EA Sports: NHL Franchise - “A Gem That Needs Polishing”

by Sweetness, June 25, 2012

                  Let’s face it- when it comes to sports on gaming consoles, the Electronic Arts Sports division is unrivaled. Literally. EA produces a game for every sport out there, aside from Sumo wrestling and Bao-Taoshi that is, for now at least. Not to mention this all happens on an annual basis. But who’s keeping track? Not me.

-Let’s take a look at the NHL franchise.

                  Since the beginning of its creation in NHL94, fans have been captivated by its ability to take control of your favorite players, lay down the hammer with open ice hits, dangle the pads off of your opponent, and light the lamp up like the 4th of July. Obviously there were kinks back then, such as all the players looking the same, and having the aspect ratio demented to that of Dr. Seuss’ kid books. But that was 17 years ago. Over those 17 years, EA Sports has made it a motif that every year, the game will get better, and so it has. Actually, 17 years of work has developed  into realism so amazing that it’s mind boggling.
                   In NHL 12, the most current game, the graphics are almost as real as real life. The ice matures as the game wears down: from going to a glass appearance, to that of white slush. The fans interact, slam the boards, and even have their own interactions… a far cry to previous games where the fans looked like they just arrived from the game “Paper Mario”.  Players faces are also easily distinguishable, sticks can break, helmets can be lost, and the goals can be knocked off their mounts: altering player’s strategies, and also dramatically contributing to the realism of such a great piece of gaming magic. You can also choose from a bevy of different leagues, ranging from the Boston Bruins all the way to the National Teams, and then down to the Legends team. Rosters are also updated on the fly, so when a player gets injured in real life, you can no longer play as them in Online Ranked mode until they are healthy again.
                  In-game announcing has been finally refined to a wide database of catch phrases used by Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, which are sometimes agitating, and other times are always helpful to keeping the momentum in balance for that of us gamers. Simply said, EA Sports really did their homework when it comes to making the game feel realistic, and keeping the user enticed and hooked onto the game. However, on the other hand, when it comes down to the nuts and bolts that every good hockey game relies and operates on, it is apparent that EA Sports slept through that class.
                  First and foremost, I will get this off my back and say that the soundtrack is absolutely garbage. The soundtrack of NHL10 wasn’t so bad, and neither was NHL11…but this game’s soundtrack just ticks me off for some reason. The Nickleback-ish songs are exactly the opposite of what I want to hear when I boot up my PS3 to play some hockey. To some, the music might be tolerable in the menus of NHL, but for the introduction for the team, or for winning the Stanley Cup, one would expect something different that fits the bill better.
                  Now that I got that off my mind, let’s dive deeper into the gameplay itself. One of the biggest things that stands out, even to rookies who have played no more than five games, is that there are certain sweet spots to score from. 1st and foremost is that of the 2 on 1 offensive rush: all a player has to do is skate up the side, dish it across the ice to the other offender, shoot, and bury it into the back of the net easily, while the CPU goalie flails around like Marty Brodeur against the LA Kings. This strategy is widely known, and most of the time produces goals, even on high end goalies like Patrick Roy and Roberto Luongo. EA Sports has really clamped down on this high octane play in the past couple years, being that goalies in NHL12 now have a chance to get squared up to the second shooter. However, the majority of shots like this still get let in, and more veteran players always set up their defenses to prevent this, because it almost guarantees a cash-out moment for their opponent. EA Sports definitely needs to increase the goalie’s ability to go side to side, because in real life goalies like Luongo and Fleury have made their paychecks just off of these moments. Other high percentage shots include wraparound shelf shots, the left-right-left-shoot breakaway move, and the top corner snipe from the faceoff circle. Knowing these spots should dramatically change a players strategy, however EA Sports should again increase goalie awareness and maybe include an adaptive module that will help the goalie learn what a player’s go-to move is. Such simple additions like this will make the gameplay even more realistic, and will promote the presence of an adaptive gamer, instead of having mediocre players sniffing out “glitch goals” and beating better players easily.
                  It is apparent that goalie AI needs re-mapped, and maybe even re-considered: but the truth is that the AI for the whole game is almost rubbish. Even when playing with the all-time legends such as Gretzky and Lemiuex, the AI still seems the same as that of any team on NHL12. I would like to point out that it was the intelligence of players like Gretzky, Lemiuex, Lidstrom, and Howe that made them good, made them famous, and made them legends. The AI in the game should clearly reflect it, and maybe should have a trickle down system where the AI gradually drops as the player’s rating drops. Anyhow, examples of AI deficiency can be seen in how the CPU positions themselves whilst the user has the puck. When behind the net, the CPU should put a player 10ft in front of the net to setup for an easy pass to him for an easy goal; however, I find the CPU skating behind the net to come have a chat with me, skating into the goalie, and once in a blue moon, finally posting up like how he/she should. Also, while on the forecheck through the neutral zone, I find my teammates running into me(especially at the blue line), stalling my momentum, then have the whole other team come jump the puck like a group of schoolchildren chasing a soccer ball. This is a must fix for EA, as it makes the developers look like they never watched a hockey game in their lives. This is making me wonder if they consult actual hockey players, and if they don’t, why has it taken 17 years to do so? One of the last things I will touch upon of that of AI, is that of “AI/CPU Game Tilt Momentum”, which seems extremely evident as a hidden feature for online play. It seems that EA might have a system setup, knowing or unbeknownst, that tilts the game in the favor of someone from the start based on record, streak number, and skill level. Such as times when it seems like the opponent goaltender is hot, whilst your goaltender lets little dinkers in. It might not seem this way to all gamers, but rather to those who play a lot, and know their strengths and weaknesses and can easily tell when something is not performing how it should.
                  Lastly, the game physics of this game are extremely flawed. I understand that a video game must be made from scratch, with millions upon millions of different entities all functioning together; but some things that go wrong in this game are sometimes obnoxious. In online play, and offline play, the physics suffer horribly and tremendously change the game. For example, when shooting or passing, sticks will often pass through players legs and bodies, making it completely unrealistic, and let shots and passes be performed that completely alter the outcome of a game. Pucks have been also been known to go through sticks, skates, and other equipment especially in overtime where every single detail matters.
There is also is an invisible wall at the goal opening, as it seems, because the puck will often stop dead at the red line, especially after having a decent amount of velocity to it. In instant replay mode, I’ve seen open net shots be re-routed to hit the post, when the original puck path (in a straight line) would be a sure goal. Also, when the CPU passes, it likes to pass in right angles, sometimes going 2-3 feet in one way (to avoid being intercepted) and then turns and goes to another player (who could have never received the pass if in a straight line.) Things like these are excruciatingly unacceptable, especially coming from a giant sports monopoly like EA Sports.  After all, we the gamers, are the ones that spend the big money to afford these gaming systems and games that keep these companies wealthy. Could it be considered we are given a bad product? Yes.
                  Simply said, EA Sports has to put on a show for us for NHL13. As from the commercials seen already about the many new features, it looks promising, but keep in mind that we should not be wowed by features unless the fundamentals are fixed. It is the fundamentals in life that make life great, and it is the fundamentals in video games that make video games great. EA Sports needs to go back to the drawing board, and work their way back up, rather than just throw sprinkles on top of a rotten cone of ice cream and re-sell it. As the title of this article states, the NHL Franchise is “A Gem that Needs Polishing” being that it has so much potential, but it is tied down because it has many flaws that negatively affect the game. I would rather have perfect physics, than have all the hubbub that goes on aside from the actual hockey game itself. It might just be me, because I am a hockey player, and I use this game to try to hone my hockey sense. If EA wants to add hubbub, how about add stuff that hockey fans will go crazy for: such as the Green Men in Vancouver, having the squid in Detroit, the Catfish in Nashville, have “Don’t Stop Believing” play in the 3rd Period when Detroit wins, have the Zamboni, have mascots, have the crowd chant “Lou” when Luongo comes up big, have Philly chant “Crosby Sucks”, and have players grow playoff beards and boast different facial hair on a random basis. Now that will be a game! Wait, did I just see Jagr salute after scoring an OT Goal in NHL12? Well, they got one thing right! This game has so much potential, and I really hope EA capitalizes on it. It could be one of the biggest selling games in America, and all they have to do is spend an extra couple hours a week working at it.

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Posted Wed Jun 27 at 9:24pm with