Antiquated as they are now, EA Sports’s yearly NHL Hockey editions were stuffed with audio perfectionism. Digitized pucks rattled off the boards, spectacular considering the technology even if they sounded as if recorded in an empty stadium. A quiet crowd sat on their hands until key moments where they would erupt into spectacle, or a section of a dozen or so dissatisfied homers would boo on a bogus penalty call.
And the organ. How glorious the arena’s organ was to help amplify the action in the waning days of DOS CD-ROM computing or the Sega CD.
Video games are an industry of visuals, where frame rates are counted and resolutions reach the peak of modern televisions. Those numbers, 60fps/1080p, are a sales pitch. They’re rated and reviewed. Audio is difficult to parse in ads, more so in text. There is a stadium intimacy to the NHL franchise, different from Madden’s 90,000 seat virtual domes or the reflective wooden floors of NBA Live. As NHL the series grew, so did the focus on audio.
At a time when consumer audio is shrinking into headphones and sound bars, NHL keeps an allegiance to home theaters. In a spacious speaker set-up, the credibility of the developer’s broadcast-level replication is startling. Mixing work (with no sub-menu adjustments) mirrors that atmosphere. Fans erupt, Emrick & Olczyk fall in the mix, overwhelmed by the 15,000-20,000 screaming spectators. Puck sounds too, whether banking on glass or skidding along boards behind the net, ping and reverb properly into rear speakers. Some of that room filling effect is properly lost if an ambient crowd becomes loud enough. It’s the type of consistent, adaptable realism other sports games would kill for.
OLD TIME HOCKEY
NHL has consistently come from EA Canada in the modern era, aside from dark days in the early ‘00s. The validity in all aspects of their simulation is of little surprise. Make Canadian hockey jokes if you must. None of Madden’s cold, ineffectual corporate sanitizing is present. Players in NHL zip around with helmets knocked off, sticks break, and there is a button for fighting. The NFL’s PR team would cry upon seeing a post-play scuffle erupt into the sidelines in their video game. NHL may have lost its famous bloody players - made culturally significant in 1996’s Swingers—but gained, well, everything else.
Blood wouldn’t sit well with NBC anyway, whose entire collaborative presentation overlaps NHL 16. Their overlaid graphics and soundtrack made even the maligned, feature-less NHL 15 bearable. The fade-in of the awesome eight note network theme song, proper leveling as the screen drops into “commercial” breaks; the sheer caution with which NHL approaches the soundscape is a marvel.
To be a developer in these circumstances is certainly terrifying. There will always be more polygons to use. Utterances of, “It will never look better than this,” can always be trumped—it was said in '94 and every year to follow. Undoubtedly, someone will say it in 2015. We are all set to be wrong. That’s no longer true on the side of audio. Short of actually playing commercials between breaks (and Emrick/Olczyk ceasing to stumble to keep up with hockey’s addictive pace), differentiation between network and interactive simulation has been nullified. NHL has a personal connection to the sport. Fans pound on glass, reaching into home subwoofers to add oomph into tense playoff moments. Or, the levity of a blow-out where those remaining in the arena can be heard laughing – individually—as they wait for an expiration of the third period. Such emptiness can be satisfying too.
Audio is typically referenced in generic terms. Maybe it sounds “clear.” Or worse, “loud.” Even fewer have the equipment to care at all. Sound is difficult to interpret because it is so often difficult to explain. Gunfire and explosions are decorative and showy. NHL is subtle auditory purity, where unique pieces balance and teeter to complement one another, coming from a studio full of people who have lived hockey from the stands or at home. They get it all, even the little stuff like audio. Plus, to this day, that iconic organ music remains.
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