2021 is an exciting year for EA Sports’ NHL franchise. It’s making the jump to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, now powered by EA’s Frostbite engine, which will deliver “the biggest single-year visual upgrade to [the series] ever,” lead producer Clement Kwong told the media in a presentation last week. But perhaps the most important part of this generational transition is that EA isn’t leaving anyone behind.
When NHL 22 launches Oct. 15 on PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X, it will offer “full feature parity” across all four versions, according to Sean Ramjagsingh, vice president and general manager for the NHL franchise at EA Vancouver. This is unusual for sports games. The versions of Madden NFL, FIFA, and especially NBA 2K that launched on the new consoles last fall were not the same games as their last-gen counterparts, whether they offered enhanced gameplay or entirely new modes.
Now, this is a tough needle to thread: If you just bought a shiny new console, you might actually prefer an experience that is markedly different from what you’ve already played on your older machine. Otherwise, you might as well just run the last-gen version with backward compatibility, right?
It seems like EA Vancouver is aiming to deliver the best of both worlds. The current- and last-gen versions of NHL 22 both run on Frostbite, which means that PS4 and Xbox One players will be able to enjoy many — perhaps most — of the benefits that the engine transition provides. Kwong said that the game will “offer a substantial upgrade” on the visual front “that’s immediately recognizable to [PS4/Xbox One] players as well.”
That includes vastly improved ice, with a slick, reflective surface that also contains layers of depth. EA Vancouver has “completely rebuilt” dozens of player models to make their faces more accurate to real life, said Kwong, complete with upgraded skin and eye shading. And the use of a technique called deferred lighting allows for the integration of light sources that are authentic to each NHL arena.
Of course, the PS5 and Xbox Series X versions of NHL 22 will offer a few graphical bells and whistles on top of all this. Kwong mentioned better shadows and “dynamic lightning on the entire ice surface”; more detail for player faces, jerseys, and equipment, with “every stitch visible”; and enhanced particle effects on the ice.
“All the visual upgrades […] that just wasn’t possible with Ignite,” Kwong said in an interview with Polygon following the presentation, referring to the engine that powered some EA Sports titles on PS4 and Xbox One. “We pushed Ignite to the limit of what it was capable of.”
EA Sports’ FIFA and Madden NFL series both made the switch to Frostbite in the previous console generation (2016 for FIFA, 2017 for Madden). NHL was one of the last current series still using Ignite; EA Sports UFC 4, which launched in 2019, was made with Ignite, too.
Another change coming to NHL 22 on all platforms is a broadcast presentation refresh with new augmented reality graphics. You’ll see statistics, performance comparisons, and even penalty announcements appear in colorful overlays with giant, loud lettering. EA Vancouver is designing these pop-ups to be useful and smart, so to speak. Kwong told Polygon that the objective is for the game to deliver this kind of information “in context of the play that you just made, or the play you’re about to make,” and to do it without interrupting the flow of the action.
The switch to Frostbite will pay dividends on the ice itself, too, in the form of “enhanced spatial awareness for players,” EA said in a news release. And improvements to the game’s physics system will allow for “physically accurate stick interactions.” But the bigger gameplay change is something for which EA Vancouver is taking a page out of Madden NFL’s playbook: the introduction of Superstar X-Factor abilities for 150 of the NHL’s top players.
Integrated into exhibition games as well as the Be a Pro and franchise modes, X-Factors will exist in two types: Zone abilities, which are major buffs for “elite, game-changing” talents in the league, and Superstar abilities, which are less powerful but will still distinguish the players who have them. At launch, the NHL’s top 50 players will have a Zone ability in NHL 22 — just one each, because the benefits are that huge — while 100 players will have Superstar abilities.
For instance, Auston Matthews — who is NHL 22’s cover athlete, just two years removed from his appearance on the NHL 20 box — is blessed with the Zone ability known as Shock & Awe, which gives him “exceptional” shot power and accuracy when he’s coming out of a deke (or just made a deke). He also has five different Superstar abilities, including Puck on a String, which acknowledges his great stickhandling skills. All of that sounds very impressive, but it’s worth noting that when Superstar X-Factor abilities debuted in Madden NFL 20, we found that they didn’t matter all that much.
To hear Kwong tell it, the feature is part of an effort to expand the NHL franchise’s potential player base: “How do we generate excitement […] for those that may be casual gamers, but they’re really avid hockey fans?” EA is hoping that Superstar X-Factors will spark discussion over which players deserve these abilities in NHL 22. Considering how poorly the series’ previous generational transition went, the decision to bring last-gen players along for the ride this time around seems like a smart one.