As technology gets better and video game visual inch ever closer to the uncanny valley, sports games in particular have strived for a level of realism that can pull in video game enthusiasts AND fans of the sport. With each passing year the NHL series has gotten closer and closer to that goal, but in its debut year on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 I’m not sure any game is going to challenge NHL 15 for “most realistic sports game of the year.” The level of detail the team has put into it is astounding, with the 15-minute presentation broke down the game’s new improvements into four categories: the player, the physics and AI, broadcast experience, and arena experience.

The 3D models for players used in previous NHL games, stripped down to the core, looked like the Michelin man, rounded in most areas and severely limited in movement potential. The new character models, also stripped down, actually resemble a hockey player with pads on. This allows for not only more realistic movement in the player, but in his jersey as well. The development team borrowed technology from the fashion industry to actually put the jersey on the players as we would put on a jersey ourselves, mean they will move and react to movement independently of the players wearing them. It’s a lot to wrap your head around, but seeing the players in action shows how efficient this approach is.

The player AI in NHL 15 is vastly improved as well, using what the developers are calling “Vision AI.” In NHL 14 an AI player’s decisions were usually linear: find puck, go to puck, shoot when near net, etc. Now with this Vision AI, players will make thousands of decisions per second, reacting to anything and everything that happens on the ice. No longer will they blindly march toward the player with the puck; they’ll be wary of their surroundings and defend their end of the ice just as real players would. The difference in AI intelligence is remarkable based on the pair of periods I played; I can’t just rush the net anymore like I used to.

The AI is buffered by the improvements made to the physics of the game, both for players and for the puck itself. NHL 14 only read physics for two players at a time, the puck carrier and the first guy defending him, but now every player on the ice has their own physics, making collisions away from the puck more realistic. The puck itself used to behave like a ball, resulting in a lot of “this puck isn’t realistic” fan feedback. To fix this, the dev team brought in a scientist who previously worked on the Large Hadron Collider (!!!) to help them develop the physics of an actual puck. The puck in NHL 15 finally behaves like a puck, with the same surface area and force as the real deal, so make sure your players don’t take one to the face.

In a major score, NHL 15 and NBC Sports have partnered to put the entire NBC Sports hockey package into the game, including the popular play-by-play team of Doc Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro (sorry, Pierre Lebrun fans). However, the dev team didn’t stop there; instead of just creating character models and recording generic intro dialogue, Emrick and Olczyk were filmed in front of a green-screen talking about dozens of different scenarios before a game started, preceded by an actual shot of the arena. In the demo I played, the two broadcasters actually talked about the rivalry between the Blackhawks and the Canadiens, discussing how the teams are two of the Original Six and such, which blew me away. Oh, and the green-screen behind them shows the NHL 15 version of inside of the arena, pulled right from the game you’re about to play. It’s unreal.

EA Sports
EA Sports

Speaking of the arena, the dev team didn’t want that to feel like the same old generic thing either, so they made a ton of changes. You’ve probably seen the screenshots of the inside of Madison Square Garden or Joe Louis Arena and how real they look, but it’s not just those enhancements I’m talking about. NHL 14 sported about 100 unique fans and copied them throughout the arena; NHL 15 has 9000 uniques. Everyone from the crazed super-fan in face paint to an away team fan who’s catching a bunch of crap to the uninterested girlfriend taking selfies instead of watching the game, they’re all there. The presentation showed a screenshot of the crowd, and I couldn’t spot a single duplicate among them; it was very impressive.

It’s the biggest challenge of an annual game like NHL to continue being fresh and fun despite coming every single year. The jump to the new generation has allowed NHL 15 to overhaul basically the entire experience, and what I saw makes me very confident that this will be the best year for hockey yet. Is it September yet?

NHL 15 will launch on the Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3  and PlayStation 4 on Sept. 9.

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