After building a reputation as one of the best sports games in the EA stable this generation, the NHL franchise's skates have lost their edge a bit the past few years thanks to a stagnant Be A Pro mode, troubled Be A GM mode, and tweaks to the gameplay that have irked some fans.
Though NHL 12 and 13 many not have had first-line form, the core of this hockey sim is still solid, so a return to Conn Smythe contention isn't entirely out of the question if EA Canada addresses its weaknesses. We spoke with NHL producers Sean Ramjagsingh and Andy Agostini about what changes the team has in store for NHL 14's gameplay and GM modes.
- As expected, NHL 14 is not headed to next-gen consoles. The only platforms the game supports are PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
- According to EA Canada, the overarching focus for NHL 14 was properly balancing aggression, speed, and skill - the three qualities the studio believes make hockey a standout sport.
- Given the increased focus on checks and dekes, some fans have expressed worry that NHL 14 will be too arcade-like and lose the sim aspects that drew them to the series. Ramjagsingh assured us this is not the case. "All of the great gameplay depth and the creativity that we talked about through this entire generation about giving players the tools, we focused on all of that stuff as well," he said. "The stuff you're hearing about right now is just focused on trying to make the game more accessible so people are able to have fun with our game, without sacrificing any of the depth. All that depth is still there, and there is a lot more new depth as well that people will see as they play the game."
- EA Canada says its spent a lot of time working on the AI and systems to make sure the core gameplay experience on top of the new features continues to improve.
- Though the primary focus for NHL 14 is on cleaning up player physics with the introduction of FIFA's Player Impact Engine, EA Canada has tweaked the puck physics as well. You won't see as drastic a change as you will with the players, but EA is working to make more realistic bounces, tip-ins, and deflections.
- To improve neutral zone play, EA says it spent a lot of time tweaking puck support. The Real AI introduced in NHL 12 is being tweaked to script sequences and breakouts for two- and three-man play through the neutral zone so they get more realistic motion. This should result in more varieties of approach.
- EA felt the poke check was too powerful last year, and now that hitting has more of a defensive tool they are dialing back the effectiveness of the poke check. Large players may benefit more from being physical, and smaller more agile defenders have a better success rate sticking with the poke check.
- EA Canada hasn't made any tweaks to the faceoff mechanics for NHL 14, though they are making it easier to win draws on lower skill levels.
- Puck pickups and pass targeting are being tweaked as well. The passes should be more in line so it should be easier to lead a player properly if you aim correctly.
- For its second year, True Performance Skating is being adjusted to address some fan complaints. When a players reaches his top speed it should no longer feels like you are turning the Titanic when turning.
- Defensive players have been given more mobility to allow them to better shade attacking skaters. More mobile defensemen Kris Letang can pivot more quickly to change directions faster than they could in NHL 13, and you can strafe to cut off angles of attack.
- The main reason EA added the one-touch deke system was to make dekes more accessible. The loose puck deke system, which is still in the game, requires you to plan your move in advance. The new system is much easier to use in a read-and-react situation. If you can tell the defender is going in for a big hit, you can quickly deke out of the way. This makes stickhandling more of a game within the game.
- Don't expect to deke your way down the ice like Pavel Datsyuk every play with every player, however. Players with less stick handling ability won't have the efficiency of movement that danglers have, resulting in more turnovers.
- Tapping the left trigger results in a spin move. From here the game reads the left stick and the direction you are going and then picks the right direction for you to spin.
- All the other one-touch dekes are on the left bumper. Depending on how you are using your left stick and the situation on the ice, the game picks from a variety of moves.
- You can string moves together as well, but at the sacrifice of speed. For instance, if you attempt more than two spin moves in a row your forward essentially comes to a standstill.
- A lack of goal scoring was once again an area fans called out in NHL 13. For this year's game, one of EA's big focuses is goal-scoring balance. One engineer has spent the entire year working on goalies so users see more realistic goals. EA says you can expect to see more pucks squeak through under the goalie's arms and in the five-hole.
- The other big change in goal scoring is EA wants the players to be rewarded more often for reading the goalie and shooting in the right spot.
- The default skill level now allows players to score more frequently to bring the goal total up to a realistic level.
- The developer diaries previously told us that speed and momentum were accounted for in the new collision system. EA Canada confirmed to us that size matters just as much. The dev team uses Boston Bruins big man Zdeno Chara as the test case to make sure he's an immovable force when tiny forwards try to throw a check.
- The size differential requires you to play the game a different style if you are in control of a smaller team like the Montreal Canadiens or a large team like Chara's Bruins.
- The board play remains largely the same as last year, but EA Canada said the new collision system makes it tougher for little guys to win pucks if they get pinned against the boards.
- Listening to fan requests, EA Canada wants penalties to be more realistic in NHL 14. Expect boarding and interference to be called more frequently, and to see a bigger variety of penalties called in general.
- FIFA's player impact engine was a positive addition to the franchise, but the strange player animations it sometimes delivers also has created some of the most embarrassing (but mainly hilarious) glitches we've seen in years. In porting the system to hockey and tuning the game, however, the NHL teams says they have seen very little of the crazy limb flailing.
- The development team spent over a month focusing on unrealistic hits from behind and awkward hit animations when both players are going the same direction. This should hopefully clean up this frequent point of contention we had with NHL 13.
- EA's biggest focus for the new enforcer engine was to make fighting more realistic and more within the moment. The players not engaged in the fight now stay on the ice and the players on the bench no longer disappear.
- The new fighting engine has a better understanding of why players drop the gloves in real life and thus does a better job of making fights happen naturally during the course of the game. You can still pre-plan a fight or get into a post-whistle scrum, but if you target a star player for a check and leave him a disheveled heap on the ice your antagonist may not have the option to avoid the fight with his on-ice bodyguard or another player that takes offense to the hit.
- Once a fight starts you see all players on the ice react accordingly. If tough guys are on the ice they start to pair up. Less violent players may go down on one knee to watch the skirmish.
- Some fighting mechanics are integrated directly from EA's excellent Fight Night franchise. Tall guys like Chara could get in a fight with a smaller player like Martin St. Louis. You can now throw punches before the players enter a clinch. Once you are tangled up, you can throw uppercuts, rabbit punches, and hooks. Your offhand can be used to tug the player into position for a knockout punch. This is an especially effective tool if a long-armed guy is matched up against a much weaker player.
- To properly balance the fight, the enforcer engine looks at fighting ratings, size, and strength of the player. Bigger, stronger players drain more of their opponent's health meter when landing a punch than a smaller guy like Henrik Sedin would. However, EA says a really skilled user who masters the fighting mechanic could still pull off a David vs. Goliath upset.
- The fighting system works the same in the EASHL as well. EA isn't sure yet if the players outside of the central fight will be able to pair up and drop the gloves, but it's something they want to include if possible.
- The troubled GM Connected online experience is coming back with a few tweaks to improve usability.
- One NHL developer spent almost all year working to improve the cripplingly slow menu navigation. GM Connected now runs at a much faster speed comparable to what you see in the front end of the offline Be A GM mode.
- EA added several tools to improve the minute-to-minute experience of being in an online league. GMs now have a schedule that shows who has played games in the league instead of depending on the messaging system to check that.
- The revamped messaging system now allows GM-to-GM as well as GM-to-commissioner messages. You can also counter-propose trades directly from your mailbox or refresh the mailbox without exiting the menu.
- You can now decline and accept trades from the trade detail screen.
- New commissioner improvements include an "invite to league" functionality and surfacing gamertags so it's easier to tell who is controlling which team.
- EA has added a time period in before the league starts so teams can make trade offers and other roster alterations before stepping on the ice for their first game.
BE A GM
- Even though Be A Pro is getting the biggest makeover of all the game modes, EA Canada claims it has done quite a bit to the GM mode as well.
- Both GM Connected and Be A GM add many of the changes implemented in the new collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and NHLPA. The changes include new salary cap and floor calculations and the ability to trade part of salaries. Since the development team doesn't have many real-world examples of how teams plan to use these new rules, they are working with the NHL directly to understand the parameters of the new guidelines.
- You can still buy players out, but EA is still discussing whether or not to include the special buyouts that NHL teams can enact this offseason and next to get under the downsized salary cap.
- NHL 14 is not adding the free agent interview period like the real league is implementing.
- Last year's questionable trade logic isn't being scrapped, but EA has added new trade difficulty slider that should lessen the restrictiveness of the GMs who last year would only willingly part with prospects and over-the-hill players in the last year of their contracts.
- EA is still tuning the trade logic on top of the new slider functionality as well.
- Players now improve during the season, though some only grow in the offseason. This adds another layer to the progression system. This should help you see young players' skills progress more steadily instead of waiting for the offseason to know if he's NHL ready.
- First-round draft picks are more likely to get skill jumps much earlier in their careers. Like last year, lower-round players won't likely reach the NHL skill level until they are in their mid-to-late 20s.
- Skill progression doesn't take into account player performance on the ice or the amount of playing time they receive in the minors as much as EA Canada would like it to in the future. This means you don't have to worry nearly as much about high-round draft picks sitting behind career minor leaguers on your AHL team as you would in real life.
- EA isn't doing much to change player regression, so the older players won't have a major drop-off in skills.
- The GM firing option is now a league setting. You can turn that off or on at any time.
- EA has some plans for tweaking the front-end menu system, but it isn't going into details on that right now.
That's everything we know about NHL 14 thus far. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we learn more about changes to the Be A Pro (now dubbed Live the Life) and online modes.