Hockey is the fastest team sport in the world. Designing a video game with that in mind can present some real struggles as a development team. Every minute of game play involves hundreds of split decisions by not only the user, but the A.I. as well. There are many variables to be aware of on the ice; the positioning of your opponent, the flow of the puck, and a sense that you sometimes need to see the future in order to maintain a grasp on a game that moves so quickly that each decision can have a huge impact on the outcome.
The EA SPORTS team that has developed the NHL series for 20 years has done a fantastic job in re-creating the pace of the game. Obviously, this console generation has given the team more tools and has allowed them to create the best hockey experience that we’ve ever had our hands on. However, a common complaint among users was how the A.I. reacted in certain situations. One example that stands out in my mind is the Goalie. In NHL 12, the masked man would only be aware of who was carrying the puck, and not aware of who was eligible to receive the puck – an option which can consist of up to 5 other players (extra man) including the puck carrier. What this meant for the user is that often they would be able to exploit goalies by making cross-crease passes and have the puck go in 9 times out of 10. This also pertains to the defenders as well – they were focused on the puck carrier and unaware of the developing play in a sense.
In NHL 13, EA SPORTS has introduced Hockey I.Q. A large task that involved countless hours of programming A.I. in order to better reflect the decisions made by the players on the ice. Ben Ross of EA SPORTS fills us in on the development cycle;
“Hockey IQ covers all of the major changes within AI for us this year. We had specific software engineers working the entire cycle on offensive, defensive and goaltender AI. The biggest difference from all of the systems is a bigger focus on multiple players on the ice which results in much more intelligent decision making from the AI. It also makes the players look much more like a team as opposed to individual players responding to what the puck carrier is doing. As a prime example, you will see a great team effort during the forechecks. There have been multiple times playing the game late in development that I have been hedged into my own zone and had trouble getting the puck out due to the pressure from the AI opposition.”
Goalies have been given plenty of attention in terms of Hockey I.Q., and the differences in their actions are noticeable within minutes of playing the title for the first time. They now make decisions based on what’s happening in front of them – and not solely based on where the puck carrier is going. On a 2-on-1, for example, the goalie will pick up on the odd man rush. Depending on the goalie in the scenario, they may be more apt to play the shooter and force a shot, or ‘cheat’ and attempt to play the pass earlier than it is received in order to better the chances of a save. The beauty of this system is that the goalie will react based on both their attributes as well as how his trailing defender has played the rush. If the defenseman picks up the rushing forward who would be on the receiving end of the pass, the goalie will pick up on this and position himself as if the puck carrier will simply shoot. This makes the angle tougher for the shooter and gives the goalie a much better chance.
“Goalies in NHL 13 are much more aware of potential scoring threats away from the puck. You will see them do a much better job getting across to make a save on a pass to a wide open player in front or on the opposite side of the net. The biggest change though is the individual limb control. You may see a goalie come across to make a save like they have in the past but with the ability this year to readjust and move any of their individual limbs back towards the puck, you will see many more realistic moments and also some fantastic saves that just weren’t possible in the past. Goalies can now reach back against their momentum or if they have slid across to cover the bottom of the net, they can still reach up and take away a goal that would have gone in above them before.
On the flip side, you will also see a big difference in regards to momentum from the goalies which makes them feel much more organic. If they push off really hard to make a big save on a pass across, this might work against them negatively if the player has time to pass the puck back and or is able to carry the puck back the other way. This rewards forwards when the defense has given them too much time and space but allows the goalie to take away the easy goal on a first pass which is definitely a big change from what was seen in previous titles.”
Of course, it’s not just the goalies getting the treatment in the I.Q. department. Users in NHL 13 will have an expanded in-game strategy system in order to fine-tune their offensive and defensive pressure and formations. In NHL 13, the user can adjust not only the fore-check formation, but also where the pressure is focused – in the neutral zone (for a more defensive approach) or hard into the offensive zone. The pressure system is adjusted and has a variance of 7 or 8 ‘ticks’. Each of which makes a minute adjustment to the respective pressure options. This gives the user a wide variety of options not only on the offensive side of the puck, but defensively as well.
“The new forechecks have added a lot to the game and with the ability to control the bias of how likely you will be to setup in a neutral zone or offensive forecheck, you have a lot of control over your pressure and the style of game your team will play.
This year, changing your strategies throughout a game can really make the difference between a win and a loss. If you read your opponent properly, there will always be a best way to defend against them and/or to get setup in the offensive zone. Using an aggressive forecheck is a great way to get the dump and chase game going, where as using a neutral zone system is a great way to eliminate a team that is finding it easy to carry the puck in on you.
The AI also does a great job analyzing how you have played during the course of a game and will change up their strategies to limit your success against them and increase their success against you. The system is very complex and doesn’t just look at being scored on as a failure on their part. As a few examples, they know if they have been beat with too many stretch passes or if you have been able to skate the puck through the middle of the ice. Even if those odd man rushes don’t result in scoring chances, they may still switch up their gameplan to eliminate those chances in future puck possessions.”
During the NHL 13 Community Event back in May, we had quite a bit of time to play with these new strategies and I came away from these sessions extremely impressed with how well they influenced my team’s play. As someone who uses strategies and adjusts them quite often during play – I was relieved to see that the ‘clunkyness’ of the strategy changes that was present in NHL 12, was gone in NHL 13. It’s a very responsive overlay when compared to last season and although the ‘look’ of it has not changed; it’s much smoother to control.
There is more responsibility on the user to recognize a team who is being too aggressive or too passive. If you want the upper hand in NHL 13, you need to familiarize yourself with what a strong fore-check looks like and use that to potentially expose a team who is simply pushing up too far. The flip side of that is you also need to be cognizant of what lines you have on the ice and which players thrive under certain offensive and defensive strategies. With the new skating system, you’ll find yourself in tough if you’ve got your defenseman pinching quite often and they’re not the most agile or speediest skaters. If your breakout is defensive you will under-utilize a player like Marion Gaborik – forcing him to navigate through a potential 1-3-1 defensive setup and not gaining the speed he would with a more aggressive offensive rush.
The possibilities are endless – and on top of all of this there is also the option to customize your A.I. for your team. Although I can’t get into specifics yet, this feature allows the user full control and plenty of creativity in order to have an effective plan while heading into battle on the frozen surface. When tied into the new ‘coach mode’ – this really gives users something that’s been asked for since the series turned a corner into the simulation market – actually being able to be a coach for an NHL team. Setting strategies, changing lines and even having the ability to call for shots on the ice. Combined with the new True Broadcast Camera angle – it really feels like EA SPORTS Hockey I.Q. has helped evolve a new way of playing EA SPORTS NHL 13.