Feature Article

NHL 22 Revealed With New Engine, X-Factor Abilities, And Auston Matthews On The Cover

EA Sports has formally announced NHL 22, and it looks great.

EA Sports has officially announced NHL 22, and it delivers some notable changes over last year's game as it properly makes the jump to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S for the first time. Auston Matthews is on the cover once again, following his appearance on the cover for NHL 20.

The biggest thing to know about NHL 22, which releases in October, is that it runs on EA's Frostbite engine, which also powers the Madden and FIFA sports franchises, along with DICE's Battlefield series. The other topline takeaway is that NHL 22 introduces new X-Factor abilities that were popularized in the Madden series to introduce a new layer of strategy on the ice.

EA is saving deep dives on NHL 22's Franchise, Be A Pro, and HUT modes for later, while we'll also have to wait to hear more about what's new for updates to stick controls. This initial announcement is all about high level details, and this starts with X-Factor abilities.

X-Factors

Inspired by Madden, X-Factor abilities are meant to elevate the superstars of hockey and add a new meta to the game. These are broken down into two buckets: Zone abilities and Superstar abilities. Zone abilities are what defines a player; they are unique skills based on what they are known for, and they are limited to one per player. Superstar abilities, meanwhile, are less powerful and one player can be assigned multiple abilities.

For example, Matthews' "Shock & Awe" Zone ability is meant to represent his skill and style on the ice. Matthews is known for disguising his shots with his trademark curl and drag shot. When he's using the Shock & Awe ability, opponents must recognize this and counter it, because it's almost guaranteed to give Matthews a good scoring chance. Now, the goalie or defender might be in a good position to stop Matthews in this scenario, and he won't score, but the idea is about giving players an edge on the ice to give themselves the best possible chance to score.

The ice, in particular, shines running on Frostbite
The ice, in particular, shines running on Frostbite

"How do we enable the players to feel different, and have a Matthews or McDavid or insert superstar name X, Y, Z, and how do we bring them to life? Avid hockey fans may or may not know all the players on different teams and around the league. That's just the reality. Whereas with the NBA, it's a very superstar-driven league," producer Clement Kwong tells GameSpot. "So [with NHL 22], we wanted the opportunity to tell those stories in our game, and for players to learn more about other superstars around the league."

The top 50 players in NHL 22 will have Zone abilities, EA says. As for Superstar abilities, more than 100 players in NHL 22 will have these based on their on-ice skills. Some examples include "Make It Snappy," which gives the player a great snap shot in stride; "Seeing Eye," which makes it easier to shoot through screens; and "Third Eye," which helps players complete passes. Another one is called "Tape to Tape," and it's also meant to increase the likelihood of completing a pass; and "Puck on a String," which gives your player better stick handling attributes. These extend to goalies, too, as superstar goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning has an ability called "Contortionist" that gives him better save range and recovery to make flashy saves.

These Superstar abilities will be front and center in NHL 22, starting at the main menu, and spanning each game mode. The idea, Kwong tells GameSpot, is to help the average hockey fan learn more about players on other teams and what skills they are known for. Superstar and Zone abilities will also be the focus of new broadcast commentary, with the commentary team breaking the fourth wall and discussing them. The name of the specific ability will also pop up when you score.

In Franchise mode, the addition of X-Factors will add to the scouting meta, EA says, because players will want to consider the specific skillset of players and factor that into the overall line chemistry to draft the best team possible. In Be A Pro mode, the story will include X-Factors, too, as players will earn new abilities as they progress and become a better player. In Hockey Ultimate Team, there will be a new class of cards for players who have Zone and X-Factor abilities, which EA says could result in a meaningful gameplay impact.

Next-Gen Visuals

Another major new advancement for NHL 22 is its new engine, Frostbite, which promises to help make the game look better compared to previous editions that ran on Ignite. All indoor and outdoor venues have been touched up to make environments and atmosphere appear more realistic. Additionally, player models are improved in the area of facial hair specifically. As you can see in the trailer, Matthews' iconic mustache and stubble comes through better than last year. Ice hockey players are known for having great hair, or flow in the hockey lingo, and while NHL 22 delivers some improvements here, it's more foundational work for what's to come in future releases.

"Step one was using the new shaders and lighting for realistically lit hair. The next step in the future is probably individual animation of hair," Kwong said. "Where you can really get the player, whether they're skating indoors or outdoors, with the flow and seeing that animated, we haven't quite gone there yet, but we've taken the first step of introducing more realistic hair lighting. And as part of the global head upgrade, we've also upgraded all of the facial hair shading. So the playoff beards, the handlebars, just to name a few, those get upgraded as well."

A first look inside the Seattle Kraken's new arena
A first look inside the Seattle Kraken's new arena

Environments in NHL 22 now use deferred lighting, while all 32 arenas and outdoor areas have been rebuilt and relit. Another major improvement is that the ice looks crisper and more realistic, with the logos and emblems under the ice now looking more like they are under the ice instead of plastered on top. For outdoor environments, there are enhanced particle and visual effects, and based on a video GameSpot saw, it does look much better.

Players on PS5 and Xbox Series X|S are getting a better experience based on the power of the new machines, but EA stressed that all platforms will see a substantial improvement in graphics. Producer Sean Ramjagsingh said the team understands that new consoles have been hard to come by due in part to the ongoing semiconductor shortage, so it was important for the team to make NHL 22 on PS4/Xbox One a first-rate experience as well. Here is a breakdown of the differences between console platforms when it comes to visuals.

All Platforms

  • Deferred lighting everywhere
  • Improved VFX
  • Post FX
  • Particle FX
  • Ice improvements
  • Shadows
  • Dynamic Ambient Occlusion

Next-Gen Only

  • Dynamic lighting + enhanced shadows
  • Microdetails
  • Enhanced effects

Player likenesses for more than 100 skaters has been improved to better reflect how players actually look in the last NHL season. Skin and eye shading is improved as well. Additionally, the upgrades apply to jerseys and equipment, too--every fabric and stitch should look better, EA says, while the new dynamic lighting aims to help jerseys have more texture and depth.

Erik Karlsson in NHL 22
Erik Karlsson in NHL 22

In terms of what EA called "microdetails," every jersey, pant, and sock is now rendered in a higher resolution so that each stitch is visible. Not only that, but the cloth on jerseys will more accurately respond to player movement and the environment, and overall, player models should look more authentic and true to life. Similar to the overall graphics and presentation boost mentioned above, NHL 22 will shine the brightest on next-gen platforms when it comes to these kinds of microdetails. Here is a breakdown:

All Platforms

  • Overhauled player likeness
  • Uniform improvements
  • Hair shader upgrades
  • Eye shading and eye animation upgrades
  • Enhanced procedural awareness
  • Improved skin shading
  • Cloth animation

Next Gen

  • Facial animation on all heads
  • Micro detail on gear
  • Higher fidelity cloth simulation
  • Dynamic lighting on cloth and characters.

"Going to a new engine was a multi-year project," Kwong said. "We knew the new consoles were coming so we actually started Frostbite even during the early days of NHL 21. Getting the game up and running was the first priority and the second priority was not losing any of our key features."

Kwong also acknowledged that the ongoing semiconductor shortages that are impacting the supply of the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S played a role in EA's decision to make the PS4/Xbox One edition of the game as good as it could be instead of leaving it behind.

"Where do we think these consoles are going to land? How do we think this pandemic is going affect supply chain?" Kwong said he remembers thinking early on in the development of NHL 22. "And nobody really knew but what we did know from the last console transition was that plenty of our players still have their console hardware and are still enjoying the game [there]. And from other titles, they're jumping back to the game on the previous console because more friends are playing, so for social reasons. We knew that was going to be the likely case, and we didn't want to leave anybody behind for any reason.

"So that was the key factor in driving the product decision in terms of having parity across Gen 4 and Gen 5, and obviously on the higher end where there is a premium benefit for playing on the Gen 5 hardware, to push the limits and drive further immersion."

New AR Presentation

In a bid to present more information to players in a non-obtrusive way, NHL 22 has a new "augmented reality" style of motion graphics that float in space over the ice or are attached to character models. Modern TV broadcasts are doing this already, but EA's game appears to be going further based on what we've seen so far. For example, during a faceoff, you'll see the circle divided in two, with key information for each player displayed in a color corresponding to their team. When you get a penalty, the infraction, name of the player, and duration of the penalty will be displayed over the glass in the box itself.

World of Chel Updates

Perhaps the biggest change coming to World of Chel, which is NHL's social hub of sorts, is that your custom character can now use X-Factor abilities. They get one default Zone ability to begin with, with more unlocked over time as you progress. Additionally, the user experience had a lot of friction with last year's game, and NHL 22 aims to streamline the experience to help you get into games faster. For example, the matchmaking lobby, or "dressing room" as it's called, will now be constantly running in the background so you don't need to leave the hub to matchmake.

More To Come

As mentioned earlier, EA Sports plans to announce more details about NHL 22 in the days and weeks ahead leading up to launch. Today's announcement was meant to provide the high-level takeaways for what to expect this year, while follow-up breakdowns will focus on specific improvements on things like gameplay, Be A Pro, and more.

Release Date

NHL 22 launches worldwide on October 15. There is the standard edition and the X-Factor Edition, which comes with dual entitlement to the game across generations of consoles. The premium edition also unlocks three days early (October 12) and comes with HUT packs.

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Eddie Makuch

Eddie Makuch mainly writes news.

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