The lights are on
A few weeks ago we had a chance to lace up our skates and take to the ice with NHL 13. Can the series regain its balance after slipping slightly last year? Here is what we learned.
1. Previous NHL entries featured speed differentiation between players, but the developer is the first to admit the skaters lacked explosiveness. For NHL 13, EA Canada has completely reworked the skating engine, which its marketing team is dubbing True Performance Skating. This year speedy wingers like Marian Gaborik have the ability to fly by defenders. Players reach their top speed by either reaching full stride in a straightaway or by the user pressing the L3 button. Giving players control of their speed bursts allows them to time when they want to turn on the afterburners, which can be extremely advantageous when splitting defensemen or accelerating alongside the boards to avoid a check.
2. Going fast has its limitations. Players will get fatigued faster, and only elite players like Sidney Crosby are able to stickhandle and take accurate shots while skating at top speed. If you are flying down the wing as fast as your player can skate and you try to make an aggressive turn toward the net, your player may lose his footing and wipe out. The controller will give players feedback by rumbling when they are pressing too hard.
3. EA Canada conduced a study and found that NHL players glide nearly 40 percent of their time on the ice. In NHL 12, players glided less than one percent of the time. With the limitations imposed by moving at top speed, most players are better off accelerating and then using their momentum to glide into position to take a shot or make a pass. "We wanted to capture why Henrik Sedin rarely goes at his top-end speed," says producer Sean Ramjagsingh. "He's always in control and it seems like he slows down the entire flow of the game."
4. To build the new skating system, EA Canada has added over 1,000 new animations. Players will dig their skates hard into the ice when making abrupt changes in direction, and it takes them a second to gather their momentum when quickly stopping and skating in the opposite direction. You will also see skaters subtly dodge defenders who mis-time their checks.
5. Pressing and holding the left trigger activates back skating. This can be extremely useful when positioned along the blue line in the offensive zone, opening up new shooting angles. Being able to turn and skate with forwards or pivot into a back skate is also a boon on defense, but mis-timing your pivot could leave you flat footed and create an opening for an offensive player to blow past with a well-timed speed burst. In our limited time with NHL 13, this dynamic created an interesting cat and mouse game between defenders and forwards. Since you can't skate backward as fast as attacking players skate forward anymore, Knowing when to back off, when to turn and skate, when to close the gap, and when to attempt a check requires much more awareness than in past games.
6. The real-time physics introduced a couple years back are being tweaked to account for the new sense of speed and momentum on the ice and to add more fidelity. Ramjagsingh says they are starting to see more subtle behaviors like knee-on-knee collisions.
7. EA has tweaked goaltender performance to open up the five hole for more scoring opportunities.
8. For the first time in the series, goalies now have individual limb control, which introduces more save possibilities and could also result in more deflection goals off their arms and legs.
9. Last year many fans complained that the CPU didn't take enough penalties. EA Canada plans to make this a focus this year.
EA SPORTS HOCKEY IQ
10. For several years, users have questioned the sketchy player AI. This year the development team hopes to dispel this complaint once and for all with EA Sports Hockey IQ. "This year we've invested more effort in AI than in the last three years combined in terms of effort," Ramjagsingh says.
11. The new AI system helps players understand situations as they develop on the ice and react to them accordingly. For example, thanks to the new EA Sports Hockey IQ, goalies are much more aware of situations like odd-man rushes. Before, goalies only knew where the puck was. Now, they anticipate player positioning and react realistically to 2-on-1s, 3-on-1s, and 2-on-0s. They may cheat and play more out of the net to challenge a shooter, or sit back to avoid giving a trailing player an open net. Now that they are willing to cheat, desperation saves and scrambling goaltenders are much more common.
12. EA is also working on making sure teammate AI knows what to do when you have an odd-man rush on offense. If you cross over into their lane, they will know that they should criss cross and position themselves for a scoring opportunity.
13. Part of the AI work includes making sure there is better player differentiation on the ice. Fourth liners will go into corners more aggressively and finish their checks.
14. If you're not happy how your lines are performing you can tweak their behaviors with a new set of strategy sliders. On offense, you can control your players tendencies to carry vs. dump the puck, cycle vs. shoot, skate with efficiency or energy, or go down to block shots or not. On defense, you can use the sliders to determine whether or not your defensemen should pinch or hold the line and whether they should cycle the puck or shoot. If you want to create a fourth line that dumps and chases 100 percent of the time, you now have that option.
15. When the CPU AI employs the dump and chase, it's smart enough to try different types of dumps. Their options include ringing the puck around the boards, attempting a cross-ice dump, or shooting the puck off the back wall.
16. EA has redone every single forecheck in the game so teams employ their real-life strategies. This includes aggressive or passive 1-2-2, 1-3-1, and even the 1-4 the Tampa Bay Lightning used against the Philadelphia Flyers during last year's Stanley Cup playoffs.
17. In addition to selecting your team's forecheck, you can also tweak their bias between hanging back in the neutral zone and a more aggressive trapping game.
18. Each team has its own custom AI template to start. You can create a new system or adopt any of the 30 templates for your own team.
19. Much to the dismay of some fans, both Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return to the broadcasting booth. EA recorded commentary for the new features like True Performance Skating and some league information that will keep their comments up to date.
20. NHL 13 has a completely redone the lighting engine. New light maps replicate the look of each of the arenas in the game, and the developers also added more colored light. You will now notice light bouncing off objects and self-shadowing.
21. The developers upgraded the rendering for skates, socks, pants, jerseys, gloves, helmets, etc. so they are much more detailed. You can see the stitching in breezers, and gloves will have scuff marks. Visors also properly reflect light.
22. EA has moved away from non-interactive cutscenes. NHL 13 now uses the AI to drive the players after the whistle and the developers implemented true broadcast camera angles to capture their activity.
We saw a lot more of NHL 13, but that's all we can share right now. Look for more updates on how EA plans to improve the Be A GM mode in a couple weeks.
NHL 13 comes out for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on September 11. For more on the game's Stanley Cup Collector's Edition, click here.
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