Given the annual sales of Madden and FIFA, it’s rare that EA’s ice hockey series is afforded the opportunity to break new ground. Massive news, then, from our behind-the-scenes glimpse at NHL 23. Ultimate Team is the biggest mode in all of gaming, and this year’s puck-smacking version will be the first ever to feature female players. Not in a standalone mode, either. Sarah Nurse, Jenni Hiirikoski, and Amanda Kessel can compete in your line-up either alongside or against the likes of Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Trevor Zegras.
For the purposes of HUT, players handle according to the rating on their card regardless of sex. So a 93-rated Hiirikoski item will feel much like a 93-rated male equivalent. This isn’t as curious as it sounds, when you consider how special cards work across all versions of Ultimate Team: Glasgow Rangers captain James Tavernier doesn’t have 99 Pace in real life, but that’s the rating affixed to his FIFA 22 TOTY card. So you’d expect this to act as a testbed for Euro 2022 winners Beth Mead and Ella Toone taking the field next to Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in FUT going forwards.
Lead producer Clement Kwong doesn’t confirm that plan, but at least hints at it. “I’ve been at the studio 18 years and actually worked on FIFA before coming over to NHL, and still have a lot of friends there, and on the Madden team,” he tells GR. “The reason our transition to Frostbite went so smoothly last year was off the [back of the hard work from both those teams. There’s a lot of knowledge sharing, and this year we’ve been working with the FIFA team on cross-play. It’s a collaboration. So yeah, the hope is that we would continue to drive diversity, inclusion and awareness in all our sports.”
Rink of fire
Improved rink atmosphere is another area where you’d expect NHL 23 to drive change in its stablemates. The dev team has dedicated resources to ensure the crowd properly pays attention to what’s happening on the ice, and reacts in real-time. Sustain attacks with the home team and decibel levels rise in anticipation of a goal. Important hat tricks see the game held up while caps are strewn across the rink, and booing is an equally important addition. Much like real life, fans jeer at opposition players, wasted power plays, and – best of all! – refs who they deem to be homers. Let’s see whether EA Sports FC has the confidence to implement that feature next year, after breaking free from the shackles of FIFA.
What of gameplay, though? Like me, new senior design director Mike Inglehart grew up playing the series on Genesis and Mega Drive, and is keen to usher back lapsed fans alongside those who purchase the game annually – or have never experienced it at all. “It’s fair to say there are certain things in our game that take skill to unlock, such as the dekes and the special moves, and [accessibility] is an area I do want to focus on in the future,” he says. However, Ingelhart admits this is a goal spread across a number of seasons, rather than something which can be resolved in one year.
For now, the first forward step is the arrival of cross-play. As touched on by Kwong, the NHL 23 and FIFA 23 teams worked together on this, and implementation is near identical. PS5 players can compete against Xbox Series X rivals, while PS4 and Xbox One get to cross sticks too. Elsewhere, keepers are said to be more human, capable of one-off worldie saves but dropping the odd error too. “We pounded on this a lot during our tuning cycle, and we think that balance is there,” says Ingelhart. Defenders get a strong, more impactful array of big hits, while attackers benefit from greater effectiveness when shooting through traffic or swinging from the slot. They can also get efforts away while falling over, thanks to ‘last chance’ puck physics.
“The problem we’re trying to solve is what our community calls stun lock,” explains Ingelhart. “In past editions, as soon as you got bumped off the puck you couldn’t do anything, even if it was right in front of you. What we’ve done now is, when the puck is in that position, you can still make a play on it. You can initiate a pass or a shot and depending on the degree to which you’re stumbling, and a player’s size and the strength of the hit, there are some amazing potential outcomes. And lots of subtle moments that occur as a result, too. I think people will react to it in a very energetic way.”
Roll the ice
Myriad tweaks to World of Chel are promised, but it’s the reinvigorated Franchise Mode that stands out at this point. In a move unlikely to ever be green-lit for Madden, you now have the power to rip up the NHL and start over. Reckon the league would be better off with six teams? Then kill off the other 26 and begin again. Or expand with your own made-up franchises, like the London Big Bens, Reykjavik Icemen and/or Atlantic Otters. Up to 48 teams can be included in total. Conferences, divisions, draft options, and salary caps are all also user-defined, giving a level of freedom, which is frankly astonishing for an EA game.
Franchise remains an all-male proposition, but EA Canada’s commitment to equality is nonetheless commendable. In addition to incorporating female players into Ultimate Team, this is the first NHL game to include full IIHF women’s rosters, and a female cover star. Nurse is the lady granted that honor, sharing the packaging with Zegras. “We’ve worked with her on a new X-Factor, called Relentless, and she’s been on board with our IIHF collaboration from the get-go,” says Kwong. Even if you never use female squads, there’s no drawback to NHL 23 expanding in this way. Are we hopeful, then, for its October 16 release date? Puck yes.