I have bought every annual incarnation of EA Sport’s NHL series since 2010, with the exception of NHL14 as I was overseas and obviously didn’t take my console with me for the year away. So after spending a week with NHL18, here are my thoughts on the newest edition.
But before delving into the different modes and breaking down the gameplay, there’s a few things about this series that I want to get off my chest.
The main one being local servers. I suggested to EA last year that there should be servers to represent those of us that don’t live in North America or Europe. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened and even with ultra-fast broadband and a low ping rate, there is still a slight amount of lag, due to the only servers being on the other side of the world. So modes like EASHL and the online seasons in Hockey Ultimate Team are pointless for New Zealand gamers.
EASHL in particular is a mode I could see myself sinking many hours into if Australia/NZ servers ever become available.
The other big concern is the Be A Pro mode. There is almost nothing new this year so it’s not worth devoting a section of this review to. You can now request a trade with certain criteria, like going to a Stanley Cup contender. That’s it! This mode has so much potential and desperately needs a refresh. If we could see a cinematic story mode akin to FIFA17 or 2k Sports’ excellent NBA2k series, I would play that mode all the time.
There is no CWHL represented in this game. With EA’s FIFA and NBA Live series both featuring top-tier female athletes in recent years, I was holding hope that this might be a neat little bonus added to NHL18. Maybe next year? I would love to tear up the ice playing as Natalie Spooner!
At a glance, not much has changed. In fact the casual gamer might think this is exactly the same game. But if you take a closer look, there are subtle changes to be appreciated.
The big thing this year is the all-new creative dekes, designed to encourage the kind of puck wizardry players like cover boy Connor McDavid pull off with ease. Plus the addition of the defence skill stick helps with closing those passing lanes and shutting down attacks on the rush.
All this technical skill could be overwhelming to a new player but the good news is EA have teamed up with Hockey Canada to provide a series of training camps featuring professionally produced coaching videos that will help new and experienced gamers alike learn the basic and advanced moves. From the between-the-skates deke to the Forsberg, the more you practice the better you will become at embarrassing the world’s best goalies with your puck-handling skills.
Graphically the attention to detail is ridiculous. Much like last season, the stadiums look realistic and player movements feel fluid. But what’s new this year is an increased focus on player likeness.
The fact that James van Riemsdyk now has his trademark green mouthguard hanging out of his mouth (rather than doing any good) brings me more joy than it probably should.
My only real gripe with the gameplay is presentation and commentary. The NBC package featuring Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk is getting stale fast. Their lines are repeated often and I find myself tuning them out to the point where I might as well turn commentary audio off. Doing so wouldn’t make the game sound feel empty however, as the arenas feel very alive with crowds chanting and mascots doing their best to crank up that noise to 11.
I would love to see the NBC presentation ditched in favour of Sportsnet, whom I personally think do it better than anyone else. Hearing the voices of Bob Cole, Jim Hughson (again), and Craig Simpson could bring so much to the game. Better yet, cutting to a virtual studio featuring the likes of Ron MacClean and Elliotte Friedman during intermissions could push the presentation to another level.
HOCKEY ULTIMATE TEAM (HUT)
If you’re unfamiliar with this mode, think of it like fantasy hockey except instead of picking your players at a draft, you accumulate them by collecting hockey cards.
This year there’s an emphasis on the NHL100 to celebrate 100 years of NHL hockey with more legends added to the game frequently. The best way to keep on top of new additions is by following EA’s NHL Twitter.
HUT is my second favourite mode to play. I never used to understand the appeal because playing online was a core part of it, which wasn’t possible for me, and the offline single player provided little sense of achievement. The introduction of offline seasons in NHL16 changed that.
Because of the server issues, this review will focus on the offline aspects of HUT.
You start off by selecting a rec or superstar league season for your team to compete in. The best part is each season is only 10 games long and typically you need 3-4 wins to come out on top, so promotion to the next division can be easily achieved in one session – typically for me, that’s an hour or so. As you graduate through the divisions, the opposition and difficulty ramps up. This is a good way of developing your virtual hockey game. As you put in the work, you’ll start to really feel like you’ve earned those wins against challenging opponents.
With each game you collect virtual currency to buy more packs. This is how you grow and develop your team. You’ll likely start off with a mixture of NHL and Canadian major-junior players plus a few Europeans for good measure. So you know this wouldn’t be Don Cherry’s favourite mode to play if he were a gamer. Packs are also crucial for skill boosts and contract extensions for the existing players on your roster.
Microtransactions do creep into this game mode but you can get by without spending extra money, although the urge to get Curtis Joseph or Martin Brodeur in goal for my HUT is very, very tempting.
Ultimately…Hockey Ultimate Team is largely untouched but this year it’s a case of ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’. Except of course for those local servers! Please add those EA so New Zealand gamers can unlock the full potential of HUT.
It’s the year of the expansion!
You can start off your career as a NHL General Manager by either selecting an existing team, or pick the Vegas Golden Knights and re-do this year’s expansion draft, or create a 32nd team and prepare for expansion into the NHL. When I find the time I’m definitely putting a NZIHL team into the game.
If you choose the expansion route, be prepared to spend the next while going through expansion and entry drafts before you can even think about playing pre-season hockey. Just like real life!
As someone who dreams of being in the front office for a hockey team in some shape or form, this is my favourite mode, and it is also the deepest in terms of what you can do.
Scout the next superstar, negotiate contract extensions, manage the arena’s facilities, sign that crucial free agent to fill a hole, and make a trade at the deadline for a Stanley Cup run; all the while choosing to manage and play as both your NHL and AHL teams or leaving the farm system to the CPU to deal with. It’s enough to make you feel like the next Ray Shero.
Being the new kid on the block, NHL Threes received a lot of promotion and it definitely got me hyped – EA do a great job of marketing, ok? Just watch the trailer.
This is a heap of fun, especially if you have a few friends over to play couch co-op. Again, the online features are wasted here without those local Australia/NZ servers.
It’s fast-paced and the ‘MoneyPuck’ concept of scoring can really change the course of a game quickly. Some goals could be worth 2-3 points, others will give you points and rob your opponent of theirs. Brutal and so competitive! It could possibly test a few friendships the way Mario Kart’s blue shell does.
But after playing a couple solo rounds, I couldn’t help but think this is better off being a standalone game.
Maybe for 2018, EA can take what it has here and ramp up the arcade fun factor by honouring the legendary Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey – I’m talking goals on fire or goalies turning into literal brick walls. Essentially I want NBA Jam on skates!
EA are halfway there by making the NHL mascots playable plus the inclusion of an energetic, larger-than-life commentator (who reminds me a lot of Cam Green on the mic for West Auckland Admirals home games) is a nice touch.
Release NHL Threes on all the major platforms including the Nintendo Switch for a cheaper price than the marquee game and you might have a hit on your hands.
TL;DR? HERE’S THE VERDICT
Every year I tell myself I won’t buy the next edition, but they always add something that persuades me into buying it anyway.
This year it was the addition of the defence skill stick – such a small thing makes a world of difference on the blue line. But unless EA Sports give the Be A Pro mode a major overhaul, finally establish online servers for players outside of North America/Europe, or put Auston Matthews on the cover, NHL18 will serve my hockey needs well for a couple years.
It plays a very solid game of hockey that can really suck you into the fun of it all. Even with years of playing behind me, I still fist pump the air whenever I score a sweet goal or get a chuckle out of crushing a winger with a well-timed body check. With a variety of game modes available, there’s enough here to keep you coming back for more.
If you bought last year’s game and you’re wondering whether to upgrade or not: I would suggest don’t bother unless having the Vegas Golden Knights in the game is important to you. In reality there isn’t a lot that’s different from NHL17 aside from the minor gameplay tweaks. It’s up to you how much value you put into those adjustments.
8.5/10 – Reviewed on Xbox One