Arcade sports games have become increasingly less prominent in recent years. With animations becoming more and more realistic, and graphical fidelity reaching new heights, sports game developers have been embracing this approach to realism with open arms. Gone are the NFL Blitz’s and NBA Street’s of yesteryear, and the sports game market is now fully dominated by the simulation sports genre. However, the one yearly title which bucks this trend, to a certain extent, is the NHL franchise from EA Canada. While it doesn’t stray too far away from the simulation formula, NHL 18 does bring the series to moments that haven’t been featured in sports games for a number of years.
The newest addition to NHL in this year’s game is “NHL Threes”, which (if the name didn’t make it clear enough) is a full game mode dedicated to 3-on-3 hockey with a twist, coming in the form of various scoring modifiers along with wacky aesthetics, which create a zany, off-the-wall atmosphere that harkens to arcade sports games of the past. From playable mascots to boss battles, “Threes” does have a number of shenanigans to differentiate it from the base game. However, from a foundational level, it doesn’t feel incredibly different from a normal game of hockey in NHL 18. That’s a bit of a letdown in terms of quirkiness, but not a glaring flaw since NHL’s gameplay is some of the best the series has had to offer in a while.
Since NHL 94, hockey controls have gotten more complex, but not necessarily better. While in recent years you could control the puck better than ever, it’s not always been that easy to wrap your head around the ever-increasing intricate control schemes. This year’s entry brings with it the introduction of the skill stick (mapping puck control to the analog stick), which adds a bit of depth to the gameplay once you get the hang of it. Combine this with the Training Camp mode to practice your skills, and as someone who has never been able to do anything outside of basic fundamentals in an NHL game, it didn’t take long before I felt more in control of the on-ice action.
Despite the better than ever minute-to-minute gameplay, the place where NHL 18 falls behind its contemporaries is in the off-the-rink content. With the biggest NBA, NFL, FIFA and MLB games all tackling a story mode of some kind, the lack of one in NHL 18 really takes it a step back in comparison. While the traditional create-a-player mode is still available, there is no captivating story a la Madden’s Longshots, or a basketball tinged RPG in the way of NBA 2K’s MyPlayer. The genre has made strides in this type of narrative exploration in the past few years. and the failure to bring that progression to the NHL franchise is disappointing, to say the least.
Another underwhelming aspect of this year’s game has been the stagnant commentary that NHL has on offer. In what I would consider some of the most immersive presentation in the world of sports games (a full-on recreation of an NBCSN game) the lackluster commentary from Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk really holds the game back from shining in this regard. While it’s normal for a game to repeat voice lines from the previous year’s title, I can sparsely recall one anecdote or story from this year’s game that wasn’t in last year’s version. This lack of polish and extra effort broke my immersion in what is an otherwise a shot for shot recreation of NBC’s hockey presentation. Contrast this with the fun-filled commentary from the announcer in NHL Threes, and it’s clear where EA Canada’s commentary resources went.
“Franchise” mode has been revamped a little, with the addition of the latest NHL organization the Vegas Golden Knights, but again falls short of doing anything to reinvent the mode in any substantive way. While the idea of spearheading a new franchise is cool in theory, the lack of anything other than being able to set ticket prices and standard franchise mode tropes make it feel more like a by-the-numbers iteration. You are given the ability to create a second expansion team in addition to the Golden Knights, but with everything going on in the league this year, it still feels like EA Canada underdelivered on something that could have been a unique mode.
The rest of the slate of game modes in NHL 18 hasn’t been changed too much. Hockey Ultimate Team adds new challenges which dole out coins for packs at a more generous rate than before. However, like FIFA and Madden “Ultimate Team” modes, “HUT” feels very much like predatory endeavor into the lootbox-laden, pay-to-win microtransaction market that really shouldn’t have a place in a full priced AAA game. EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL) now allows for 3v3 play to give you more agency on where you choose to line up on the ice. This will surely relax some of the arguments that come from having to play a defender because a random online player chose an attack position before you had a chance to claim your own. This quality of life fix finds its way around the rest of game by easily allowing you to play with as many friends as you’d like in an endless number of permutations. By allowing you to freely mix and match playing with friends online and locally, NHL 18 doesn’t get in its own way when allowing you to play together.
As painful as it is to say it, I highly doubt NHL 18 will stand out from the rest of the sports games on offer this year. While it does what it has to in order to get by and escape the controversy that surrounded NHL 15‘s launch, it also never really does anything to make it stand out. Sure, the addition of “Threes” brings a fun arcade game mode for those not interested in the simulation aspects of modern sports titles, but the lack of a blown out, narrative-driven career mode really sells short what the NHL has to offer. NHL 18 is a bit of a side step in terms of progression in the NHL franchise, and while it has a few neat things on offer, it fails to bring the series into uncharted territory.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with. Part of this review is based on time spent with the game at an EA-hosted preview event, for which lodging and travel were provided by Electronic Arts.
NHL 18 does enough to keep the lights on at the rink, but its lack of a full-blown story mode leaves the series on thin ice.