The latest NHL game for the current console generation offers plenty of news. In fact, EA hardly changes anything at all.
How do you say goodbye to a console generation in a dignified way? That question has certainly plagued EA’s various development teams of the NHL, Fifa and the other sports series. The mill does not stop grinding just because many dedicated gamers have gradually started plugging out of their Playstation and Xbox consoles while waiting for what is to come. And how do you actually launch an ice hockey game when the actual Stanley Cup playoffs have just been decided?
Doing the best you can is probably the only reasonable answer to that question. With a carnal hockey model completely twisted out of the current pandemic, a vanishingly small development budget compared to, for example, the Fifa games and a game engine that felt old and tired for two or three years already
Given the conditions, it is difficult to be disappointed. The undersigned celebrates his tenth anniversary with EA’s NHL series and set low expectations. Since skating became sharper in NHL 19, the game on the ice has hardly changed at all. This year you get a couple of new tricks and draws to play with, ones you still do not have the strength to work into the rotation and the game structure that is now seriously starting to feel monotonous. The game looks exactly the same as the years before and you have to make an effort to realize at all that it is a new game you actually started with.
The same referees, the same faces in the audience, the same rigidity that manifests itself when all the players on the bench in total synchronization twist their bodies during the game breaks. It’s mostly Hawaiian hockey out there on the ice, because the familiar AI and game mechanics do not allow much else. NHL 21 is still fun and honed, but the crying lack of change is so obvious that you cannot help but giggle at it all. That the NHL series needed a new game engine already a couple of years ago is an understatement.
You will not be completely without news. To our great delight, the single-player mode Be A Pro has received a major update. The choices you make both on and off the ice shape us as players and influence the opinions of our teammates, management and fans about us. Those of you who have been hanging around for a while can draw parallels to the brilliant Life the Life mode that was introduced in NHL 14 and was quickly removed the following year.
“Be A Pro” mode gets the love it deserves is wonderful. However, it feels far from fully developed. The stylish answers you can give in different dialogues are not impressive and the coaching feedback you get on the ice often feels totally illogical. As a young forward, you throw in goals and assists, but the coach insists on setting personal intermediate goals that are about prioritizing the defense.
At higher difficulty levels, this is impossible to disturb, as our uncontrollable teammates are totally incompetent compared to the opponent. The own slopes are mostly standing and hugging with the opponents in the corners. Therefore, the enthusiasm for “BAP” dies quite quickly.
The level of difficulty has always been a mourning child in the NHL series. This applies to all single player modes. You jump between with type 14-2 and in the latter it is terribly difficult to get anything done at all. Opponents get magnetic clubs, follow us like a lion herd in the offensive zone and fit like gods.
There are a bizarre number of different controls for fine-tuning both teammates and opponents, but it requires too much time and gives an artificial experience of cheating when you are playing. Give us something between Pros and All-Star, EA!
It is also very easy to abuse a couple of shot variants that almost always give goals, even if the goalkeepers are actually better than ever. It’s mainly about folding in from the side and getting a quick wrist shot from exactly the right distance on the “wrong” side of the goalkeeper – that is, his club side. Carefully establishing a press game with the slopes on the blue line is often unnecessarily energy-intensive.
The online cash register Hockey Ultimate tech Team has been joined by a faster Rush mode. You open player packages and build the team from scratch just as before, but the Rush matches feel more accessible to those looking for faster entertainment. You can play 3-on-3 or 5-on-5 and collect style points with tricks, tackles and nice shots. You can ignore tricky rules, which gives HUT a more arcade-like feeling that you really appreciate.
A couple of minor news items, such as ranked seasons in World of Chel and a Deadline Day mini-game in Franchise Mode can also be found. However, these pale in comparison with HUT Rush and Be A Pro, which are this year’s highlights. Both entertain to some extent, but cannot hide the fact that the NHL series is in desperate need of lubrication. The game engine needs to retire for us to move on, and I guess it will happen when the first NHL game is released for PS5 and Xbox Series X.
NHL 21 is definitely not a bad game, but the series has been stomping for too long now for it to feel like 600 really well spent. Next year, EA really needs to build something new from the ground up so that you can once again be happy to open the wallet and shell out some cash on those sweet, sweet hut 21 coins.