At a time when some are shying away from fighting in hockey, EA Sports is embracing the rough stuff.
NHL 14, the latest version of the hit video game franchise developed by EA Canada in Vancouver, features an "enforcer engine" that the studio promises will produce "the most authentic and electrifying fighting experience" in the history of the title.
"We're really excited about the way it turned out," NHL 14 producer Sean Ramjagsingh said. "For us this year it was all about capturing the big hits, real fights and unbelievable speed and skill of hockey."
In recent years, EA developers had been looking to get the right balance of speed, skill and aggression.
"When I look back at NHL 13,I feel like we fell short a little bit on the aggression piece of it," said Ramjagsingh.
That meant upping the ante on big hits and fights.
"There is a code in hockey and when it's broken, you have to respond," EA notes in a press release.
Critics may decry the improved fighting component. Fans will celebrate that the game, already a marvel in recreating the one-ice product, is even more authentic. Take a run at Sidney Crosby and there will be Penguins payback.
"For us, it's a part of the sport, it's an authentic part of the sport," said Ramjagsingh. "We work very closely with our partners at the NHL and NHLPA, make sure that they understand we're telling the story of their sport. That's why the speed and skill part is just as important as the aggression piece.
"The game is about the Datsyuks [Detroit star forward Pavel Datsyuk] and showing off their skill and their speed, as well as the aggression piece. And why the aggression piece is so important to allowing the skill piece to happen ... Fighting is a little bit controversial to some people but for hockey fans out there, and casual hockey fans, it's an important part of the sport."
Staged fights stay
The previous fighting engine, used from NHL 10 through 13, was seen as dated by gamers, according to Ramjagsingh.
"It really felt like a one-off mini-game, It took you out of the experience. It didn't really capture the essence of why fights happen in hockey and why it's such an authentic part of the sport."
In the old engine, you essentially triggered a fighting by mashing a button. The screen then turned into a first-person camera view and the other players on the ice, other than your assailant, disappeared.
In NHL 14, the goal was to show "why fighting is important to hockey."
So the fighting is more organic. Lay out one of your opponent's star players during the game and there are consequences. It's the first time the game's CPU has ever initiated fights based on events during the game.
You can still try to provoke a staged fight, by hitting a button. So if your tough guy lines up against their enforcer at a faceoff, you can tap him on the shinpads and he has the option to accept or decline the challenge.
It's all shown via a third-person camera view so you can see the other players on the ice pair up or watch the fight.
If the tussle is on, the two players will step back, drop the gloves, adjust elbow pads and then go at it. You can initiate a series of moves — from throwing a punch to dodging one — before entering into a clinch. And once the two players tie up, there is a whole series of new moves available.
To do that, the game developers turned to their brethren from the Fight Night boxing franchise — whose technology has already leaked into the pending EA Sports UFC game — to overhaul the fighting mechanics.
"The less time that we spend worrying about tech, what tech to use and the implementation of the tech, the more time it allows for us to innovate on the other parts of the game and other parts of mechanics for fighting specifically," said Ramjagsingh.
The system is so exacting that a big player like hulking Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara can use his size to ragdoll opponents in a fight.
Punches on offer include overhands, uppercuts and counter-punches.
"NHL fighters, NHL tough guys, they talk about waiting for the guy to thrown a punch, looking to dodge the punch and then pull that guy when he's off-balance," said Ramjagsingh. "So we have that in there too."
And for the first time, players as disparate as the six-foot-nine Chara and Daniel Briere, listed at 5-10, can fight "and actually have the punches connect."
Previously the game "kind of squished everyone down to the same height."
You will also see "real-time damage" in a fight. Connect and your opponent's face will reflect damage suffered during a tussle as he skates to the penalty box.
Tough guys consulted
The development teams has talked to a variety of NHL tough guys over the years, including Zack Stortini, Darcy Hordichuk and most recently George Parros.
Goalies can — and will — fight in the game.
"Again it's part of hockey. It happens every once in a while," said Ramjagsingh.
Hit the goalie and he has the option of whether to drop his gloves, although it will likely only happen if he has a history of a shorter fuse.
"More often than not though, just like in real hockey, if you touch the goalie, you can expect a tough guy to come over and take the fight for him," Ramjagsingh said.
There are also modes where every player in the game is user-controlled. If you have two user-controlled goalies, if a fight breaks out, they can skate to centre ice and go at it.
With the NHL having grandfathered in the use of visors, Ramjagsingh says future versions of the game will reflect any changes in rules for removing visors to fight.
No matter how many changes are made, not everyone is happy with the final product, Ramjagsingh concedes.
"Every player out there that I talk to wants to be a little bit faster, a little bit stronger and a little bit tougher."
Other additions to the game include an NHL 94 anniversary mode, celebrating the popular version of 20 years ago. NHL 14 also improves the way gamers can deke opponents and gives defencemen more speed, ability and agility.
The new version, which features veteran New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur on the cover, also makes goalies play more realistically according to their preferred stance.
NHL 14 comes out Sept. 10 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.