With the dark days of the NHL lockout now a reality, there's little left for most fans to do but relive past highlights and create new ones through the game space. Unfortunately, we can't simulate CBA negotiations in NHL 13 (how great would that be, though?). However, we can fill the void by playing one of the best modes in the NHL series: the EA Sports Hockey League.
(Image courtesy of Reddit)
The EASHL has been going strong for several years now, and it provides, in my view, the best competitive option for die-hard hockey fans that are going to be stinging at the loss of hockey this season. The great thing, though, is that it does also appeal to people who are fans of teamwork and co-op play, as it is probably the sport that is best suited for playing and coordinating as a group. Basketball and soccer are great examples of this as well, but I feel hockey really has a speed and spark that lends itself perfectly to multiple users contributing on the ice. People can really play a proper role, whether that be faceoffs, hits, playmaking, sniping or goaltending.
This year's version of the giant online league is playing pretty well, and it should do wonders for those looking to escape the hockey-free reality on the tube. As always, there are plenty of teams participating, and the ability to now designate captains and alternates on your team is a great touch. I can't say that the “regional matchmaking” that was advertised before release is really making all that much of a difference, but the game is generally playing pretty well in terms of latency. There is still the odd match that has a hiccup or two, but overall the mode works well, even when there are 12 users playing.
The main difference this year is the progression model, as users will start as a much lower-rated pro. Most initial builds will be in the range of 45 to 50 points overall, and the progression will seem a bit longer in this way. It's actually cool that player types now have hard limits on statistical categories, so a playmaker will only be able to get to 87 passing (without boosts) as a max, for instance. I think this will really help people specialize, as snipers will now have to truly focus on offense, as an example, and not be able to compensate by boosting their defense or hitting as effectively as before. I'd still like to see EA go further in this direction, but it's a good step towards guiding players to play certain roles on a team, which really adds to the camaraderie.
My EASHL team, Lando Commando, has really been noticing the buffed goalies and improved defense, and it really creates a change in pace. Goalies are shutting down many more lateral one-timers and back-door plays, and many users are discovering that trying to deke through defenders doesn't work as before, thanks to the added emphasis on shot-blocking and poke-checking. The poke check is really night-and-day when compared to last year, as your pro will automatically knock away a lot of loose pucks (if the rating is high enough), and a deliberate attempt with the right bumper is much more likely to knock the puck away. Honestly, the effectiveness of the poke check does need to be toned down a bit, and penalties need to be called a whole lot more (especially interference), but I'd rather have it the way it is than have users dangling all the way through traffic on every rush. Just the same, I'm glad that goalies provide a challenge now, even if it is a bit of an artificial one. I'm sure a slider update will find the sweet spot for them. I'm happy to see many users adapting to the puck chop move, as it continues to be a subtly effective way of clearing the zone or diffusing a bad situation.
Of course, this is to say nothing of the altered skating engine, as users are clearly still trying to adapt to that reality. It's not uncommon to see players trying cuts and dekes that would have worked previously, and they are realizing that those moves will result in poke checks, lost pucks, big hits or a loss of balance. Then again, there are plenty of players in the EASHL who have already achieved Pro and Veteran cards, and they have equipped enough speed to be able to blow past capable defenders and generate chances.
Most of the goals being scored right now are wrist shots to the short side, but there are a reasonable amount of rebound goals, slap-shot goals and garbage goals. One-timers are definitely harder to do, as said, but patience in the passing lanes and not forcing it through the slot can have better results. In fact, quick passes from behind the net to the crease actually create the best one-timer chances, and it seems that several teams are figuring that out.
As a small aside, it would be nice to have some better customization options for jerseys going forward, as there isn't a whole lot of wiggle room when it comes to making your team unique. You can change colors and such, but hopefully there can be more logo variety and jersey styles in the future. Also, EA, please get GameFace in this franchise soon.
On the whole, there's never been a better time to get into the EASHL. The mode still remains a totally viable and entertaining way to waste your time, especially now that the NHL has been put on ice. There are some subtle tweaks that improve the experience this year, and the progression model, while initially a bit frustrating, is actually a better scale for various player types and realistic stats.