In about a month, hockey will be back in full force, whether you’re watching the puck drop on your TV or putting on your skates at NHL 22. This year, EA Vancouver is calling on its elite talent to be the differentiators, featuring Superstar X-Factors, which provide special abilities and moves for the best of the best. This will affect the game by forcing you to anticipate the abilities of these players each time they hit the ice, and they will be present in all major game modes. To learn more about this feature and how it’s taking NHL 22 to new places, we sat down with producer Clement Kwong, who also answered some of our other big questions about the latest entry in EA’s NHL series.
Some players have reservations about Superstar X-Factors being overpowered and giving certain teams an advantage. For example, why not choose the Tampa Bay Lightning every time, as it would be packed with these abilities? You get a stellar goalkeeper in Vasilevskiy along with elite talents in Kucherov, Point, Stamkos, and Hedman. How does EA Vancouver ensure that X-Factor skills are properly balanced while still being fun?
Kwong: Here are a couple of things. One is that we constantly work with our community, with our EA game changers group. Since NHL 16, we had started this specific group with different experts, covering the game, Be A Pro, and all sorts of different modes. So with X-Factor this year, in addition to being available in all modes and having integration there, we also have gameplay experts within that group to give us feedback. We constantly provide them with weekly builds, make updates and changes to the game, tweaking the mechanics. There is some feedback that we have already received from there.
Second, obviously, is the technical test that just ended. With the competitive balance side of things, what better way to prove it than our CHEL community? If there are any imbalances or exploits, that’s where we find out. So those two data points really report any kind of balance, change, or adjustment that we might need to launch.
How often are the X factors activated during a game? I know fewer players have the powerful “Zone” X factors, and it’s for the big superstars, but how many times will I see Auston Matthews’ Shock and Awe skill hit? Is it that every time he hits the ice he can make that move, or do you need to do something to activate it?
Unlike Madden’s design model, where you have to launch a [certain amount of] yards to finish in a single play, the game of hockey is different in terms of having line changes, the speed of the game, and it has no special teams outside of penalties and the power play. We had to take a slightly different approach whereby the “Zone” and “Superstar” abilities are always active in the correct context.
Take McDavid’s Wheels Zone capability, for example. He is known for being the fastest player in the game, with or without the puck. You are not going to have his ability if you are in your own defensive zone or if you are rushing through a defensive task. However, what you will see is that if he has a disc and takes it through the neutral zone and the or zone, that is where you will have the ability activated. So depending on the skill, it is contextual. We don’t have a specific trigger or event to activate it; it is always active in the correct context. And the reason for that goes back to what I said before; Hockey is such a fast sport with line changes. If we implemented a layout where you had to activate it, you really wouldn’t have too many moments. We tested it from the beginning.
It has been said that the X factors are going to change the metagame. How have they changed the way you play?
With the challenge of pace of play and team play, really. I will use the example of the World of CHEL. We are changing the way we create our player classes with lots of feedback from the community. Until now, we’ll say, ‘Hey, this is the option [build]” and a day later, it’s like, ‘Actually, no, this is the way, this is how you counter it.’ That, for me, is an interesting exploration. It’s not just about min-maxing anymore. Earlier in CHEL, you tried to accumulate these skills, discover different combinations and which one to give the extra point. It is no longer about that extra point, although it is a kind of secondary layer available. In World of CHEL, it’s all about your play style and the opponents you face.
A brief example I’ll use is truculence, which is kind of a great man’s skill and you can basically take anyone down. I tend to play as a smaller build with shooting precision, or the ability to handle with sticks, and I was playing someone and they just totally destroyed me, even though they’re [so] much slower. He just couldn’t help it. So there have to be different ways to counter those new classes of players.
So each class of player should feel a little different and do you have to find ways to counter these types of players? One of my biggest complaints in previous iterations is that all the players felt too similar. In CHEL, you could tweak some stats, but they never felt enough and you’d use similar tactics no matter who was on the ice.
Yes, I would say that you definitely need to think more about how you are building your player class and how you are building players in your lineup. And for Franchise mode, team chemistry plays a huge role. It’s changing the way you build and manage your squad lineups.
Let’s mention the poke check because it was quite powerful in NHL 21. Has it been adjusted for NHL 22?
To be honest, that’s something we’ve heard a lot during NHL 22 production from our Game Changers, who say, “Hey, where there’s a chance, let’s fix the poke control.” That’s where the stick and physics come in. So when you look at the skill side where we’ve separated defensive players, like Victor Hedman or Drew Doughty, they are much better, much more efficient at pushing pucks without taking penalties. That is a cape.
The second layer is to make the stick react realistically. It adds more predictability to the way we resolve push controls, both in terms of the force and power that defenders or skaters are pressing, as well as the way the stick interacts with the body and with the disk. So the short answer is yes, absolutely. When you start the game and play this year, we’ve made some massive improvements in that area.
Be A Pro received a big update last year, and this year it is said to have stories from various seasons. Can you talk about how it’s going to work and what are some of those stories?
With X-Factors changing the journey in Be A Pro in terms of wanting to progress and unlock and grow in the most powerful abilities, we needed a way to tell those stories. We wanted to address some of the comments we had in terms of, ‘Hey, it was great that you had this conversational system, but it’s a bit repetitive and you don’t have stories from multiple seasons.’ Well this year, we brought in X-Factors, we brought in new challenges, we brought in new stories that span multiple seasons. So you have your example of winning multiple divisions, winning multiple awards, to what Pat Maroon did: winning multiple cups in consecutive seasons with different teams. And what the new challengers allow you to do is unlock new X-Factor points so that you can unlock slots for abilities to assign to your created character.
This is probably a question you get every year, but it is essential to the game. Whether it’s defense, offense, or the ability to create better plays, what AI enhancements did the EA Vancouver team really focus on this year?
AI is an area that we invest in annually. I don’t think we can say that we are going to fix all of our AI problems because as our community plays and players play, the AI will surely take some actions that don’t make sense to the player. Specifically for defensive AI and to join the rush, we’ve made some improvements and updates there, more on the core AI tier rather than a massive overhaul of new features.
The other piece is how AI players support you as a player in HUT or World of CHEL now that you have these new X-Factor abilities. So with many AI players also possessing these skills, like with passing for example, they have been updated to accommodate what it means to have better team play and pass the puck to you when you have the One-Tee zone skill. [which gives you advanced power and accuracy on one-timers]. So, there have been minor updates, but it’s something we remove year after year.
From checks to franchise mode changes, faster Kwong confirmations:
- There won’t be any new skill moves like last year’s “The Michigan”, but the new animations are tied to the new zone and abilities of the superstar X-Factor. Kwong used the example of a power forward who has better strength and balance, showing him with an animation to lean over and drive down the lane. [while still] be able to protect the opposing defender’s puck.
- Has the check improved? Kwong says so. “We have definitely updated the models for collisions and trips, specifically.” However, Kwong says it won’t always shrink down to player size by separating a player from the puck, referencing a player’s strength and balance to determine how easily they go down. He used Pavel Datsyuk as an example of a player who was only 5’11 but still strong on his skates and said this is where X-Factor’s new abilities shine for certain types of players.
- You can expect more realistic interactions and psychics this time around, with players hitting pucks in the air and disrupting passing lanes more naturally. This also led him to say that he will see fewer penalties with push checks. “In the past, you would see punctures through the skates and obviously that’s not realistic when you bump into players, and that has been a source of frustrations. That is something that is fixed now. “
- For fans of Franchise mode, finding the right player for the training systems will continue to be a factor, and the trade deadline minigame (sadly) remains intact. Kwong also said that exploration hasn’t changed much, except for the ability to find out if players have X-Factors. He said to focus on having the best possible scouts because there will be more gems in later rounds. The chemistry of the line is also a bigger factor in this mode due to the X factors. “The really simple example I use is that you want to make sure that you are complementing your skill as a passing zone player with someone who can also shoot, either [increased] Single timer, swipe or wrist accuracy, ”says Kwong. “The combination of complementary skill sets will greatly increase your line chemistry, while [soley] depending on a player [with these special abilities] It will just give you a little boost. “
- Kwong confirmed that players can have a maximum of one Zone skill and up to five Superstar skills in total.
- No new scenes were added to Be A Pro, but Kwong said there are hundreds of new conversations that also tie into the mode’s new podcast show to support its journey and branching stories. He also confirmed that you are still choosing between the “star” or “team” dialogue options to determine what kind of teammate you want to be.