Finally, we're about to experience next-generation hockey. After sitting patiently on the bench as Madden, FIFA, and NBA led the charge onto the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One last year, the NHL franchise is finally ready to jump over the boards.
"NHL 15 is really the start of a new generation of hockey for us, allowing us to really capture the sounds, the sights, and the feel of the game in a way we've never done before," says EA Canada producer Sean Ramjagsingh. "People always ask me what do you get with the new consoles, and really the answer is the new consoles just allow us to do more stuff: Run more code under the hood, have more calculations happening every second, have higher resolution textures, more animations, more physics on all the objects in the game. It just allows us to hit a whole new bar of realism. "
With an obvious emphasis on taking advantage of the increased hardware in the name of presentation and graphics, NHL 15 promises several long-requested features like authentic arenas, a new commentary team, and more player likenesses.We didn't get a chance to dig into online play or the game modes, but here's everything we learned about NHL 15 thus far.
- Bill Clement and Gary Thorne served admirably as the commentary duo over the course of the last generation, but it's time for new blood. The premiere NBC team of Mike "Doc" Emrick and Eddie Olcyzk now man the booth. Thankfully, EA chose to skip the master of useless commentary - Pierre McGuire - in favor of TSN analyst Ray "Chicken Parm" Ferraro.
- The trio has recorded more than 35,000 lines of commentary.
- Given the chance to start from scratch with new hardware, EA is taking a new approach to recording commentary. "No longer do we put a script in front of talent and say 'okay, read,'" Ramjagsingh says. "What you see with that is you try to turn the commentators into actors, and they don't sound like themselves. What we've done with all the content you're going to hear in the game this year, aside from some very specific things with player names, we just give them a situation. We did 30,000 lines of giving the situation: 'Daniel Sedin scores a goal top shelf in the last two minutes of the game. Give me 10 samples of that.' They pause for two seconds, think about what they would say, and they rattle it off. Doc and Eddie have worked together so long they just know how to play off each other, and the stories that they can tell that we've incorporated into the game is fantastic."
- Expect more varying degrees of intensity with the commentary as well. "We've been able to add more levels of intensity than we've ever had in the game," Ramjagsingh says. "In the past we've had two and a half, three different intensities for commentators. Now we have almost seven different levels of intensity that Doc and Eddie can go to."
- Along with the top NBC broadcasting team, EA is incorporating the full suite of NBC Sports presentation elements, including polished stat and score overlays, city flyovers, and shots of the arena.
- NHL 15 introduces something never seen before in a sports game - live video of commentators before each game. To avoid the unpleasantness that virtual avatars commentators create in terms of lip synching, EA decided to record Doc and Eddie on a green screen, then place them in the broadcast booths of the arenas.
- Speaking of arenas, EA is working to include all 30 authentic arenas for NHL 15. They are still in the negotiating process, which can prove tricky. Included in the plans is the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which will serve as the new home of the Islanders in 2015. "Over the last couple weeks we were working with the NHL on getting reference of the Barclays Center because there's not great reference of it right now for a hockey setup," Ramjagsingh says. "There's been some artist renditions that we've been able to find, but there's not a whole lot out there quite yet."
- The authentic arenas allow EA Canada to incorporate the living crowds technology provided by the Ignite Engine being used across the EA Sports portfolio. "We knew that coming into gen four and with the power of gen four we needed to focus on our visuals and presentation, really bringing the world to life," Ramjagsingh says. "The authentic arenas now have 18-21,000 people within the arena to really give it that full feel. We have 9,000 unique crowd models. We have that person in the front row not paying attention in the game and taking a selfie and reacting late to the goal being scored. We've got the super fans for the home team and the away team as well, that guy that we all know that's in the crowd doing his unique animations and taunting the crowd around him. It allows us to have things like secondary point of interest so we have 95 percent of the crowd watching the action and then 5 percent around that paying attention to the away team super fan. We've got the vendors walking up and down the aisles, we've got the security. If you're playing in a place like Madison Square Garden, which is a very unique arena with people walking around along the boards because the seating doesn't go all the way to the glass, we have those guys in there."
- The arenas also have different geometry, tunnels, and lighting to make each of them feel unique. The darkly lit arenas are going to be darkly lit. "It's almost to the point right now where you can actually look at the ticket you have and place yourself in the seat within the arena," Ramjagsingh says.
- EA is also experimenting with a new camera angle that's a bit lower to the action but doesn't sacrifice gameplay so you can see some of the crowd when in the offensive and defensive zones. The team is still fine-tuning it, so they're not sure where they are going to land, but they want so show off more of living world around the gameplay and capture the arena atmosphere.
- Borrowing the impressive technology powering the UFC game, EA is putting a renewed emphasis on player likeness. Ramjagsingh says the team currently has roughly 250-300 players with their unique heads, which leaves a lot of room for improvement given that the league has 690 players on active rosters at any given time. EA plans to continue to chip away at that deficit moving forward, and it's also overhauling the generic heads to make them less stone faced.
- NHL 15 also introduces new player models that have three distinct layers - the body, equipment, and jersey. EA says each layer interacts independently, and the dynamic cloth technology will react more naturally when a player changes speed or the puck hits a jersey.
- EA has invested heavily in improving the physics over the past few years, and that dedication carries over to next-gen with a new 12-player collision physics that allows more players to be involved in scrums. "The player physics was limited to two player player-on-player contact in gen three," Ramjagsingh says. "Like we're seeing in playoff hockey right now, you have guys driving to the net and taking out two, three, four guys and the goalie and the net. We're able to replicate those situations now because we can handle all 12 players."
- This new technology may create some broken plays where users can take advantage of odd man rushes. For instance, if a player is knocked over and another player is skating full speed toward him and doesn't have time to stop, he will fall over the downed player. That dynamic pileup could spring a team into an attacking advantage. "Obviously we have to be careful about not making it too arcadey in that way, but making sure that it's realistic," Ramjagsingh says.
- The devs are also overhauling the puck physics from the ground up. To help, they hired a former scientist who worked on the Hadron Collider in Geneva, where they fire particles together at mach speed and create black holes. "He came over and joined us about 10 months ago and he's working on our puck physics, rebuilding it from the ground up," Ramjagsingh says. "What we're seeing now is bounces in the game that we've never seen before. It's all real-world physics running in our game. We're seeing shots squeaking through the goalie with our new dynamic cloth technology. We're seeing goals squeak through the goalie between the inside of his arm and his chest. We're seeing new saves that have been in the game but we've never seen before because the puck was never in the position for him to do a desperation reach back."
- The stick still is also being renovated for increased fidelity. "You could hold the stick out and deke at very specific points but you couldn't deke anywhere between that," Ramjagsingh says. "If you wanted to go left-right-lift with the stick you were going to the extremes, which in reality when you watch real hockey you don't see guys deke like that. We've added more fidelity to the control. The first part of it is now you can go into a glide and with your right stick hold it out to protect the puck. You skate down the right wing going full speed, go into a glide, hold out the right stick, and then start to cut in. If the guy takes that lane you can actually cut back and use the right stick while turning for the first time. We never had deking while turning in the game. We have deking while gliding in the game as well, so it allows you to see where the pressure is coming from. Having two guys come for you and maneuvering through situations or pressure like you've never been able to just because of the more fidelity in the controls."
- One touch dekes are returning, but EA is introducing new dekes you can perform while striding. Pulling the left and right sticks to the left and right will give you a quick stride so you can get around a guy
- When you go into a glide, you now have full control of both upper and lower body with the right stick, which means you can steer your guy while deking.
- NHL 15 has new toe drags as well.
- Users have been promised improved A.I. before, most notable with NHL 12's Anticipation A.I. and NHL 13's Hockey I.Q. EA is promising more improvements with Vision A.I. "With the power of the new consoles, it allows us to access more of what was going on," Ramjagsingh says. "In gen three it was more of a linear thought process and maybe thinking one step ahead. For us this year we have all 10 players on the ice trying to look one, two, three seconds ahead, understand how the play is developing, and then move realistic to the way the play is coming together." One example EA shared is when a puck is loose in the corner. "The A.I. player will take note when there's not much pressure coming in so he knows that he can go pick the puck up, keep his speed in stride, initiate the breakout himself, and then start looking for a pass. Whereas in gen-three, the guy would go get the puck, know that when he gets the puck he wants to make a pass, and then assess the pass he wants to make immediately."
- EA is also emphasizing puck support and making sure players get to the gaps.
- Player intelligence is also being communicated visually. For instance, smart players will look toward the puck carrier with their head and put their stick in a position to receive a pass.
- Board play isn't being overhauled, but EA still plans to tune it to dial back suction so players can't get pinned to the boards from behind when they have a step on the other player. EA also thinks the new A.I. behavior should result in better puck support around the scrums.