The point is that the NHL’s image is changing, so too is Electronic Art’s (EA) NHL franchise. EA Vancouver’s forthcoming NHL 20 builds upon last year’s soft reboot. The focus of this building is centred online — where, let’s face it, most games are going. But there’s a lot that has changed on the technical side as well. However, gamers looking for an improved single-player experience may feel the puck stops just short of the net with NHL 20.
Yesterday, I spent an hour with EA Vancouver’s Creative Director, William Ho, to get a rundown on what we can expect from the game at release. Please keep in mind that the following in my takeaway, and should only be taken as my own opinion.
It’s all for the celly, bruh
There’s nothing quite like the celebration — celly — of hockey. And that is a point that hockey players, gamers, or a mix of the two can all agree on. We all chase endlessly after the trophy or achievement. So EA has made the celly a staple of NHL 20.
The celly will also extend its way into “World of Chel” and “EA Sports Hockey League.” It happens through customization of your own unique player and team. Ho explains the new art of the celebration, beginning with how scoring a goal has been made more satisfying. “It’s coordinated with your team colours. It’ll show the headshot of the player. Much, much more satisfying when you score a goal. Also, they’re not just coordinating with NHL teams. If you are in “EA Sports Hockey League,” when you have your custom team colours, those are the colours in the overlay. So you can flash your colours in your opponent’s face.
Flashing your colours is excellent, but EA has also upped the trophy collecting game in “World of Chel.” There are now over 2,000 vanity items available in-game. A few of which will be made available only by completing weekly challenges or excelling in online game modes. Ho said this change is meant to encourage online players to play daily instead of dropping in and out.
Personality power play
Taking a page from NBA 2K‘s book, NHL 20 offers over 45 new shot animations, which through the use of RPM Tech, not only let you stand out, but also improve the game. A number of these shots are replicated faithfully from NHL stars like P.K. Subban and Alex Ovechkin. Much like the shot styles in NBA 2K19, this allows you to get hyper-personal with how you play the game of hockey.
RPM Tech debuted last year in the bottom half of players through realistic, motion-captured skating animations that made the movement of players feel smooth and satisfying when it came to getting around the ice. But discrepancies between the top half of the player and the bottom half made the game feel like you were playing as two small children in the same hockey equipment. Passes had a tenancy to be missed easily. Shot preparations often stopped a player dead in their tracks. And don’t even get me started on how finicky taking a slapshot was!
In NHL 20, RPM Tech catches up with the play. Passes, shot preparations, and shots on net feel fluid. New directional path programmed into the game takes into account where a player is skating, how fast they are going, and even the direction of their stick to keep the game in motion.
“RPM Tech enables our animation and gameplay team to add just tons and tons of content where it used to be very engineering-focused. If we had to add a new ability or a new transition, all of that was engineer-based, right? Now, with RPM, it’s very animator-based. We captured thousands of new moves for passes, shots, and goalies even.”
I didn’t get to play as a goalie, so I won’t say much about that experience. But goalie A.I. has been improved so that goalies think faster on their feet. They can read player positioning, threat level, and even defensive cover to best respond to the threat at hand. And this new goalie game instantly shows itself off. In my playtime, I found that I had to be more thoughtful of how I could get the puck past the goalie in between the pipes.
Stream from the face off
NHL 19 saw a lot of pickup in streaming communities. So EA has tweaked the game a fair bit to make sure it looks its best when it’s live. There a new pack animations that play up the drama associated with pack-opening videos. “Play of the Game” highlights add an Overwatch-like bragging moment to playing to the best of your ability. and the in-house presentation style allows the game to breathe on its own.
“The last five years or so, we’ve go
ne with an NBC-style presentation. It’s been their motion graphics, their commentators, and their camera sequence faithfully recreated. While that has served us well, we find it kind of limiting because we find a lot of new fans don’t actually get into the game via network broadcast anymore, right?”
Ho adds that people are getting into the game through highlight reels and streaming. So that’s where the development team shifted focus to. And it showed in my time with the game. The broadcast-style is minimalist until it matters, the play-by-play is comfortable and precise, and the camera angles and replays feel like they grab what should have your attention.
The most important part of this for me was the play-by-play commentary. NHL 19’s analysis quickly became repetitive as the team only had a limited amount of hours to spend with “Wednesday Night Hockey” duo Eddie Olczyk and Mike “Doc” Emrick with ice-level commentary from Ray Ferraro.
Ferraro moves up to the booth to join Vancouver radio personality James Cybulski in NHL 19. By using local boys, EA was able to spend more time on the commentary, and it shows. Play-by-play is dynamic, informative, and not repetitive.
One person team
While most of the changes to NHL 19 centre on social play, there has been a slight change to “Franchise Mode” for those looking to play on their own. NHL 20 generates a variety of coaches, each with their own set of ratings and roles. These ratings and roles play into the task of balancing team morale and chemistry. Coaches have ratings on offence, defence, power play, penalty kill, teach and influence. Each of these will have a direct impact on the team. Aside from that, coaches will also have to handle the tedious everyday tasks like interviewing assistant coaches, conversing with the GM and scouts, and making sure the best lineup is put on the ice. I am sure this will help to speed up the game mode while still requiring thought. Ho offers challenges that are presented in the new “Franchise Mode” is through a careful balance of the relationship between you coach and your players.
“Every coach has their scheme. Line-by-line, players are rated against the coach’s scheme. If they fit, they get a buff. If they don’t fit, they get a nerf, right? So if you’re just putting lines together based on rating or OVR, they may not fit the coach’s scheme, and you’re losing points because of that.”
Accessibility on ice
Accessibility has become a big focus of the NHL franchise, and it’s front-and-centre in NHL 20. I’m not sure if it pops up as soon as you start the game, but there is an accessibility menu that you can access right from the game’s title screen to help you out. Ho does such a good job explaining the accessibility features of NHL 19 that I’m going to leave this portion to him.
“I’m glad you noticed that! It’s a big thing and it’s not just NHL, it’s an EA Sports and EA-wide initiative. In fact, we have a person directly in charge of best practices in accessibility, Karen Stevens. So we work very closely with her, and then we identify what are the most important things that we can incorporate into NHL 20? And so we have three different colourblind filters. We’ve got full text-to-speech conversion for online chats. So we are happy to just make the game more accessible. We also get fan emails from people who go I have this need, right? Sometimes people who don’t even need the accessibility features turn them on just because they prefer it. Things like more puck highlights, bigger player indicators, and something for everyone, right?”
Perhaps the most important new feature of NHL 20 is… you know what? Once again, I’ll let Ho sum this one up.
“We’ve got Gritty, and you can play as Gritty. Because he seems to be bigger than the NHL somehow.”
Gritty isn’t just bigger than the NHL. Gritty is bigger than Jesus, or Drake even!