The days of sports video games being new and fresh are gone. As much as it pains me to say it, it’s simply true. Exclusive licenses sap the incentive away from game developers to keep everything fresh, instead leading to tweaks and roster updates with the occasional fresh mode.
EA Sports’ NHL franchise got the fresh look it so badly needed two years ago when it was introduced to the latest generation of game consoles, but like all the EA Sports brethren, the exclusive license has led to minor upgrades in the most recent two installments, including this year’s NHL 18.
That’s not to say it isn’t better – it is, especially with a new mode called NHL Threes, which is essentially overtime on steroids. It’s a fun, fast-paced way to play that doesn’t have the weirdness of actual NHL overtime periods. If you fall behind, special “money pucks” can help you close the gap quickly, either by scoring a pair of goals with one shot, or taking away an opponent’s goal while scoring one of your own.
Here’s a look at some of the other game modes available in NHL 18:
Franchise: Getting through a season is easier than in past years. For example, I was able to simulate the entire regular season in less than 10 minutes. The results of that first simulation don’t matter (it had Colorado finishing second in the Central, and I’m not sure how my system didn’t crash), but getting through it quickly doesn’t hurt when you only want to play a handful of games in a season.
Be a Pro: Personally, this is my favorite mode, because it’s a good way to keep learning the game away from the puck. The ability to simulate to your next shift is helpful to keep game-time length down for those of you who are like me and want a more realistic experience. But it’s also mostly unchanged from recent variations, and should be the next mode due for a major overhaul.
Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT): It’s basically fantasy hockey, but it’s different this year in that there are challenges more along the lines of the Madden NFL series. Those give you the chance to earn rewards that could lead to better players for your team. It’s a fun mode if you play every day, but you’ll miss out on a lot of stuff if you’re a more causal gamer.
Draft Champions: Another mode pulled from its Madden brethren, it’s tied into HUT with potential rewards. You can draft a team of Eastern Conference players, Western Conference players, European or Canadian players to try and earn better rewards for HUT. If you like drafting, this mode is for you – but you’ll have some hard decisions when building your team.
EA SPORTS Hockey League: Arguably the best mode in the franchise, EASHL is largely unchanged this year. You can suit up with friends and compete as a team to try and advance into higher divisions in online seasons or play in a playoff-style tournament. Might be the best online mode in a sports game, but you do have to spend some time with it to really get the most out of it, so it’s not for everybody.
Training for new players is improved this year with the help of Hockey Canada in a series of videos to explain concepts for the game. Those videos are also available between periods as coaching points to help you in games as well. It’s subtle, but a nice touch of realism as well.
For more advanced players, the defensive skill stick is a welcome addition, as is the deking system. But the goalie animations are a bit stale and need some overhauling. Case in point – on multiple occasions a loose puck was sitting a couple of feet behind the goal line near the post with no other players in reach, and the goaltenders don’t reach out to corral the puck.
One absolutely maddening misstep is that interference is called seemingly on normal contact, which could be adjusted by penalty sliders, but shouldn’t need to be. The poke check is also far too effective. It’s a go-to move when you’re in your own end and it almost always seems to get the job done.
The presentation – with NBC graphics and commentary – needs work. It’s gotten stale and largely unchanged from last year and a lot of repeated phrases don’t help. Also, player pronunciations aren’t necessarily consistent, either. Ryan Johansen had his name announced a couple of different ways, which shouldn’t happen.
Menu navigation is a bit more streamlined this year, which is a plus.
Depending on how hardcore a hockey gamer you are, it’s either a great game or a minor tweak with a roster update. If you’re new to hockey games, it’s definitely worth checking out because NHL Threes is a seriously fun mode. Be a Pro mode needs some major upgrades next year to keep things moving in the right direction and the presentation has to be overhauled or it will get very old and stale despite having Doc Emrick calling the game. The franchise could be better, but it also certainly could be a lot worse.
Grade: 3.75 out of 5