Search For Posters!
  Join the SGN staff!
Help Wanted
Release Dates


About Us

The Sports

Partner Links
Auto Insurance Quote
Irvine Moving Companies
LA Moving Companies
Brand Name Shoes

[an error occurred while processing the directive]

The Perfect Hockey Game Revisited.

About two years ago our own Joe McGinn wrote a column entitled The Perfect Hockey Game where he outlined three major areas where hockey games needed improvement in order to make them more realistic: physics, AI, and momentum. A few months later a plethora of hockey games were released; NHL FaceOff 2000, NHL 2000, and NHL Championship 2000 in the fall of 1999, and Sega Sports' NHL2K was released on the Dreamcast in early 2000. While FaceOff 2000 and NHL 2000 were uninspired arcade hockey games, NHL Championship and NHL2K were admirable attempts at creating true hockey simulations and both addressed some of the issues Joe raised in his column. However, the extensive gameplay advances in other sports games, particularly in soccer and football games, have revealed even more areas where hockey games need improvement if they are to be considered simulations.

At their core even the highly regarded NHL2k and NHL Championship 2000 aren't fundamentally different from EA Sports' NHL series and 989 Sports' FaceOff series. Sure NHL2K and NHL Championship have decent AI and good skating and puck physics, but their representation of the sport of ice hockey isn't really different from that depicted in other arcade hockey titles. Recently, I had said that NHL 2001 for the PC was a step in the right direction towards becoming a simulation, but when you look at advances in other sports games NHL 2001 isn't nearly as realistic at portraying ice hockey as ISS Pro Evolution 2 is to soccer or as Madden 2002 is to gridiron football. Many people in the gaming industry seem to have this perception of the NHL as an open game of free-flowing scoring chances - but just play any videogame hockey title and then watch an NHL playoff game and they're nothing alike. NHL hockey is about clutching, grabbing, tying your man up against the boards, dumping the puck deep in the zone, being aggressive on the forecheck and cycling the puck down low to create scoring opportunities. Videogame hockey is more like basketball - rush down to one end and try to score, rush back down the other end, repeat ad nauseum. You can slow the game down, make the skaters move more realistically, change the puck elasticity, but at the end of the day it's still the same breakaway relay. Developers really need to stop trying to give gamers their interpretation of hockey, and give us a true to life simulation of the sport.

Looking at control and AI systems from other sports games I've identified 6 areas where live-action hockey games need reworking if they are to be considered serious simulations--shooting, goaltending, passing, puck handling & skating, checking & general defensive play, and of course, AI.

One of the many problems with today's hockey games is their shooting systems. Most of the time they're far too simple. As you're probably aware, most hockey games (with the exception of NHL Championship 2000) use a simple single button system; a tap is a wrist shot, while holding down shoot results in a slapshot. This same system is used in 989 Sports' NHL FaceOff, EA Sports' NHL series, and in Visual Concepts' NHL 2K. Aiming the shot is as simple as pointing the D-pad or the analog stick to the desired corner of the net. In my opinion this is far too simple, while individual shooting attributes determine if a wrist shot is strong or weak, what if you wanted to float a gentle wrist shot with Joe Sakic instead of unleashing a lightning fast wrister? What if you wanted to fire in a very fast wrist shot with Darius Kaspiritis regardless of the accuracy? In essence this shooting system is basically the same shooting system present way back in the first EA Sports' NHL games on the Genesis, and while in real life shooting is a large skill component of hockey, in videogame hockey it's been reduced to a simple tap.

So how can the shooting system be changed? Well, EA Sports's NHL series recently introduced more complexity into the shooting system with a shooting powerbar for slap slots. However, hockey is a lightning fast sport and this powerbar takes far too long to reach maximum and makes getting a powerful slap shot on net quite cumbersome. I'm sure Al Macinnis can unleash a 90+ mph slap shot a lot quicker than 2-3 second period it takes to fully charge up the shooting meter in NHL 2001. Furthermore, this powerbar doesn't apply to wrist shots or backhanders and it doesn't have as large an affect on the accuracy of a shot as the similar shooting power bar in ISS Pro Evolution. Taking into account the need to have some form of control over the power and degree of accuracy of slapshots and wrist shots, and the quick pace of the NHL, the ideal solution would be to use a system similar to that in ESPN MLS ExtraTime on the PS2. ExtraTime utilizes the PS2's analog buttons to enable players to control both the power and the height of the shot. A modified version of this could easily be used in hockey games where you have two different buttons for shooting--one for wrist shots and one of slap shots, and the d-pad is still used to aim the shot into the desired corner of the net. This is similar to the control scheme in NHL Championship 2000. However, using analog buttons the manner in which you press the shoot button now affects the shot. For example, the faster you press and release the shoot button the quicker you get the shot off, but the less accurate it is. So if you pass the puck across the ice to Brett Hull and you want to get off a quick shot before the goalie has time to cut across the crease you give the wrist shot button a hard, quick tap. However, if you're coming in on a clean breakaway, you have time, and want to place an accurate shot into the top corner, you aim with the d-pad and then press and release the shoot button gently. The shooter will take a second longer to let fly with a shot, but it will be far more accurate. Lobbing the goalkeeper in ExtraTime works the same way and using the correct speed and sensitivity when pressing the button is quite a difficult skill to master. The speed/strength of the shot can be controlled in this way as well; the harder you press the shoot button the faster the puck flies, however the less accurate the shot. While this system sounds very complicated it's implemented excellently in ESPN MLS ExtraTime. Not only would a shooting system like this add a great deal of skill to hockey games, it would still allow for pronounced differences between different players. Returning to the Brett Hull example where you release a quick wrist shot, even though the wrist shot was released quickly and therefore at the expense of some accuracy, Hull's high shooting stats would still mean that a quick wrist shot by him would still be far more accurate than one by someone with lower shooting stats like Darcy Tucker.

The shooting should also take into account the shooter's body position in greater depth than just being a backhanded shot or a regular shot. For example, if the puck is a foot or two in front of the shooter, and he has time, his shot will be more accurate. However, if he's hemmed in along the boards and tries to fire one at net from an acute angle it might not even hit the net. This would also have ramifications for playing defense as you could try to force a skater out wide, or knock him off his stride, and I'll discuss this in more detail later.

Not only would these changes to the shooting system add a true skill element and a learning curve to shooting, most importantly these changes would also mean a great deal more variation in the way goals are scored and would also add a greater sense of satisfaction when scoring. It would also make exploiting a goalie's weakness more difficult: sure Cloutier may have a weak blocker side, but can you put the puck there every time on a consistent basis?

Another big problem I have with hockey games is the way goaltenders behave and the way gamers react to goaltenders. In real life, you see quite a few goals scored from a few yards inside the blue-line where a skater comes in and often unleashes a slap shot or a wrist shot that beats the goalie clean or trickles in - especially on the power play. However, when goals are scored like this in videogame hockey we all yell and scream at the TV (or computer monitor) at the weak goaltending. Goals scored from the blue-line (or a few yards inside the blue-line) in videogame hockey infuriate us. One of the main problems is that we know that these 'weak' goals are scored by fluke and they either can't be recreated, or they represent a bug in the goaltending AI and can be re-created ad nauseum. While improvements in the shooting system will add a lot of skill to goal scoring that doesn't mean that goaltender AI should remain the same.

One area that has to be changed is the way goaltenders handle the puck. For years in EA Sports' NHL series we've seen goaltenders make a save, give a small rebound and a split second see the loose puck mysteriously gravitate towards the goaltender. If a videogame goalie gives up a small rebound he should have to physically reach over and pick up or smother the puck. Of course, this would mean he'd need to have competent and intelligent defensemen to provide support and cover him, but the topic of AI is one that I'll address later. A more ridiculous situation is when you stickhandle right into the goaltender and the moment you touch him he immediately has possession of the puck, either in his glove or more absurd, the puck ends up glued to his stick ready to pass. If you stick handle into a goaltender he should attempt to poke check the puck away or the puck should rebound out into play when it hits him.

Another area where goaltender AI has to improve is with the rebounds; simply put, there should be more rebounds. At this point you probably think I'm a lunatic since in most games we want fewer rebounds because they lead to cheap goals (especially in NHL FaceOff 2000 where the 'rebound goal' is the staple goal of most gamers). But the actual rebound isn't what leads to the possibility of a cheap goal - in most NHL video games you see goaltenders not only save point-blank shots, but also retain possession of the puck! Turn up the 'Goalie Boost' in NHL 2001 and take a hard low slap shot on net; 9/10 the goaltender will not only make the pad save but also retain possession of the puck! That's absolutely ridiculous - how can a goaltender possibly kick out his leg to stop a 90mph puck, and not give even a slight rebound? At the very least he should stop the puck and take a second to dive down and corral the puck. The first reason why rebounds lead to cheap goals in videogame hockey is due to the fact that once a CPU controlled goaltender makes a save he tends to do two things: he either stays completely frozen for a second or two (like in NHL FaceOff 2001 & 2000) allowing you to deposit the puck into the gaping net, or he stays frozen but when you shoot the puck at the gaping net he often 'cheats' by making a ridiculous last second dive that always keeps the puck out (NHL 2001 & NHL2K). Either way, goalies need to have greater positional awareness, once they make a save they should either attempt to physically smother the puck, or they should get into position to make the second save. Of course the second reason why rebounds lead to cheap goals is that CPU defensemen don't adequately cover back and support their goaltender. The improved goaltender and defenseman AI in tandem with the more realistic rebounds would lead to much more realistic and frantic goal-mouth scrambles and would make clearing the front of net on defense much more vital.

Finally, it would be nice to see discernable differences between the playing styles of the goaltenders. Currently all the goaltenders in a particular videogame employ the same playing style and only differ in their physical attributes and visual appearance. For a hockey game to be considered a simulation goaltenders have to act the way they do in real life. If you're facing Hasek you should expect to see him exhibit poor positional sense, poor puck handling skills but he'll also have excellent reflexes and be very aggressive coming out of his net a lot to close down the angle and challenge the shooter. Whereas if you're facing Brodeur you should see him be much less aggressive, but have much better positional sense and puck handling.

Much like the shooting system, the passing system in hockey games could benefit from a similar analog system, rather than a simple pass, and sometimes a dump-in pass. With passing, the system could be slightly more simple; the harder you push the pass button the faster the pass goes, and the longer you hold the pass button the higher it goes. This would add a skill component to the passing - you could be passing with Joe Sakic but if you hold down the pass button too long or push the pass button too hard then your pass will go astray. The success of the pass should also factor in the passing attributes of the passer, the puck control attributes of the recipient, and the position of both the passer and recipient relative to the puck.

For example, Mario Lemieux could have excellent passing attributes, but if he sends a hard low pass to Dan LaCouture (who would have poor puck control and passing attributes) the chances are LaCouture won't be able to control it properly and lose the puck. Reverse the situation and while LaCouture's pass wouldn't be very accurate, Lemiuex's high puck control attributes would allow him to sweep up the puck and gain control. While these types of ratings are employed in most hockey games, they hardly ever make a difference. When playing any hockey game do you ever consider not passing across center to a streaking winger because the passer, Todd Gill, has poor passing attributes and the pass will likely go astray? The chances are never - when you pass in videogame hockey you always expect the pass to always go directly to the receiver who'll control it perfectly. Even when you turn off 'Pass Accuracy' in NHL 2001 all you're doing is introducing a few random, errant passes which isn't the way to go for a simulation. For all intents and purposes, in videogame hockey Todd Gill is just as good a passer as Adam Oates, and that has to change.

Position-dependent passing should also make passing and controlling a pass on a player's backhand noticeably more difficult than doing so on a player's forehand.

Puck handling and skating
I remember when NHL 2001 came out for the PC a lot of gamers felt that low slider settings for Game Speed, Speed Burst Length and Speed Burst % created a realistic skating experience, I should know - I was one of them. However, after many weeks of play it became clear to me that while these settings create realistic hockey in terms of the shots-on-goal totals and the final scores, these settings don't simulate what real skating is like - it's as if the players aren't skating on slick ice, but rather in a shallow pool of cold molasses. The fact of the matter is that hockey players are blazingly fast and they can practically stop on a dime, but whether they can control the puck while doing so is another matter. The decreased speed settings in NHL 2001 are merely to make up for the AI failings. For that reason I find the skating model in Sega Sports' NHL2K is probably the best around. The skating in NHL FaceOff 2001 for the PSX is also very smooth and fairly realistic especially on breakaways (the problem in that game comes from the exaggerated puck control characteristics and the ridiculously tight turning radii when skating), in fact one of the most enjoyable things about FaceOff 2001 for the PSX are the breakaways - when one on one with the goalie, with the game speed at about a third of maximum, you can perform some very sweet and realistic-looking dekes thanks to the smooth skating model. If you try the same kind of moves in NHL 2001 you end up skating in concrete at 2mph, bumping into the goalie, and giving him automatic possession of the puck, which naturally becomes instantly glued to his stick. How realistic!

Another thing that really annoys me about videogame hockey is the way puck control is trivialized. In almost all hockey games when you pass the puck to another player, he automatically controls it perfectly and the puck is completely stuck to his stick. You can do 360 spins, 90 degree turns, zigzag at top speed and the puck handler will only ever lose the puck if he gets checked. This might be realistic if the puck handler were Jagr, Lemieux or Bure, but for 95% of the players in the NHL this is completely ridiculous. Developers need to implement a more solid puck control and stick handling model for hockey games. For example, if you make quick turns or spin when Pavel Bure has the puck he should be able to hold onto it, however if you perform the same moves with Trent Klatt he will lose the puck. This might be somewhat frustrating for gamers at first, but it would create a very noticeable difference between players and would make the game more realistic as you wouldn't try dekeing into the zone with a member of your checking line.

Finally, speed, acceleration and agility shouldn't be the only noticeable skating attributes - a player's strength on his skates should also be a factor with stronger players more able to shrug off defenders in the corners. This kind of strength rating is present in EA Sports' NHL 2001, but it should be expanded to include strength along the boards and the strength to break away when you're pinned along the boards (which I'll talk about later). For example, if Forsberg is checked and pinned to the boards behind the net, his high skating strength and stick handling attributes should be sufficient enough for him to retain control of the puck, keep his feet moving, and therefore Forsberg would be an excellent player to have on the ice when you want to cycle the puck down low in the corners.

Checking & General Defensive Play
The options for defensive play in current hockey games are quite good with the ability to check, hook, block shots, and poke check in most games, all should be retained but with greater depth. For example, body checking should have just as much to do with the angle of the hit and the body position of the recipient as it does with the speed, momentum and weight of the checker. So if you check a player while he's in the process of taking a slap shot (like how Brian Savage got annihilated on Long Island a few years ago) it will likely result in an injury to the recipient, and a major penalty with a game misconduct for the checker. Most importantly, body checking should also have a temporary effect on the attributes of both the checker and the poor schmuck who's getting decked, that goes beyond simply affecting fatigue. For example, if you check another player the recipient experiences a temporary decrease in his attributes depending upon the severity of the check (which itself is a factor of the aforementioned body positioning of the two players along with their speed and momentum). So if big Zdeno Chara pummels little Stevie Sullivan with a clean open ice hit, Sullivan will experience a massive decrease in his acceleration, agility, awareness, passing and shooting attributes for several minutes - maybe even longer. Chara, on the other hand, will only receive a minor temporary decrease in his stamina and strength. The temporary attribute changes should apply to both the checker and the recipient, that way if you take Scott Stevens and decide to hit everything in sight his attributes will begin to suffer as the game progresses. Much like changes I mentioned with regards to the stickhandling, the adoption of this checking system will force gamers to use their players much like they would behave in real life. You can't go around playing very aggressively with Joe Sakic because his attributes will suffer if you decide to be over-aggressive and move away from the finesse game. However, with a power forward such as the more robust Owen Nolan you would be able to play a much tougher game and still be successful because he's a lot bigger and stronger.

As I mentioned before, hooking, shot blocking, and poke checks should obviously remain but have greater depth, i.e. make poke checks more position dependant so if you attempt a poke check from behind while the recipient gives a burst of speed you'll end up hauling him down and conceding a tripping penalty. I also think a fifth type of defensive play should be available, and that's the ability to pin another player up along the boards. The effectiveness of a defender's ability to pin the puck carrier along the boards could be a function of not only the strength and checking attributes of the defensive player but also the strength, puck handling and skating strength of the player getting checked. So if Larry Murphy tries to tie up John LeClair along the boards he won't be too successful, however a much bigger and stronger defenseman like Chris Pronger would be able to keep LeClair in check (pardon the pun). The ability to take the puck carrier out of the play in your defensive zone has been missing from hockey videogames since their inception; without it there's no need to cycle the puck in the offensive zone and grind along the boards. It's also one of the reasons why almost all hockey games are basically variations on the same tired breakaway-relay formula. Of course, if you continue to pin a player against the boards while the puck left the area you get a holding call. The improved defensive options should also allow for the ability to assign certain players to shadow dangerous opponents - this will lend a lot more strategy to the games, and will make matching line combinations and getting the last line change at home a very important factor.

Of course, none of the improvements suggested here would worth a damn if the AI isn't top notch, and turning up the difficulty level shouldn't mean attribute changes or aggressive play, it should mean smarter play by the CPU. CPU defensemen shouldn't be passive in their play and collapse toward their net when you enter the zone like in ESPN National Hockey Night and Face Off 2001; rather, they should try to stand you up at the blue-line or force you outside towards the boards. This will force more dump-ins to occur, and as a result there will be more play along the boards. Of course, when cycling the puck offensively, the CPU defensemen should be aware of a forward breaking back to the slot, and the CPU forwards should also be able to back-check effectively. In 2-on-1 situations, the lone defenseman shouldn't be skating backwards between the two forwards in no-man's land; rather, he should cut off the pass and leave the shooter to his goalie. Special attention should also be paid to AI of both the defensemen and the forwards in the neutral zone as that's where most turnovers and odd-man rushes originate. Offensively, it would be nice to see the CPU exhibit a killer instinct for once - no more clear breakaways with the CPU forward inexplicably stopping 15 yards out and firing a slap shot, no more dumping the puck when penalty killing even though there's a clear path to the opposing net. When I'm killing a penalty I should be under the kosh, not racing down ice with Wade Redden and sending off 5 shots on the opposing net per penalty conceded. The CPU should be much more aggressive on the forecheck; dumping the puck into the zone and going after it with gusto. It would also be nice to see offensive-defensemen like Ozolinch and Niedermeyer going on more rushes and taking advantage of poor line-changes. If puck cycling is to be implemented with players being pinned along the boards then the AI will have to bring in other forwards to support the puck carrier who's being hassled. As I mentioned before, it would also be nice to see the strategic aspect of hockey come to the fore, with individual match-ups and line combinations being more important.

Final Thoughts
While of a lot of the gameplay suggestions I've made here are quite ambitious, they are in no way impossible to implement, and in fact many of the control and AI schemes I mentioned are already present in other games. For example, as I said before, the analog shooting system I suggested is already present in ESPN MLS ExtraTime on the PS2, the analog passing system I described will be implemented in Fifa 2002 and similar analog passing is present in Madden 2001 on the PS2, position-dependent passing and pass control is present in ISS Pro Evolution 2, differential goaltender AI is also present in ISSPE 2 albeit with soccer goalies, as is position-dependent shooting. The stick handling and skating model I suggested is very similar to the dribbling scheme that's present in, yes, you guessed it, ISSPE 2. If Codemasters can program different opposing drivers to have varying degrees of very noticeable aggressiveness then surely can't hockey games have a CPU Scott Stevens try to decapitate every forward that tries to cross the blue line while the CPU controlled Nicklas Lidstrom merely tries to poke check the puck away? In fact, hockey game developers should just take a look at the ISS Pro series by KCET for tips on how to create intelligent and realistic AI - and both ISS Pro games are on the 32 bit PSX!

To their credit, for NHL 2002 EA Sports have apparently added a new 'manual deke' feature to increase the depth in puck control, as well as 'saucer passes' and 'variable puck control' but there are still many other areas that need improvement in the EA Sports' NHL series and in all other live-action hockey games.

Of course, incorporating the ideas outlined in this feature may entail that developers throw their existing code in the trash and starting from scratch, but these improvements and ideas are in no way beyond the scope of what's possible with today's consoles. If the PS2, GC and X-Box can each push a gazillion (or something like that) polygons a second then they sure as heck can incorporate AI and control schemes in their hockey games that are similar to those found in PSX soccer games. When you really think about where 'advancements' have been made in hockey games over the past few years you come to realize that almost all the new in-roads have basically been made with the graphics and the presentation. Add some pretty graphics, improved commentary, an ice cam, and leave the passing, shooting, and checking system exactly the same as before. NHL 2001 isn't fundamentally more complex in it's interpretation of ice hockey than NHL '93 on the SNES, but compare ISS Deluxe to ISS Pro Evolution 2 and you see the massive way that the videogame representation of the game of soccer has evolved. Gameplay-wise soccer games have received differential player AI, greatly improved and non-scripted ball physics, full control over the speed and trajectory of passes and shots, position-dependent shooting and passing, etc. Hockey games get a deke button (complete with Jim Hughson screaming out "DEEEKES!!" every time you press it), hooking, shot blocks and that's basically it. It's about time hockey gamers got a true, in-depth, simulation of the sport of ice hockey rather than a tried, tested, and tired arcade representation of ice hockey that more resembles a breakaway-relay contest than an actual NHL game, and perhaps implementing some of the ideas suggested here would be a good starting point.

Lavan Chandrain 10/1/01

© 1998-2006 Sports Gaming Network. Entire legal statement. Feedback

Other Links:
[Free Credit Report  |   Car Insurance Quotes  |   Designer Shoes  |   Outdoor Equipment

MVP Baseball 2003
Street Hoops
Mad Catz Xbox Hardware

Inside Pitch 2003
MLB Slugfest 20-04
Tennis Masters Series



Anna Kournikova (Beach)
Buy This Poster!

Jason Kidd
Buy This Poster!