Since introducing the analog stick-based control scheme in 2006, the NHL series has blossomed from a struggling franchise into the most impressive performer in the EA Sports stable; over the last four years sales have surged an astounding 120 percent. For NHL 11, developer EA Canada hopes to push the bar even further with an entirely new physics engine.
Hockey is a violent sport filled with bone-rattling hits along the boards and wince-inducing open-ice checks, but over the past few years the checking in NHL has become too predictable. With the new real-time physics engine, however, every hit will look and feel different. Developed internally with the help of the Fight Night team, the new engine gives realistic physical properties to the sticks, pucks, and players, bringing the game closer to what we see every night on the ice. Like Natural Motion’s Euphoria technology, this procedural system generates animations on the fly, getting rid of the repetitive canned animations that plague so many sports games. Whether you’re on open ice or along the boards, every collision looks unique – players can catch the buckles along the benches, get their skates tied up, or even keep their balance if the checker only gets a small piece of him. Players rebound viciously from the glass after getting checked into the boards, and if you hit your victim hard enough he may drop his stick or suffer a gruesome injury.
The new deke system serves as the equalizer to the new checking system. In NHL 11, puck handlers have more inventive ways of beating defenders than ever before. The right analog stick is packed with new moves like the toe kick Pavel Bure made famous, bouncing the puck off your skate, and the Pavel Datsyuk technique of keeping square to the goal during a deke to preserve a shooting angle. If a defender’s sliding on the ice in front of you, simply lift the puck over his outstretched body and jump over him in tandem. The new physics system also allows puck handlers to get off last minute shots in the midst of being checked, and superstars like Alexander Ovechkin can even shoot or pass while lying on the ice.
NHL 10 was frequently
criticized for its lack of goal scoring – even real-life sieves like
Vesa Toskala played like Vezina trophy winners. To loosen up the netting
and make goals more varied and realistic, EA Canada has tweaked the
goalie angles. This makes it more evident where you should be shooting;
keeping your eyes on the goalie and picking the right spots increases
your chances of putting the puck in the net.
To help the CPU keep up with all the blazing dekes, brutal checks, and the loosened goaltending, EA Canada has reworked the AI to boost its skill set. Players have more awareness to avoid vicious checks, and employ dekes more frequently to keep your defender off balance. Both the goalie and offside defenders do a better job of patrolling the crease and stopping those improbable cross-ice passes that gamers over-relied upon to score back door goals the past few years.
Other on-ice improvements include user-controlled celebrations, broken sticks, and a brand new face-off system that lets you shoot from the circle, kick the puck back to defensemen after tying up your opponent’s stick, and flip your bottom hand to improve your chances of winning a face-off to your backhand side. With real puck physics in place, winning the face-off is no longer about jamming the analog stick before the opposing center – your stick must come in contact with the bouncing puck to gain possession. Swing too early and you could whiff on the puck. The various tactics at play gives each drop of the puck a paper, rock, scissors feel, breathing new life into a formerly stale system most players mastered long ago.
With the NHL 2K franchise on hiatus, EA’s NHL series has no more on-ice competition. But if the new physics engine and the complementary game tweaks are successful, the ambitious development team will likely keep its place at the vanguard of sports gaming.