After starting the console generation in the hole with a handicapped debut, EA’s NHL series has slowly skated back toward relevancy by rebuilding popular modes like EASHL and introducing new ways to play like NHL Threes. But despite incremental changes, the game has never felt truly next gen. Based on our early impressions with NHL 19’s new skating and physics systems, that time could finally be coming.
In addition to getting hands-on time with the title, we sat down with longtime producer Sean Ramjagsingh and new creative director William Ho, who most recently worked on the Need for Speed franchise, to talk about the big changes coming to NHL 19 both on and off the ice. Here are the standout changes.
A Revolutionary New Skating System
For years, we’ve been asking for dramatically improved player handling to give us more fidelity in moving in small spaces, more agility when making turns so it doesn’t feel like you are steering the Titanic, and better puck pickups. EA Canada thinks it can go three for three on these requests thanks to the integration of the Real Player Motion animation technology and significant changes to how players skate.
Grabbing the controller, it only took a matter of seconds to understand just how dramatically the skating system has improved. Players burst out of their stops, showing the acceleration of world-class athletes. Their edgework, crossovers, and carving looks more in line with NHL players, and it’s much easier to turn, cut, and make hard stops. Turns are more responsive and natural feeling. "Before it was difficult to just take a step or two over, now you can actually do that," Ho says. That fidelity of movement is going to be necessary, because when elite stick handlers get used to the new skating, they could be even harder to stop.
You should also notice a wider variety of skating animations from player to player. For the first time in the series, EA motion-capped small, mid-sized, and large players to give them unique movements.
The wide new variety of animations makes it easier for the players to reach for the puck, kick the puck to their stick, or glove the puck, which hopefully alleviates the myriad frustrations around puck pickups. “We've really dramatically improved in this department," Ho says.
More Realistic Player Collisions
The new skating animation system couples with a new physics engine to add a lot more variety to the types of hits you see across the ice.
“The new physics engine gives us the ability to tune every single limb on the character, and because you see them in new positions they were never in before, we're seeing tons of new checks,” Ramjagsingh says.
We saw several of these hits in action in our brief time with the game. Some examples include a larger player driving through his target, open ice hits that stop the puck carrier flat, and awkward collisions that take out a players’ arms and legs on the same side. Ramjagsingh says they’ve even seen players helicopter spin when hit right.
The incidental contact when players are fighting for the puck also looks more realistic based on the brief time we’ve had with the game thus far.
With physicality returning to a more prominent place in the game, the team is still refining defensive tools like poke checks to make sure they aren’t too overpowered. As the game is currently tuned, if a puck carrier is protecting the puck properly, there is a very low chance of getting poke checked and a higher chance of drawing a penalty.
Introducing The World Of Chel
The EASHL is the NHL franchise’s stickiest mode, so when exploring new ways of capturing the essence of the sport, EA wanted to expand the way players compete against one another. Enter The World of Chel.
This new social hub includes EASHL, Threes pick-up games, plus two new modes. The first is NHL Pro-Am, which allows players who want to play online to hone their skills against A.I. before jumping into real competitions. This mode offers 40 3v3 challenges against the best hockey players past and present. The second is Ones, a new skill-based competition that pits your talents against others in a three-for-all where the player who scores the most goals against an A.I. goalie in a certain amount of time wins.
As you win these 1v1v1 competitions, you earn points that can eventually move you up the competitive tiers. Conversely, if you’re on a losing streak you face the real threat of being relegated back down the ladder. You start playing in a parking lot rink, and can earn your way up to the cove rink, dock rink, and eventually a resort-style rink with massive stands, a festival atmosphere, and live music. These outdoor environments are partially inspired by events like the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships (and feature a unique announcer), but EA took some liberties with the locations. For instance, one is modeled after Lake Louise in Banff National Park, which has the beautiful Canadian Rockies as a backdrop.
Ones hosts a daily tournament, so whoever ends up in first place gets a special reward in the form of cosmetics. Another player who sees you wearing a Ones reward will know you're a past champion. These matches are quick, so while this mode won’t be a destination experience for me, I could see myself killing time in these games while waiting for my EASHL team to form up.
Greater Player Customization
No matter which World of Chel mode you play, your created player earns XP and rewards in the form of hockey bags.
When first creating your player, you can choose your height and weight, which has parameters based on the 12 available player classes that break down according to classic hockey archetypes (sniper, playmaker, grinder, etc). From there, you can pick from dozens of traits to activate in a primary and secondary slot, as well as specializations. The primary trait is more heavily weighted, and the secondary gets about half the weight. The game gives feedback when you are activating a trait via new HUD icons that light up in the lower left-hand corner, so you can understand if the trait fits with your play style. A large number of traits are unlocked right from the start, and the game awards the rest quickly as you level up.
Specializations are more context-based, like getting more energy late in a period or giving your team energy boosts if you get a late goal.
Since you won’t always be playing the same class in EASHL, NHL 19 allows you to save multiple loadouts so you can develop different roles like stay-at-home defensemen, hitting sniper, etc.
"Ultimately, we want people to have their favorite loadout so that when they're playing with their buddies, they are min-maxing,” Ho says. “They are strategizing as a group in how they are going to go in as a team with everyone playing their role on the team with their different loadouts."
Every time you level up, you earn a hockey bag that includes a random cosmetic item. Given that EA wants to expand into the wider hockey culture, this means you will receive apparel well beyond team jerseys. Yes, there is a lot team-brandedded apparel (for current teams – don’t expect a lot of Whalers and North Stars gear), but you can also earn parkas, hoodies, hats, track pants, cargo pants, breezers, unique skates, and fun sticks like an NHL ’94 themed twig. In all, EA says it has more than 900 customization items in the game, with more to come post-release.
Given this is EA we’re talking about, you’re probably wondering if these hockey bags are microtransaction focused. "They're not monetized, I'll say that right away,” Ho says. So why is it randomized instead of letting players pick what they want? “We wanted to create a lot of divergence so everyone is getting different rewards so they'll equip different pieces of apparel. We'll get instant variety on the ice."
You can’t trade items with other players, but at least you won't have to contend duplicates.
Doubling Down On Legends
We’ve had NHL legends appear in various modes like Hockey Ultimate Team before. But thanks to an agreement with the NHL Alumni Association, EA Canada is bringing enough legends to NHL 19 to fill out several all-time teams. More than 200 legends are featured in this year’s title, including The Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky. These legends aren’t all from recent eras, either. The game has Hall of Famers extending back to the days of black and white television, including stars from teams relegated to the dustbin of history like the Hartford Whalers and Minnesota North Stars.
A New Scouting System
We plan to go into greater detail on this at a later date, but what we can tell you right now is EA has designed its franchise mode scouting system to give players more control on how they scout, which results in more useful information on prospects. The CPU teams also have access to this new system, and should be much more active in draft day trades to make sure they get their most coveted prospects.
In addition to handling amateur scouts, you will also be managing a team of pro scouts, who will need to be deployed so you understand how other team’s prospects are progressing and whether or not aging players are regressing. These changes should add more interesting management options for players who like to tinker with roster creation.
NHL 19 is scheduled to release on September 14 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.