Skating gets real in 'NHL 13'

The ability for virtual skaters to turn on a dime at full speed has long been the most unrealistic aspect of EA Sports’ “NHL” franchise.

But thanks to a revolutionary new skating engine being introduced in “NHL 13,” the days of cutting between defenders at the last second (and from impossible angles) are over, replaced by a system that favors momentum over uncanny mobility.

“We wanted to keep skating super accessible, while at the same time capturing top-end speed,” explains “NHL 13” producer Sean Ramjagsingh.

Simply push up on the left stick to skate forward. Hold the stick and your player will continue to accelerate until he reaches maximum speed.

“And because of our real-time physics, when you reach this top speed, you can’t just turn on a dime anymore,” adds Ramjagsingh. “In ‘NHL 12,’ you could turn on a dime whenever you wanted. But in ‘NHL 13,” when you get to top-end speed and try to cut in, it’s unpredictable. You can’t turn on a dime, and with the momentum worked in, the defense can now start to read you.

“Also, with the creativity part, this new skating system really helps take the shackles off of your lower body. It gives you a whole new level of creativity when you combine the new skating engine with the skill stick. When you hold the left trigger, that’s your back-skate button, so when you hit it, you can pivot on cue. We’ve seen guys in the office pull off new moves every single day, and I think the more people experiment and use the two abilities together, they’re going to see some really exciting moments.”

To go along with the new skating, all-new AI, dubbed “EA Sports Hockey IQ,” has been added to boost the cyber brains of every player on ice.

“We spent more time on AI this year than the last three years combined,” admits Ramjagsingh. “There is five times as much team strategy in the game. We saw how Philly and Tampa exploited the 1-3-1, so we have that in the game, along with the ability for you to customize how aggressive you want to be with your checks.”

In addition, the AI not only upgrades the thoughts of players around the puck, but away from the puck as well, so this year, players will attempt to get in better position away from the play instead of just standing around.

Goalie intelligence has also seen a major upgrade, with goalies now anticipating where you’re going to shoot, even leaning early to try to gain an advantage.

“In the past, when you tried to make a desperation save, the puck would just hit your arm,” adds Ramjagsingh. “This year, every single limb is in play. Now you can save anything, anywhere, with almost unlimited animations for your goalie.”

And from what I played last week at E3, these two new features completely flip “NHL” on its ear. The difference in skating is so dramatic, it’s almost like playing a different franchise, as you really need to think a few moves ahead now, rather than simply trying to dazzle opponents with stick skills. I saw some jaw-dropping goalie saves, and after a period, I was comfortable enough skating where I was able to successfully set up a sweet one-timer. But from what I played, the pivot is going to be huge this year, as instead of turning on a dime, it’s now about the ability to use the back-skate and pivot to work your way around defenders, even spinning as you slap the puck into the net.

It’s always a fine line video game producers try to skate between realism and fun, but “NHL 13” seemed to strike the right balance in the preview build I played, and with a few months still left to polish the final product, I expect big things from the game this year.