Tag Archive: ea sports

When I play Madden, I dominate in the trenches. My defense makes sacks on every other play, and it’s not unheard of for my offense to rush for 2,500 yards and 40 TDs.

My aerial attack is another story, though. I’m lucky to throw for 2,000 yards and have a 1:1 TD/INT ratio. I’m more likely to hit the lottery than to have one of my DBs intercept a pass. It’s been this way for years,  whether I’m playing Madden 95 or Madden NFL 15.

This year, however, Madden is looking to make things easier for players like me to take advantage of superstar wide receivers and ball-hawking cornerbacks with new playmaker options. As soon as the quarterback lets go of the ball, there are more nuances than ever to how much touch or zip you can put behind the ball. Whereas in previous years, you’d either fire a bullet pass or lob a lame duck, depending on how you held the button, an in-between pass offers a chance to hit smaller windows of opportunity, as Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning do every Sunday.

Once the ball is in the air, the possibilities get really exciting. Your receivers can catch the ball differently, depending on how it’s thrown and their own attributes. A receiver like Calvin Johnson can leap up for a ball at its zenith; take a chance, turn and run before the ball reaches its target location; or use his tremendous size to jockey positions with a corner to make a sure-handed grab, all depending on which second button you press after your quarterback lets go of the ball.

Similarly, though, defensive backs offer comparable options. Shutdown corners like Richard Sherman can now more aggressively jam receivers off the line, much the same way a defensive player could try to jump the snap in last year’s game. DBs can also choose to jump routes, or leap for a ball with hopes of coming down with a momentum-swinging interception.

Admittedly, I needed some time to become comfortable with making an extra button press while the ball was in the air. After just a few blunders, I made my first interception on a flat route, and a spectacular catch in the back of the endzone on a jump ball. If I’m able to pull this off consistently, get a better feel for when to make each particular move, and learn what I can do with each receiver, this feature can be a game-changer for guys like me. I’ll need more than the one Madden NFL 16 game than I got to play in my demo, though, and a couple of possible flash-in-the-pan plays to see if Playmaker is all it’s being made out to be.

Madden NFL 16 will launch on Xbox One, Playstation 4, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on August 25.

If you’re a hockey fanatic like I am, you don’t need someone, especially a video game, explaining to you why a slapper from the point on the power play is a great idea if you’ve got bodies in front of the net looking for a deflection. If you’re not a hockey connoisseur, however, even that sentence probably has you scratching your head.

Well, the guys behind the NHL franchise get that not everyone is as obsessed with power play percentages and puck luck as I am. To be honest, I wasn’t always this way. Video games such as NHL 94 sparked my passion for — and understanding of — my most beloved sport.

Wanting to get back to that pedigree, NHL 16’s biggest innovation this year isn’t about tweaked physics or mascots in the stands (although those are there). It’s about finding ways to help newcomers develop an understanding for the sport we love, much the way the games of yesteryear did for a 9-year-old kid who didn’t understand quite how big it was when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994.

A new option in NHL 16 allows gamers to turn on a special HUD that appears beneath each player you’re controlling and certain spots on the ice. This HUD will tell you when you should pass and who the pass will go to, and where you should skate to if you don’t have the puck. Most impressively, the HUD will draw a line from your stick to the net if you’re in a shooting situation to let you know your odds on whether the shot will result in a goal or a save, or miss the net altogether. And it all happens seamlessly in real time.

This display system is a vital new tool in NHL 16’s attempts to teach players how best to play their game, as well as how to play hockey. The hope is that you’ll learn the highest percentage chances for scoring in key situations, where to skate to successfully kill off penalties, and how to most efficiently play the game. Then, newcomers will have a better grasp of both hockey and the video game, and perhaps learn to love it. Who knows, we veterans might even learn a thing or two.

Even though I’ve been playing NHL for years, I was impressed with how well the new HUD assist blended into the gameplay. I never felt like the directions were a distraction for me as an experienced player. I was even happy they were there because I was more sure of myself when taking certain shots, and I started correcting some bad habits I’d fallen into through the years.

This year, most people would’ve been fine with NHL just fixing things that were broken or restoring everything that was missing from last year’s game. So it’s great to see EA Canada’s innovations educate and grow not only the company’s fanbase, but the sport’s fanbase as well. 

NHL 16 is coming in September for Xbox One and Playstation 4.

It was announced just moments ago on SportsCenter that Odell Beckham Jr. will grace this year’s cover of Madden.

Beckham received 52.5% of the vote over New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Beckham won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award last year after putting together a season that saw him lead the league in receiving yards per game. He also set numerous rookie records, even though he missed the Giants’ first four games with an injured hamstring. He is the first New York Giant to ever grace the cover.

“Odell Beckham Jr. is a true playmaker and a perfect fit for this year’s game,” said Randy Chase, Senior Director of Marketing for EA SPORTS. “He’s an unstoppable force out on the field, and the Madden NFL 16 cover is further vindication that the fans believe he’s a player to watch in the coming years.”

EA Sports also released a teaser video for Madden NFL 16 today featuring the finalists for the cover vote. The video touts the new “Be the Playmaker” system, which institutes a new risk/reward system for playing and defending passes (explaining why corners and receivers were the only men selected to be finalists for the cover).

Madden NFL 16 will be available on August 25 for Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, and PS3.

Get more info and pre-order your copy of Madden NFL 16 now: http://bit.ly/1G7DY4D

Hitting the hardwood

Trailers and behind-the-scenes looks at NBA Live 15 have continued to show steps forward since last year’s abysmal return after the franchise’s self-imposed three-year absence from the gaming scene. The next hurdle the NBA Live franchise needed to clear in order to continue its battle back to relevancy, though, was finally letting the press go hands-on with this year’s iteration.

After playing a pair of games as my New York Knicks, and getting about an hour’s worth of hands-on time with NBA Live 15, I can say there’s been a clear step forward in how the game handles itself on the court (I just wish I could say the same about the Knicks!). Starting off with a brief tutorial where I played as cover athlete Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, I was taken through the ins and outs of basics of offense: passing, shooting, dribbling, and alley-oops. The HUD showed each player’s stamina bar, and a meter let me know my chances of making a shot from a particular range and how open I was. I then got the chance to move to a 5-on-5 scrimmage to try out everything I just learned.

On offense, I was immediately able to make significant strides as I stepped confidently down the lane for a powerful dunk with Amar’e Stoudemire or kicked it out to Carmelo Anthony in the corner for a clutch three once we moved to real game action. Ball movement felt swift and, for the most part, accurate. There were some moments in my haste, however, whether trying to beat the shot clock or the end of a quarter, where I wanted to pass to one player and instead passed to another, which led to an ill-timed turnover—and led to my questioning the intuitiveness of the system. Maybe I just needed more time with it, but there were several moments where the ball just didn’t seem to go where I wanted.

Another thing I noticed on offense was the new rag-doll physics. Though they weren’t prevalent throughout the court, everything near the basket seemed to have improved physics, with players naturally adjusting in mid-air to work around a steadfast defender in the paint or taking a hard foul and contorting in ways that would accurately depict contact. Considering the amount of action that usually takes place around the basket, it was impressive to see when players would fight for rebounds or try to draw a foul on a layup for a potential three-point play.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to the game of basketball than what the tutorial showed me, like the entire defensive side of the game. For as competent as I felt on offense, the only thing I felt when transitioning to defense was dread. At least in the demo, NBA Live 15 didn’t do nearly as good a job of teaching the defensive basics as it did the offensive elements. I ended up in foul trouble more often than not as I tried learning the best timing for steal attempts. Meanwhile, shot-blocking was an endeavor I’d rather forget about, and my players flew away from the shooter about often as they succeeded in getting a hand in the opponent’s face.

And in those few instances where I actually succeeded in making the shot attempts more difficult for my opponent, I had no idea how to command my players to box out, and my frustration only grew as I gave up offensive rebound after offensive rebound. These are basics that the game should’ve focused on just as much as passing and shooting.

At least the presentation for NBA Live 15 appears to be top-notch. Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy’s commentary, representing ESPN’s No. 1 broadcast team, provided a lot of authenticity to the presentation, and their commentary was hysterical—especially when talking about James Harden’s beard when facing the Houston Rockets. Meanwhile, Jalen Rose hosts the pre-, post-, and halftime shows that give game highlights and spotlight superstar players in a way that would make you feel like you’re actually watching an ESPN/ABC broadcast of the NBA.

I walked away from my NBA Live 15 time with more positives than negatives, and I definitely had fun while playing it. But I also think that if it’s going to successfully close the gap between itself and NBA 2K, it’s going to have to deliver a more complete package than what I saw in my brief hands-on time.

A shorthanded debut

NHL 14 was the pinnacle for EA Sports’ NHL franchise—and that’s saying something, considering its quality and consistency for more than two decades. It seemed like the folks at EA Canada had crammed in every mode and feature they could come up with and pushed the technology to its limits on the last generation of consoles. But this peak seemed to come at a perfect time, since it was just as we began the transition to new consoles. It seemed more than plausible that EA Canada could reach new heights this year with NHL 15 on new-gen hardware.

Unfortunately, this is another case where expectations were greater than reality. It’s not that the on-ice product is bad with NHL 15. In fact, once you decide to start a game in Be a Pro, Be a GM, or any of the other modes, actually playing a game of hockey might be better than ever. The new NBC presentation package makes it feel like every game is Game of the Week, and commentary from the team of Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro is stellar. I’m about 40 games into my Be a GM mode (I play every game of the season), and I’m just now starting to hear some repeat commentary, but I’m still getting surprised here and there.

The graphics have also made a spectacular transition to the new console generation, and everything looks sharper and crisper—you can almost feel the chill of the ice itself. What’s more, the player models are amazingly realistic and even borrow a few tricks from EA Sports UFC when it comes to bruising and facial contortions from fights. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the eye of a guy you pummeled in an earlier bout swelled shut by the third period.

The biggest improvement comes from the revamped physics, though: huge player pileups when you crash the net, realistic puck bounces that lead to frustrating turnovers or fortunate close calls, and more dynamic goalie saves make it seem like you’re watching a game in real life. All the goal-scoring glitches of past years have seemingly been erased as well—the AI’s improved all around, and your opponent always tries to anticipate your every move. And even the issues with faceoffs—my one disappointment from last year’s game—are now fixed, since you can use your stick with more pinpoint precision than ever before.

When you get off the ice, however, everything takes a horribly sour turn. Countless modes from previous years have been nixed. Even with patches coming in during the next 60 days to bring back Playoff Mode and Online Team Play, you’re still missing EA Sports Hockey League, Winter Classic, and Be a Legend. NHL Moments Live mode from NHL 13 was brought back to cushion this blow, but you still don’t want modes completely removed from the game. It feels like instead of continuing to build on what they’d created over the previous few years, EA Canada instead hit the reset button with new-gen.

The worst part, though, may be the fact that EA Canada scaled back the modes that did make it into the game. Be a Pro has lost the “Live the Life” feature introduced in last year’s game, which allowed you to interact with teammates, family, fans, and the front office and deal with a balancing metagame as you tried to keep everyone in your life happy while also maintaining a high level of on-ice play.

You’ve also lost the ability to simulate to your next shift in Be a Pro. Now, you have to watch the entire game on the bench when you’re not playing, whereas last year, a button press would move you forward in time. This becomes particularly painful if you take a penalty and then have to watch the minutes tick off on the clock from the sin bin. I don’t want to watch a hockey videogame. I want to play. These subtle omissions have turned one of my favorite modes from last year into an afterthought when I boot up the game now.

Be a GM has its own set of issues now, too. To begin with, your team’s AHL affiliate has been completely done away with—now, minor-league players are just “in the system” instead of accumulating any stats or progress whatsoever. There’s also no GM tracking mechanic anymore to let you know how you’re doing or to give you an idea of what goals you need to aim for. The preseason and fantasy-draft options have also been removed, and the year-end draft for each season is fully automated by the CPU. If I’m running a franchise, I want to run the franchise! Don’t take any aspect of that away from me—and especially don’t assign it to the computer!

To make matters worse, the little control you still have left becomes all the more complicated due to the panel user-interface system that’s now permeated every EA Sports franchise. Yes, being able to jump to my favorite modes as soon as I start the game up is a welcome addition, but making trades, changing my lines, and even just resting my goalie have all become a chore because of this new system. The old list system had its problems, but it was nowhere near as bad as what this universal UI homogenization by EA Sports has done. Changing your lines is so difficult that in Hockey Ultimate Team, one of the patches is solely to help adjust this. I wish this patch were for all game modes, because changing lines and making adjustments in Be a GM right now is a nightmare.

And speaking of HUT, nothing has infuriated me more than not being able to earn pucks (the HUT currency used to buy packs to get new players) in single-player modes outside of HUT. Yes, you earned many more for playing online, but as someone who loved Be a GM and Be a Pro modes and spent more time there than anywhere else, it was nice to still earn a few pucks for playing the modes I wanted to play. This only helped extend NHL 14’s life for me; after a while, I would play a little bit of HUT because I’d accrued so many pucks. Now, it feels like the best way to get pucks is to buy them through microtransactions. EA Sports trying to squeeze more money out of us? Color me surprised.

After playing limited demos of NHL 15 leading up to its release, I could not be more disappointed with the final result. It feels like so much time and focus went into getting the graphics and physics systems up to snuff for new-gen that EA Canada forgot about the rest of the game. At the very least, there’s hope, though. Now that the transition’s been made—however painfully—next year’s title can bring NHL back to its former glory.

Developer: EA Canada • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.09.14
The new physics system, presentation elements, and graphics are definitely a step forward for the franchise, but the wholesale removal or scaling back of so many modes leaves you wondering how such a great series could struggle so mightily with the console transition.
The Good The physics and graphics are the best the series has ever seen.
The Bad So many modes and features are missing compared to NHL 14 that it’s hard to believe this is the full game.
The Ugly This will go down with Madden 06 as one of the most disappointing generation transition games for a sports franchise.
NHL 15 is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.

EA Sports has the reputation of an unstoppable giant when it comes to football, soccer, and hockey. With the juggernauts of Madden, FIFA, and NHL, you’d expect them to dominate every sport they touch. But as the tumultuous history of NBA Live has shown, it’s not a simple matter of EA simply showing up and expecting to be crowned champion.

After getting humbled by NBA 2K for several years, the folks behind NBA Live knew they had to go back to the drawing board in 2010. After handing development to EA Tiburon, taking a three-year hiatus from the franchise, and finally relaunching last year, the series might finally be headed for a turnaround. We had a chance to chat with executive producer Sean O’Brien and get an inside look at how EA Tiburon has gone about rebuilding the two-decade-old franchise from the ground up.

EGM: There was a three-year period there between NBA Live titles, so NBA 2K really got a monopoly on basketball video games in that time. Can you tell us about finally coming back to the market with NBA Live 14 and the difficulties you faced that first year back in trying to reclaim a piece of the market share?

Sean O’Brien: It’s definitely hard, and I think that, even outside of the brand, probably the biggest challenge was building NBA Live 14 on what we had. The game didn’t ship in those previous years for a reason, and that was because it simply wasn’t good enough. That, on its own, is challenging, but to complicate matters, our base wasn’t what Madden or FIFA or NBA 2K was, so we were trying to build up the quality while also bringing it onto the next generation of hardware at the same time.

I think part of that, too, was building the team that could actually do that. We had a bit of a broken, fractured team beforehand that I inherited, so we had to ask ourselves if we even had the right people to pull this off. Then came the decisions regarding what our direction was, what our identity was, and where we were going to go—and all that’s a work in progress.

I think, after those 11 months where we built the game and we launched with next-gen, it allowed us to come together as a team. Then we got reviewed, and it was so bad, and our scores were so low, and that could’ve been a point where the team just turtled and said, “Why are we doing this?” and given up. And, for a couple of days, there were definitely some doubters. What was really cool for me, though, was come that next Monday, almost a full week after we launched, I saw a lot of people start to rally. Asking what we could do to make this better, shouting that we weren’t done yet, wanting to prove to people that this wasn’t our best. To see the team rally, I understood then that the make-up of this team—sure, we had some holes to fill talent-wise—but the core team had the gumption to make it happen.

That’s part of it. You need the right people, the right talent to make a good product in anything—not just games—and I think we’re showing with NBA Live 15 that this is more in line with what people expect from the NBA Live brand. We’re ready to take on the fight. We have a different identity and are not creating a “me too” basketball game that copies 2K, not creating the same feature set or mechanics. We’re creating an identity around our own connected feature set that focuses more on control when you’re playing the game itself, the simplicity of the game itself so that you’re always feeling like the game is responsive when you play.

So, it’s just a question of bringing people in on a journey that’s steadily improving. Our goal is to prove that we’re constantly making the game better. And given that we’re shipping NBA Live 15 ten and a half months after we shipped Live 14, after we put out numerous updates to make 14 better, being able to put out something like 15 is going to reinforce the fact that everyone at EA is taking this very seriously. There’s a big investment around it. NBA Live 14 was not our best effort and was just a small step forward in the direction we’re going.

EGM: You mentioned how low the review scores were and that NBA Live 14 wasn’t your best effort. What advantages were there in releasing a product that might not have been your best foot forward and not nixing it like NBA Live 13 in the hopes of coming back stronger this year?

O’Brien: From a development standpoint, as you finalize a game—especially an annual title—you learn something about your team, and you also establish guidelines on what “good” looks like, how to achieve that, and then how to finish. In any game development, you have your pre-production, which is your ideas and early design. Then you have your production, which is how good are you at actually implementing those things. Then you have your finalizing process, which is how you pull it all together.

How you pull it all together and have it compliant by Microsoft and Sony standards and actually ship a game under the rigid and strict timelines in sports games is a huge learning opportunity for a team, and it can bring them together. So, for better or for worse, we set a bar for where we were, both inside and outside the company. But also, with all the stuff we did after launch, it allowed us to come together as a team and engage our fans. It helped us key players in on what we’re doing here.

We have different strategies across the board, and one of those is talking with the people managing our social channels and having them engage people 1-on-1 and making sure that, even if it was just some guy saying “this game sucks,” we made sure they got a response. Asking them about their experience with the game, having them explain their issues to us, seeing if they had any questions—and it’s really interesting to see the surprise from people when someone actually responds to them and shows that we’re paying attention to them. This helps build a bit of a transparency and an honest, listening relationship with players that I think they really want.

We see it a lot in a variety of games. You see it in the indie-game scene a lot more, where you ask people to get on this journey with you and pick their brains about what they want to see from it. And that’s what we’re trying to do, whether it’s with old Live fans and you miss things about the series, or you play 2K and you’re frustrated about some things with their series. We want to know the game players want made.

We put that out there—establish a baseline with what we did with NBA Live 14 and then show and build confidence in people based on what we do and deliver against it. As we learned this past year, we learned it in a good way, that we promised a bunch of things. We said that this wasn’t our best effort and asked people to bear with us and that we’re going to prove to them on this journey that we’ll make the game better. It easy to say that, of course, and it’s harder to do it, but I’d put up what we did post-launch with 14 against what any other sports game has ever done post-launch in the history of sports gaming.

That’s how much of an investment we put into showing players just where we’re going and then with our next release, NBA Live 15, having the game look and play as it does now is a huge transformation. And so, having people along on that journey to experience that, I think, is advantageous as well. And it gets the feeling some people might have when they contribute to a Kickstarter. You want to get in early or help shape something, or hop on board as it goes because it’s cool and you want to be a part of what’s next. It’s not about what’s there right now, and that’s sort of the philosophy we’re taking with the athletes we work with, the musicians we work with. It’s not about what’s cool right now, but if you want to be a part of something that will be cool, then that’s where we are.

EGM: You said there were some holes on the team. Can you specify where those holes were and how you’ve filled them since then?

O’Brien: Without getting into names or anything, I think we lacked a bit of creative leadership. We did fill those holes, though, as I brought down some guys that I used to work with previously, which made me feel better. I brought in some guys from EA Canada that I worked with on [the series] before. Connor Dougan runs our gameplay team, which is a very big team; he worked with me on NBA and NCAA basketball and was a line producer on SSX and was doing some work on UFC before we moved him down to [EA Tiburon]. Same with [senior designer] Ryan Santos, I worked with him on NBA Live and NBA Street. He’s a real lifestyle basketball guy, so we wanted him to insert some of the lifestyle of the sport that is so important, fusing the culture of the sport through music and footwear and apparel into the backbone of what NBA Live is, similar to what we did with NBA Live 10. We’re trying to reinvent it again on new-gen hardware. And a few other guys, too, to just really round out the experience level on making a basketball game, as well as to bolster what I felt was not enough creative leadership.

So, the designers and producers making the game, we really just needed more of them. And since then we’ve hired a number of engineers, a number of artists and animators, but what I was most happy with was the team that was there was actually a lot better than I thought. And what we produced was better than 13, because I played 13, it was better than what that looked and played like. And what we’re doing now is better than what 14 was. There are some really talented guys there, and I felt they just needed better direction, better leadership, and a better understanding of how to come together.

The coolest thing is that there’s some really strong talent there, so that’s why I feel even better about this year. For example, Paul Kashuk, our art director, who’s been at EA Tiburon for maybe eight years in a central role, worked on PGA Tour a few years back and is a former Disney guy. Giving him the opportunity to do this, he’ll be the first to tell you that his overall plan was a three-year plan. I believe we’ve achieved the vast majority of it in two years, but because of the way the art was built for 13, we couldn’t do as much as we wanted in that short timeframe for 14. But this was his plan all along. We built a scanner that was mobile and portable enough to go scan the athletes, and he had this strategy that we had to pick certain things we could in 14, knowing we could do more in 15 and even have the creative direction set already for 16, knowing where we could then take the franchise in the future as well.

EGM: Does the yearly iteration and near-constant work cycle due to the franchise’s annual nature make it easier then to implement long-term plans and follow through on them? Does the unending cycle become daunting at times, even with plans in place?

O’Brien: That’s one of the most challenging things. Knowing that we have a list of work can, at times, be overwhelming. But you got to stick to the plan, because I’d love to just snap my fingers and hand you the game I’ve got in my head. Obviously, I can’t do that, so it’s both the frustrating and challenging thing about being in sports-game development.

From the team’s standpoint, what we’re trying to figure out now is take what we proved internally with our post-launch support and expand on it. We’ve helped streamline this with new technology. Like for example, when LeBron James broke his nose last year, we have this live content update system now. Normally, when we want to update something, we’ll have to go through a submission process with Microsoft and Sony, and it becomes a patch, and they update your kit. So, we do the work, send it to them, they take about two weeks to review it, approve it, send it through the proper logistics channels of making it happen, and it finally gets to the player’s game. So, it takes a good chunk of time.

And so, when we’re living in a time when LeBron breaks his nose, you read about it, write about it, or see it on SportsCenter, and then you see him bring out that black mask/nose guard that the NBA didn’t want him to wear, and there was all this conversation about it. But when I went and played Live or 2K, he’s not wearing it. So, there’s a disconnect from reality. We could turn that around in three days now, though, with our new tech, so on the third day, LeBron in our game was wearing the black mask.

It’s a little thing, but maintaining relevancy is extremely important and one of the things that we’re going to hang our hat on. So, it’s the ability to support our games post-release and create this experience that doesn’t die. And at the same time of doing that, also executing for the next year’s game. That’s just the challenge of bringing our resources together and making sure we use them appropriately to ensure that the player who has the game now gets what they’re expecting and that we really fulfill the promise of that live service. Then, it’s making sure we have enough people and enough time to really innovate and build the new features that same player wants in next year’s game as well.

So, in regards to visuals, we made the game look better through one of our updates to 14, so if visuals were at a five out of 10 before, maybe the update bumped them up to a six. It was better, but it wasn’t what we’re doing for 15, because we took our new tech and went out and rescanned every player in the game, had to build a pipeline, and we had to actually re-author with new lighting to make the game take the step forward we needed to take.

It’s not something we could just update 14 with because we’re just getting to the point where we’re almost done now, and that’s something we were very honest about. I’ll tell you exactly what we can do; we’re not holding anything back. If we could’ve done this in 14, we would have. Sometimes, it’s just not possible, and I think that’s the challenge we’re taking on to make sure people can be a part of our journey and the trajectory to where we’ll be good—and, at the same time, understand why, have a stake in it, and give their feedback and have an opinion on where we’re going and then use our abilities to course correct as best we can along the way while supporting the live service of the current game and building toward the next one.

So, it’s challenging, but it’s also kind of fun, because sports games don’t traditionally do a good job of that. We’ll do roster updates and the little things, and Ultimate Team helps keep games a lot more relevant from a fantasy perspective, but in terms of giving you content and new things that you can engage with, it’s cool, but our challenge now is primarily to do everything we did with 14 for 15, and then with 16 and moving forward, people really buy into it and get what’s happening. That’s a differentiator to me.

EGM: When you guys invite the NBA players to have them scanned into the game, what’s their response? Are they excited just because it’s a videogame, or are they disappointed it’s not NBA 2K? What’s the feeling from the players around the league about NBA Live?

O’Brien: It’s interesting because, just to use a hypothetical here, a guy like [No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft] Andrew Wiggins, who’s only 19, doesn’t really remember Live unless he had an older brother or someone who played Live. But the older guys all know Live and grew up with it and love it and want to see it make a comeback. Most of the guys who play, though, now say they play 2K, or there’s a small minority of guys who played both last year. But they’re all very interested. I’ll exaggerate slightly and say they’re all interested, but most of the guys are more interested in what we’re doing. How we’re doing it, where Live is in its development, how we’re going to make it as good as 2K, and they talk about this as they sit down and scan with us.

Most of the environments we do in the scans in are a hotel ballroom or meeting room, and we’ll have the scanner set up, the game on the screen, and then the PR departments bring the players through, the coaches through, and most of the guys just sit around and play. They talk and make fun of each other because we get them to do screams and stuff to get different emotional performances from them. So, they talk and make fun of each other, and then they ask questions. And there’s usually three or four guys who are really interested in software development and what we’re doing, and they’ll ask these questions, and the other guys start listening.

It’s pretty cool, because it’s a different generation. Fifteen years ago, guys wouldn’t care about this, and now they all want to know what their ratings are, if their hair is right—like, we’ve had guys not want to get scanned and ask us if we could come back the next day because they’re getting a haircut. It’s all really important to them. So, the engagement on the players is extremely high, and then what we did throughout the course of the year, when we actually did some scans and ran them through the pipeline and showed them the graphical differences between last year and this year, we were getting the “Holy s***!” reactions to how good it looked, which is pretty rewarding. Anytime you can show players how good they look in a game, it’s kind of cool.

EGM: Have you made enough advancements between NBA Live 14 and 15 to completely narrow the gap with NBA 2K?

O’Brien: It’s hard to know for sure without knowing what 2K has done this year. Taking that into consideration, at the very least, visually, I can say yes. I think when we put our two games up side by side, we’ll absolutely be in the ballpark. I think there’s a different style between the two—like, if you look at a 2K game, I think there’s only two different body types. 2K tends to go for more of a heroic look, big feet and big shoes. They use their shaders a bit differently, so it’s a little more of a different artistic style, whereas we go for more of a photorealistic EA Sports style. So, that’ll be a plus or minus depending on your own personal preference.

I think that, from the gameplay side of things, we’re going to offer something different. Their animation is so strong and looks so good. That’s the one area where I’m curious to see how we stack up this year, but I do think that unless they’ve completely changed their approach, I think our game will be more responsive. What I mean by that is, I think you’ll feel more in control of what’s happening. The action, the input on your controller, what your expectation is, we feel that’s a point of differentiation that we can take advantage of.

What we’re trying to do is really give you the control that you expect. So, I think that’ll be an opportunity for us, and we’re going to hang our hat on responsiveness and control, so I’m curious to see if 2K has done anything to address that. That’s an unknown for me. They took a different approach last year with their virtual currency and how they’re doing online teamplay and online play in general. They had some server problems that everyone either experienced or read about, so I’m curious to see how much they’ve cleaned up there. It’s something we do extremely well at EA in general. Except for Battlefield. [Laughs]

But speaking for sports, the Ignite engine and our online experience is really buttoned up and really solid, and we rarely have server issues or challenges—if ever. The connected experience and what we provide, our relationship with [real-time stats company] Synergy Sports, it provides new data and tendencies on an ongoing basis based on what’s happening in the real world and changing your experience.

Maintaining the relevancy is something else we’ll hang our hat on and continuing to invest in. I think that’s where we’re best in class in sports games. And I think once our game looks better and plays better, that’ll get a little more recognition—because now, who cares? If it doesn’t play good or look good, then the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter and isn’t really meaningful. And then, looking forward, seeing how we invest in online teamplay, what that experience looks like, as well as how Ultimate Team ends up looking like as well and evolving that, I think that’s where we’ll continue to form our identity and differentiate.

So, I’d say we’ve definitely caught up in a lot of areas. I think the gap last year was quite significant. I think we’ve done an incredible job within 10 and a half months of closing that gap significantly in a lot of different areas. Overall, they’re an 85-plus-rated game, so it’s still going to take us some time to actually really catch up, but I think we do offer something different, and I think that’s important.

EGM: It really seems there’s been a culture shift within EA’s halls. I don’t think a few years ago you guys would’ve been talking about three-year plans. Do you think this could’ve been done a few years ago, or have things changed?

O’Brien: Things are changing. A lot of it is around [EA CEO] Andrew Wilson and [executive vice president of EA Studios] Patrick Soderland’s approach to quality and the emphasis on quality, not around headcount or your business plan. It’s about having the right people to make a great game. We’ll figure out the logistics, but that’s the most important thing now, and it’s what Andrew wants to hang his hat on and all of our hats on as a company.

So, it’s a really cool thing for me, just as a side note, how Andrew is giving me build feedback. The CEO of our company is talking about animation blending and AI states, and it’s cool and empowering in a way, because I can go back to my team and be like, “This is what Andrew thinks of our game.” Patrick is the same exact way, where they’re honed in on making a great game, making sure we’re focused on quality.

And then, even the tough decisions—which Andrew says are tough but aren’t really tough, like [pushing the release date back for] games like Hardline out and Dragon Age: Inquisition. EA, as a company, would’ve never made those decisions before. We were so quarter-by-quarter focused, and he pushed Battlefield: Hardline out of a quarter, which is enormous revenue, but he knows it’s the right thing to do. The game’s not ready, and they want to make 9s. We’re done with making 7s and 8s, and sometimes, that’s what it takes. So, it’s pretty cool to have the support of all these guys who believe in what we’re trying to do, understand the challenge, are giving us the resources to make leaps and bounds, recognizing those leaps and bounds, and then continuing to push us to be even better. It’s a pretty cool—and I’d say new—take on what EA’s all about, and it’s a lot of fun.

EGM: From an outsider’s perspective, the announcement of NBA Live 15 signified a change to me, becausesorry to bring up the bad review scores againthe EA of old, I think, would’ve never moved forward with NBA Live 15 after how poorly 14 was received.

O’Brien: I agree with you completely. When I came back to EA—and Andrew’s the guy who actually wanted me to come back before he got promoted to his big-boy job—I was just grilling Andrew on what the expectations were, what the support would be like, and I told him if he expected us to turn this around instantly, it wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to make sure there was the support internally, as a company, that they believed in this category, and they did.

It’s a huge opportunity, globally, on a number of different platforms. The NBA is an amazing partner with us, and they support us still, even with all the crap we’ve gone through over the past five years. It’s really important to me to feel like a part of something that the company sees a value in. If you think about it, in terms of games, what other genre can you say there’s an established $350 million category annually that EA’s had a huge presence in before? We’re really good at all the other sports, so if we came back and can take half of that, we’re in a good place—aiming for more, of course.

When we talk about creating new IPs and opening up new markets and new genres, yeah, this is an established market with an established genre and an established competitor, which makes it admittedly really challenging, but it gives you a court to play on. And I think that’s where Andrew’s vision is. For us, for the studio team, it’s just about making sure we can show the progress that he’s expecting and the company’s expecting to honor that commitment and keep that commitment alive. If we were a complete bust and had no plan and no idea what we were doing, it’d probably be a different conversation right now, but I think that’s part of the story we’re trying to tell. There’s more to what you saw in the package that was NBA Live 14. There are reasons why it was what it was. And it’s not a question of making excuses or being defensive; it’s just that there’s reality, and we just want to share some reality for those who are interested. And when you look at last year versus this year, you can see the differences. There’s a lot of good things happening, and it’s just a matter that some of them take time, and we’ll share as much as we can along the way. But believe in us, because we’re going to do it.

Tighter than a Kimura lock

Mixed martial arts has long been one of the world’s fastest-growing sports, spearheaded by the UFC’s founding just over two decades ago. Combatants hail from around the globe, and the sport often packs up its eight-sided cage and travels to international locations such as Brazil and England to accommodate its ever-expanding popularity. So, it only made sense that when THQ went bankrupt a couple of years ago, EA Sports would swoop in and grab the rights. While the games from the THQ days were decent and diehard fans of the sport who simply couldn’t get enough ground and pound were served well, no one could’ve imagined what EA Canada’s Fight Night team would do when they put a chokehold on the property.

EA Sports UFC changes everything we know about MMA games, and you’ll never be able to look at those other titles the same again. Sure, we’ve all heard how great the characters look—and, yes, they do look phenomenal. The real-time deformation and discoloration of fighters is impressive, but I expect that to a degree with new-gen hardware. What really blew me away here were the control schemes.

I’ve played all of those other UFC titles. Often, they’d devolve into slugfests with little to no ground game due to complex, unintuitive controls. While EA Sports UFC’s controls aren’t of the pick-up-and-play variety, the game does a much better job of teaching you how to balance your attack, from standing up to working in the clinch to finally putting your opponent on the ground.

The game begins with a mandatory tutorial,  then offers specific control challenges like “training” in career mode to earn extra points to level up your character. All this means that you’ll come to grasp the schemes far more effectively than ever before. By the time you work through the career mode once, you’ll be a master who’s more than ready to jump online.

You’ll also learn very quickly that if, like in those old games, you try to just stand and bang most of the time, you’ll end up knocked out on the canvas more often than not. The emphasis on the ground game is critical here, but with everything assigned to two simple motions modified by the specific button you press, the barrier for entry is far lower than it once was when it comes to the control scheme.

I went from not knowing how to apply a submission—never mind locking one in—to being a submissions specialist in EA Sports UFC, making 75 percent of my opponents tap over a 38-4 career. I won The Ultimate Fighter tournament to get my UFC contract, had two stints as the UFC Light Heavyweight champ, and I mastered a variety of locks: inverted triangles, armbars, Kimuras, and more. The game offers fewer satisfying feelings than knowing your opponent tapped out. Mind you, it’s much harder on a human opponent, but it’s not impossible—again only amping up that feeling of accomplishment.

My only issue with the career mode is that the training segments, while comprehensive, also became repetitive later on in your career. Some variety here could’ve really helped that section of the game keep its legs, but at least there’s an option to skip the training, which is especially nice once you max out your character near retirement.

I didn’t just grapple with AI-controlled opponents during my time with EA Sports UFC, though—I also took my skills online. While I never won fights online before in older UFC games, I was 3-2 here in an obviously limited stint, making one opponent tap and knocking the other two out (including one sick finish as Jon Jones with a Superman punch off the cage wall). And, yeah, I lost two matches, but they were really close: One went to a decision, and the other? I admit, I got my butt knocked out as B.J. Penn.

Not everything here is as flawless as Rondy Rousey’s 9-0 career start, however. In terms of technical shortcomings, the game has some framerate drops, both offline and online. It seemed to pop up most frequently with sudden camera shifts, like when starting the submission minigame. It’s not enough to ruin matches, but it’s enough to be noticeable and a bit bothersome at times.

I also feel like there could’ve been some improvement on the presentation side of things. While the real-time videos of Dana White, Mike Dolce, and a bevy of real-world fighters rooting me on and offering advice were nice, I was horribly disappointed by the lack of pomp and circumstance when I won a belt, made significant strides with my career, and finally was inducted into the hall of fame.

And speaking of looks, character customization could’ve been a bit deeper. To start with, the game offers fewer options than in THQ’s glory days in regards to the characters themselves. What’s more, when I unlocked new gear and sponsors, since there were no rewards associated with them besides making my character look more like an authentic UFC fighter walking to the Octagon instead of a bum off the street, there was no reason to even bother messing with them. Let “Bam Bam” Carsillo look like a hobo. I don’t care; I’ll still kick your butt. Actually, I wonder if I can make my next created fighter’s nickname be “The Bum.”

When my time with EA Sports UFC was done, despite the presence of a little lag and a few customization shortcomings, I really couldn’t get enough of the game. In terms of how everything plays out once you step foot in the Octagon, there’s never been a more accurate or enjoyable representation of the UFC brand. The controls are intuitive and easy to learn, and no MMA game has looked more realistic. Fighting fans and MMA fans alike will want to jump into this one.

Developer: EA Canada • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 06.17.14
The best representation of the action that happens inside the Octagon yet. While it’s not simple, the control scheme is still easy enough to learn that it takes the experience to an entirely new level as you break your opponents down standing up, in the clinch, or on the mat. With outstanding next-gen visuals, EA Sports UFC is good enough to carry around a championship belt.
The Good A dynamic fighting system that makes it feel like you’re actually in the Octagon.
The Bad Training system could use some variety; some lag during matches.
The Ugly How sad I was after having to hang up “Bam Bam” Carsillo’s gloves.
EA Sports UFC is available on Xbox One and PS4. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.

Swedish MMA fighter Alexander Gustafsson will be paired with New York’s Jon Jones as co-cover athlete for EA Sports UFC, publisher EA Sports announced.

While it had already been set in stone that Jon “Bones” Jones would be one of the cover athletes for EA Sports UFC, to maintain what has become tradition for EA Sports games, a tournament was held for the fans to determine what fighter would join Jones on the cover.

After 11 million votes were cast over a four-week period, Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson emerged from a field of 16 candidates as the winner. Gustafsson beat out longtime UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre in the finals to claim the honor. This was due in large part to the huge amount of votes that came in from Gustafsson’s native Sweden and the rest of Europe.

What makes the cover fitting, though, is the history shared between Jones and Gustafsson. Jones narrowly beat Gustaffsson to retain his UFC Light Heavyweight Championship back in September at UFC 165, but the win did not come without controversy.

Gustaffsson cut Jones’ eye open in the first round of their bout and is the first man on record to take Jones down in the Octagon. Despite ringside doctors wanting to end the fight due to Jones’ cut, Jones implored them to let it continue. The fight went the full five rounds and narrowly, although unanimously, Jones edged out Gustafsson on the judges’ scorecards.

Experts believe the judges scored in favor of Jones because he landed a great deal more “significant strikes” over the course of the bout than Gustafsson. The title defense was Jones’ sixth, a record in the Light Heavyweight division of UFC. Many can see a rematch between the two happening sometime next year.

EA Sports UFC is due out spring 2014 for Xbox One and PS4.

An all-time great

After living in SoCal now for a couple of years, I miss that first cool October breeze to signify that summer’s come and gone, and that it’s time to look forward to a deep, wintery chill. Mind you, it’s not the shoveling snow, changing of tires, or layers of clothes that I reminisce about—I miss that it actually starts to feel like hockey season.

The closest harbingers of hockey I get these days? Blasting my AC, complaining about the fair-weather L.A. Kings fans who constantly seem to crawl out of the woodwork, and playing the NHL franchise. Fortunately, NHL 14 does the best job yet of making me forget that longing for North Jersey winters and drowning out the know-nothing Kings fans.

As always, I started off by selecting and using my favorite team, the New York Rangers. Yes, I’m from New Jersey, but I root for the Rangers. The reason? Fans of the New Jersey Devils are as mythical as the Jersey Devil itself. They don’t exist, and if they do, there’s only about 30 of them huddled in a cave down in the Pine Barrens somewhere. South Jersey roots for the Flyers. North Jersey roots for the Rangers. End of story.

The Rangers are actually ideal for a review like this, though, since they’ve got a balanced team: Some guys can shoot, some guys can hit, and some guys can skate. Sure, NHL 14 sees plenty of major additions this year—and I’ll get to them—but when I want to test the nuances of the game, I’m covered with the Broadway Blueshirts.

Take winger Carl Hagelin and his blinding speed, for example. In NHL 14, I could really see how much faster he was than everyone else as he pulled away from the defenders who chased him through the neutral zone. Similarly, it makes sense to use a guy like 6’7” forward Brian Boyle to bowl over a sniper on the penalty kill, whereas 5’7” right wing Mats Zuccarello will just bounce right off. Having every player feel unique when you take control of them is a huge plus in a sports game, and that shines through in NHL 14.

But it’s not just about the physics of a monster like Boyle running over a hapless player on the PK. In previous NHL entries, you’d have to flick the right analog stick—almost like the truck feature in Madden—to deliver a punishing hit. While that option’s still there for fans who can’t break old habits, you can also simply skate as fast as you can, and the new momentum feature will automatically see Boyle stick his hip out and send that sniper spinning to the ice—or maybe rough him up a little harder if some bad blood’s been brewing between the two rivals over the course of the game.

And that leads into the next big feature—and probably the one that’ll be a favorite for casual hockey fans: The fighting system is completely overhauled. Borrowing mechanics from EA’s Fight Night franchise, NHL 14 offers nuances to each throwdown. You can try to push or pull a guy off his skates, bob and weave to avoid incoming haymakers, or drop some bombs of your own—it feels more like a hockey fight should instead of the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots–style fights of years past.

Of course, similarly to how everyone’s helmets started to fly off or they got checked into the bench more often in NHL 12, the fighting’s definitely tuned to happen a bit more often now. If it’s not your thing—and I’ll admit that it can be a bit jarring, since everything else around you stops pretty abruptly—you can at least turn the frequency down in penalty options. If you leave it as is, though, you’ll go from having no fights or one fight per game, like in previous years, to potentially two or three each game. And if it’s a rivalry matchup—say, the Rangers versus the Devils—you’re likely to see it even more than that. I got into five fights the first time I played the Devils!

The fighting’s so detailed now, in fact, that players will walk away with black eyes and face bruising that’ll last for a couple of games. Of course, even before the fights, these are some of the ugliest character models I’ve ever seen. EA Canada can’t even get something as simple as a player’s hair color right. I look at Rangers center Derek Stepan when he scores a goal, and I see a real-life picture of him with dark brown hair—and then I see his character model with albino-white hair. It’s a little thing, but at this point, I’d like to think that the developers have figured out the differences between brown and blond.

I’ll take little snafus like that, though, when NHL 14 sees significant additions—such as the ability to change the opposing general managers’ AI in Be a GM mode. For years, opposing teams were either so stupid that you could easily fleece them and put together a virtual team of all-stars, or they were so smart that you’d have to sell the farm to even get a mid-tier prospect. While Be a GM’s default AI seems pretty good in this incarnation, it’s nice to be able to make adjustments if you don’t think it’s acting as realistically as it should. And adding money options—such as taking on part of a player’s contract instead of the whole thing—makes the negotiating room even more heated if you like wheelin’ and dealin’ like myself.

But if stylin’ and profilin’ on the ice is more your bag, the new Live the Life mode—a revamped version of Be a Pro—is the way to go. I don’t normally create players, but I tried this option out and worked my way up through the CHL to get drafted 7th overall by the Edmonton Oilers (I’m still working on getting traded to the Rangers!). Pre- and post-game press conferences with your player, interactions off the ice with teammates, and talking to your agent about what endorsements you should sign gets you closer to living the dream of being a pro hockey player than the franchise has ever offered. And for me, personally, it was even more special. See, every NHL player has a soundbite associated with his surname, and thanks to Chicago Blackhawks left wing Daniel Carcillo, it always sounded like Gary Thorne was saying my name during play-by-play—it freaked my girlfriend out when she heard it the first time!

Part of why I was drafted so high? The new, simplified deking system. I’ll freely admit that this aspect of NHL was way too difficult for me in the past. Some people swear by it—and more power to ’em—but I’d rather just make crisp passes that work the goalie out of position instead of worrying about spin-o-ramas and the like. This year, instead of working both analog sticks while holding a bunch of buttons, you simply need to tap a shoulder button—if your player’s skilled enough, of course. I’d never done so many dekes in a single version of an NHL game before, but it’s so simple here that I couldn’t stop.

One new feature, however, hasn’t been simplified. If anything, it’s gotten more complicated, and it comes when you skate into the face-off circle. Now, I’ve never been good at face-offs. I’m lucky to average a 30-to-40-percent success rate. Face-offs require a lot more finesse this year, and you’ll need to use both analog sticks to really work for the puck. This may feel more realistic, but it’s also a lot more frustrating—I only won around 5 percent of my face-offs against the computer. I could hold my own against human opponents, but it’s damn near impossible to win against the computer—especially when the friendly AI, for all the strides it’s made, still isn’t smart enough to skate over and take the puck if I tie up the opposing center.

Let’s be honest: I could probably be here all day talking about hockey. My love for the Rangers. My hatred of the Islanders. And the Devils. And the Flyers. And the Penguins. My love and hatred aside, this is easily the best hockey experience EA Canada has delivered yet. They’ve listened to just about everything the fans have said over the years, and they’ve done their best to incorporate it here.

They’ve even heard the fans in a particularly special way: NHL 14 features a full-blown NHL ’94 mode that not only celebrates 20 years of what many consider one of the greatest hockey games of all time, but that also expertly blends the arcade style of the past with the simulation style of today. That shows true dedication and passion from the development team, and NHL 14 is as close to that hallowed Super NES/Genesis classic as any entry we’ve seen since then.

Developer: EA Canada • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.10.13
One of the best hockey sims to date. A couple of minor adjustments are always needed, but this is as close as its going to get for you short of lacing up skates and donning pads yourself.
The Good New fighting mechanics, better physics, and Online Seasons for Hockey Ultimate Team.
The Bad It’s impossible to win a face-off sometimes.
The Ugly The character models get worse-looking every year.
NHL 14 is available on Xbox 360 and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.

One rear-naked chokehold I welcome

I need to preface everything I say here by pointing out that these hands-on impressions are based off a build meant more as a demonstration of the Ignite engine at work in EA Sports UFC than actual gameplay. What I saw had none of the bells and whistles the final product will feature—no life bars, no stamina meters, no character-select screen. It was as pre-alpha as it gets. What I played was but a brief introduction to the groundwork of a potentially revolutionary new fighter that’s due out in nine months.

Part of what makes a game like EA Sports UFC possible, according to creative director Brian Hayes, are the advances made via next-gen technology. The look and feel, after all, is a critical component to an authentic MMA videogame. The veins bulging out of the neck of a fighter trying to lock in an armbar. The subtle bruising that peppers bodies over the course of a fight. An eye swelling shut after a few too many blows to the head. The changes in face color as a fighter succumbs to a rear-naked chokehold. These are just a few examples of the minute details that developer EA Canada is smoothly pulling off with next-gen tech and their new engine.

In my brief hands-on time at Gamescom, I got a feel for how fighters moved around the octagon. There’s a weightiness there now, with each movement tying right into the next. The fighters didn’t float around their opponent. Instead, they confidently planted their feet and moved with precision with each push of the control stick. And though the ground, grapple, and submission maneuvers were disabled during the demo, the attacks I could pull off felt substantial: Each punch I threw felt like it had power behind it and did real damage. Superman punches off the cage, flying knees, and spinning heel kicks were all available to me, and each one made me feel like I was watching a close-up of a fighter during a legitimate UFC PPV.

Now, normally, I’ll take something so early in its iteration process with a grain of salt. Show a little skepticism. But, honestly, after what I saw, I can’t help but feel hopeful that this is the game UFC fans have been clamoring for over the past decade. If the care seen in the in-ring segments transfers to the gameplay options—ideally, create-a-fighter or career modes—then this is primed to be a surefire hit. If not, there’s still a solid foundation here for what could ultimately become one of EA Sports’ more popular franchises.