If there’s one thing that the developers of the NHL series have made their mission statement since jumping to next-gen consoles, it’s to improve some element of gameplay from one installment to the next. Now that NHL 13 is ready to show, the developers at EA Sports are claiming the largest year-to-year improvement that players have ever seen.

Skating, Shooting, AI, Goalies and Graphics have all been tweaked and refined for NHL 13, and after playing the game at E3 2012, it’s hard to disagree with the team’s assessment.

Much attention has been given to the inclusion of the all new True Performance Skating system, seeking to bring the intensity, explosiveness, and trade-offs that professional hockey players experience with every shift to home consoles. Seeing the game in action proved just how many subtle differences have resulted from the move toward even more realistic physics – so many that fans may not notice just how much the core gameplay has been changed at first glance.

Along with the announcement of the new skating engine came the confirmation of over one thousand new animations to refresh and reinvigorate the player’s moment-to-moment experience. The first time the player watches a defender pump their legs relentlessly to chase down an opposing forward it will become clear what large steps the developers have taken to capturing the true appearance of skaters in motion. But the first time the player slows up or glides to make a move or corner, the player will also notice just how much more they have to learn.

Skating has always been the first skill that any actual hockey player must master, long before learning to stick handle, pass or shoot. For years, controlling a hockey player in a video game meant that movement (skating) was actually the most mindless and simple mechanic – no more complicated than moving a character in any other video game. While fans have been hoping that EA Sports would get around to making the act of skating as fluid and intricate as the real thing, they probably won’t expect just how much has changed now that the developers actually have.

NHL 13 New Skating Preview

Player animations have once again been updated, granting new levels of simulation to bodychecking and wheeling. The animations aren’t just for show, but a sign that last year’s Full Contact Physics engine has now been applied to the players’ individual limbs, with the new skating and momentum lying at the heart of NHL 13 player movement. Luckily for fans the introduction video that ships with the game explains how the new skating system is directly changed from NHL 12, on both sides of the puck.

Simply put: the players on screen actually do skate. A player catching a turnover at the blue line will move up the ice faster than the defenseman skating backward, unless that defenseman’s stats are higher than those of the attacker. The same principle is at play when stopping and starting, where momentum was never perceptibly lost or gained in previous games when attempting to shake a defenseman by moving up and down the sideboards.

Now that momentum is taken into account, a forward’s decision to sacrifice momentum in an attempt to shake the d-man will have serious consequences, as they must then work from a stand still to get back up to speed. Of course, the quicker forward will also be more likely to stop, explode in the opposite direction, and leave their man scrambling to catch up. These exchanges really do need to be seen next to last year’s version to see the scale of the change, but even from first glance the nature of the skating more closely resembles what’s seen on TV.

NHL 13 E3 Demo

All of this speed comes with a price though, as any hockey fan knows that a player going flat-out down the outside won’t have a hope of cutting to the net, especially with a defenseman pressing. Similarly, a forward skating through the slot has a much harder time putting their puck precisely where they mean to. The solution for players of NHL 13 – just like actual hockey players – is to back off accelerating, and glide before attempting to corner sharply or fire the puck. In an extra dose of simulation, gliding players are still able to gain a boost when again exploding forward, giving them an extra step on unsuspecting defensemen or goaltenders.

For those budding defensemen out there, it should be explained that the new skating system won’t just be favoring the attackers. Smart stick plays on forwards means d-men can chase down pucks while their opponents are still wondering what happened. For defensemen with the puck in their own end, the chance to fool forecheckers doesn’t just force their opponents to lose momentum, but lose their endurance in the process – assuming there is a forechecker. Which brings us to the new EA Sports True I.Q. artificial intelligence.

As demonstrated by EA Sports’ Ben Ross – who just happens to narrate the game’s tutorial video – players now have the ability to be directed and coached far more intelligently. When a 1-3-1 forecheck formation has been selected, players literally plant themselves across the neutral zone waiting for the opposition to make a play. Pushing up the agression level of the formation sends more players in to forecheck, but if left as is, the defending team will allow the forwards to bring the puck out of their end, only collapsing to one side or the other once the red line is crossed. Control of formations has been present in past games, but to see the AI working shows that the players really are smarter than ever. And the increased I.Q. extends to the goalie as well.

NHL 13 Physics Puck Battle

One thing the developers noticed, Ross explained, is that as improved as the goalies were in NHL 12, the ability of forwards to move laterally without any physical realism meant that goaltenders needed to be able to react with impossible speed to one-timers or dekes.

The new true I.Q. gave the team the technology necessary to let goalies become aware of every player on the ice, not just the puck-carrier. Without the inhuman reaction time, goalies must now ‘cheat’ off of one post if they predict a one-timer is likely, or if a player attacks from behind the net. This addition, along with each goaltender’s limb being given even more range of motion means that both animations and the skill required to outsmart a goalie have been increased.

The best news for longtime hockey fans is that Electronic Arts has finally given EA Sports the funding to provide a full graphical overhaul for all in-game assets. For the first time in years, the jersey texture, shadowing on both skaters and the ice itself, and the fans in the crowd look to capture what this generation of consoles is really capable of. And yes, the players – at least those shown on Los Angeles and New Jersey – actually do resemble the real life athletes. The improved graphics go hand in hand with the updated presentation style, featuring a broadcast camera shot prior to each face-off, and post-whistle animations that reflect the player’s actions on the ice in real-time. These are all small touches, but are much more noticable and realistic than what was introduced in NHL 12.

We asked Ross about our suspicions that the development team was bringing some sense of lingering or chronic injuries to the series’ popular Be a Pro Mode. While he wouldn’t confirm or deny the idea, he did explain that the team had some announcements left to make, and information surrounding that type of persistent gameplay might be among them.

NHL 13 will be released on September 11 for the Xbox 360 and PS3. If you have any questions about the new changes, feel free to ask and we’ll do our best to answer them.

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