connect around the globe. It is very customizable and makes for a unique experience and level of connection with other players.

Another game mode new to NHL 13 is a challenging one in some instances. They have brought back great moments from NHL history and you are asked to replicate them, some from this most recent season, others from the past. For example, you can take over Sam Gagner and try to record eight points in a game as he did last season for the Oilers. What's cool is that new moments will be available for download ... should there be new moments actually created this year. The moments come with video showing the real-life action before you attempt to recreate it.

All the other game modes that have become staples over the years are still there, too. You can try to become a legend, controlling one individual player. You can play just a standard season mode or skip right ahead to a tournament mode. And of course the most popular Be a GM mode is still there, too.

Overall, this version of the game is the next step in its evolution toward becoming as real as it gets. The major difference is the skating. It's difficult to deal with at first, at least it was for me, but it's hard to criticize the game-makers for adjusting it to add real-life elements like physics.

The level of the rosters on the game leaves something to be desired, I think. Considering the game came out in September, it's a bit surprising to see a lot of summer moves not reflected. Of course that is a quick remedy by logging online and downloading updated rosters. It would be great to have junior prospects but I'm sure that's a limitation within the laws. Teams like the Panthers and Wild would benefit from having their young prospects in the system.

The difficulty in setting up the offense and effectively moving the puck is something I'm not sure is a problem with the design of the game or my less-than-stellar abilities as a player, but probably the latter. Same for passing ability; it can be frustrating when you think you are passing to one open teammate and it instead goes to another, covered teammate. Again, I imagine that probably says more about the gamer than the game.

In the end, there is a reason why sales of the game are up in the early going. It's another great version of a series that continues to improve. So if you're looking for a way to pass the time during the dog days of the lockout, this is a pretty good option. I think it's certainly worth it for hockey and video-game fans.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @StubitsCBS on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

 
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