'NHL 14' brings aggression to virtual ice

"NHL 14" will feature an overhaul of the game's physics engine, borrowing from the "FIFA" games. EA Sports

My name is Jon, and I’m a goon-aholic. I’ve been a goon since “Blades of Steel,” and anybody who plays me at EA’s “NHL” series knows I go out of my way to check, chuck and smack opponents around the virtual ice until they lose their cool and drop the gloves.

So when I hear “NHL 14” executive producer David Littman talk about this being the year where hard hits, aggression and brawling are bigger and badder thanks to both a new physics and fighting engine, the game instantly jumps to one of my most anticipated titles of 2013.

Then I got my hands on the game, ran full speed and blasted an opponent off his skates -- and I didn’t want to put the controller down.

My inner goon is happy again.

“What is ‘NHL 14’ to us?” said Littman. “It’s big hits, real fights, unbelievable speed and skill. We’re going to deliver the best playing game of this generation and really deliver what’s great about hockey.

“I don’t think there’s another sport that delivers aggression, speed and skill all at such a high level, all at the same time. And that’s what we’re focusing on with ‘NHL 14.’ In our hockey game this year, there’s going to be great fights and huge, huge, huge hits.”

To accomplish this, the “NHL” development team borrowed the player-impact physics technology from the best-selling “FIFA” franchise and adapted the collisions to suit the game of hockey.

“When you look at the hits, it’s not about just preventing the opposing player from getting past you. Hockey is about sending a message,” Littman said. “We felt we were missing the big hits last year. Our physics system wasn’t anywhere near where we needed it to be, so we sat down, recognized the problem and realized it all came down to inconsistency. We weren’t delivering the hits you wanted, when you wanted, or delivering the right reaction. There were times when you thought you were lining a guy up perfectly, but you didn’t get the reaction you were looking for. We also found that a lot of people were having trouble timing the hit with the right analog stick. People were either pressing it too early or too late, and we take the blame for the control issue. If people are having trouble hitting, that’s our fault.”

To rectify this, hits won’t take place only when you hit the right stick. When Zdeno Chara skates into somebody, he doesn’t need to throw a hit, he just needs to skate into someone to knock him off his feet in real life. Now it will play out like that in the video game, as all you’ll need to do is drive through an opponent with the left stick in order to trigger these collisions.

“There were just some limits to our system last year,” Littman said. “But in ‘14,’ we’re enabling you to get that big hit you’re expecting. When you get that impact, you’re also getting the drive through you expect and see in real life. The good thing about a physics system as opposed to an animation system is you’re able to get this drive through before animations even play out. With the new physics system we have, you might move a player five or six feet before you see them fall.

“The variety of hits also wasn’t there last year, but in ‘NHL 14’ you’re going to see clean impacts with players twisting and falling the right way depending on where they get hit, as we now have 50 to 60 points of impact. Our goal is to make every hit different. Just like in real life, no two hits are exactly the same. If you think about our game, people are playing thousands of games per year, and we want them to see something new every time they play. That’s our goal. We have three guys working full time on our physics engine, and all they do is hit each other all day, and anything they see wrong, anything that wouldn’t happen in real life, they’re going to tune it and tweak it, and we still have three more months to do this. We’re really excited about where this is headed.”

With all those big hits and tempers flaring on both sides, you know it won’t be long before the gloves are off and the fists are flying.

“Our fighting has been the same since ‘NHL 10,’ and it took you out of the experience,” Littman said. “It was more like a mini-game, and most people we talked to were bored of it and wanted something new and fresh and authentic. Our fighting before lacked depth, and the enforcers weren’t used correctly, and it just didn’t feel like hockey.

“The best part about hockey is it’s a team sport like no other. You don’t mess with a superstar of a hockey team. You just don’t. It’s part of the code. You just don’t do it. In ‘NHL 13,’ you might have a hit, and it would lead to a random fight with nobody around, nobody on the bench, and it’s embarrassing. Our technology couldn’t handle it in the past, and when you got to the fight, it was pretty standard button mashing. And no matter what size the guys were, they were the exact same height when they were fighting. We had to incorporate new technology that could handle other players on the ice, players on the bench and differentiating player sizes. But when you look at ‘NHL 14,’ you get a really hard hit that knocks a player down, and a teammate sees this and he’s not happy. So the enforcer who is on the ice, he throws the gloves, he throws the stick, and he’s over there in a second, and the fighting takes place in gameplay with all of the other players right there.”

The melee technology was ripped straight from “Fight Night Champion,” incorporating everything from reach to height differential to size and strength actually mattering.

“We’re able to take all that, include one-punch KOs, as well as all the facets of hockey fighting like jostling, clinching, maintaining your balance and spinning around. This is hockey, not boxing, and we want you to fight like a hockey player,” Littman said. “It finally matters if you have a big, strong 6-foot-7 fighter on your team. You’re going to get some one-punch KOs, win some fights and get your team going.”

In addition to the big hits and even bigger punches, “NHL 14” also showcases Year 2 of the franchise’s True Performance Skating system.

“We had problems last year where the offense could fly, but the defense had trouble keeping up due to mobility,” Littman said. “So when you look at this year’s game, we’re focusing on defensemen and making sure they have the same abilities that our offensive guys have.

“You know strafing from first-person shooters, but if you’re a defender on a one-on-one in hockey, I need to back up while keeping my chest to you with the ability to move right or left. So strafing is exactly like a first-person shooter, and in ‘NHL 13,’ you didn’t have that option. You couldn’t strafe left or right. You had to back skate and pivot, and by the time you were able to pivot, you got beat. This was just slightly out of balance last year, but it’s something we’re getting right in '14.’”

Littman said that while a lot of focus has been made to improve the game’s defense this year, the team is careful not to swing the balance of power too much in the checker’s direction. One huge improvement being made to the offense is one-touch dekes.

“What we want to focus on is the read and react,” Littman said. “There are two types of dekes. We have the right stick, which moves the stick back and forth in order to beat the goalie, but to beat a defender, we have a deking system where you need to move your body and the stick. And we don’t want canned animations. We want the puck loose so anything can happen.

“In ‘NHL 13,’ in order to do this, you actually needed to press three buttons at the same time, and it was something only the hardest of the hard-core was actually able to pull off. It was very complicated. Our new one-touch dekes in ‘NHL 14’ is making deking more accessible, but we’re not making it 100 percent successful all the time. That’s not what we want. But if you press the left bumper, you’re able to chain moves together much quicker, pulling off moves much more quickly while still giving you time to shoot on the goal. This is the counter to our big hitting system, as the number one priority to us is making sure everything is balanced.”

Goons and goals in balance? Sounds like fire on ice to me.