The coronavirus pandemic has changed a great many things this year, and professional hockey is not immune. The 2020 Stanley Cup Finals concluded just two weeks ago, at a time when training camps would normally be breaking in anticipation for the 2021-22 regular season. Because of that, EA Sports delayed the release of NHL 21 by a month, and the league has postponed the start of the new season until at least January 1st. So, much like how MLB The Show 20 was the only baseball that fans had for months, NHL 21 will be the only form of hockey until the next calendar year, and even that isn’t set in stone. Luckily for us, it’s a solid entry.
NHL 21 takes a huge leap in the actual core mechanics of the game of hockey — and it’s a welcome change. The game is faster and more physical than recent versions, and the tweaks are immediately felt. Clear lanes to the goal are now often clogged with defenders, and attacking forwards are ganged up on in the offensive zone, shutting down common safe passes and one-timers, ensuring that players will actually have to work for a goal.
Skating looks and feels different between players, and the developers added a whole array of slips, banks, and dekes to make the gameplay the best of this generation. The AI on both offense and defense has been revamped; no more NHL 94 arcade-style play, and even odd-man rushes are not guaranteed to light the lamp.
If you can manage to exploit a team’s weakness and get a clear shot, new goalie AI and animations give you another obstacle to overcome. I’ve seen goalies do some incredible stuff in my time with the NHL 21 — my favorite is watching a goalie go from the butterfly to a spinaroonie to knock the puck off its path.
I’ve also witnessed goalies diving far out of the crease — a good two feet or more — to cover a puck when I had three attackers ready to swarm. Admittedly, it’s both frustrating and beautiful to see the franchise make these changes — frustrating in that I know I have to up my game to succeed, and beautiful in that this feels more like real-world hockey.
To counter this new range of difficulty, EA Vancouver has given players more moves on the ice in the form of unique dekes and more puck control. In previous games, you could bounce a puck off the boards to yourself, almost by accident, and use that to your advantage. Now, a board bank self pass is a dedicated move.
Player specific moves have been added, like “The Kucherov” — a no-move deke made famous by Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov — creating separation between the superstars in the league and the third and fourth line players. These moves are mapped to button combos, and can actually be pulled off by any player, making a skilled gamer especially dangerous.
To truly dominate your opponents, the player must use the tools given to them, so learning these new moves and not just relying on breakaways and poor goalie AI is paramount to one day lifting the greatest trophy in all of sports. The added physicality on both ends of the ice and the demand for skill-based gameplay makes NHL 21 the closest thing to real hockey in the history of the series.
NHL 21 also gave a much-needed facelift to the Be A Pro mode. Taking your player-created character through an NHL career is much more immersive now, with deeper conversation trees, fun interactions with teammates and the front office, as well as the media, and more as you climb the ranks to one day become a legend. Who knew that agreeing to go bowling with members of your team on an off day would make the players pass the puck to you more often? It’s these types of situations that will come up in Be A Pro to create a well-rounded experience.
In years past, Be A Pro has been mostly filler, with few bright spots, but in NHL 21, this mode shines. It’s still not as robust as some other sports games, like NBA 2K or MLB The Show, but EA Vancouver is showing that they understand and are trying to make it better.
The vaunted Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) mode gets a fun new hook with HUT Rush, an objective-based, arcade-style game that merges the team customization of HUT and the over-the-top gameplay of NHL Threes to create an amazing distraction from the more full-featured modes, like Franchise, Season, and the now-deeper World of CHEL. Points are awarded for completing objectives like scoring goals, using dekes, and leveling your opponent, and prizes earned in HUT Rush carry over to the standard HUT mode, which is a huge benefit for fans.
While these new additions to NHL 21 are outstanding and very welcome, there are still some major issues — which have persisted over the years — that have yet to be addressed. Cosmetically, there have been no changes to the game’s graphics or stadiums, and this is immediately evident in the team slogans across various arenas.
The slogans used in NHL 21 are from the 2013-14 season, which ostensibly means that some of these assets are over seven years old. Seven years between a major aesthetic refresh for an annual sports game is unheard of. I’ve looked past it for the last few years, but now it’s starting to draw me out of the deeper in-game experience.
Also, I still don’t understand why the Arizona Coyotes are the only team to play in an unlicensed arena. I’m beginning to think that the developers don’t care enough about the greater sensory visualization of the NHL experience to fix these issues, and it is one thing keeping this franchise from breaking through to the upper echelons of sports game royalty.
I’d like to hope that with NHL 21 being the last hockey game of this console generation, maybe NHL 22 will finally get that graphical upgrade it so desperately deserves, as the gameplay is now top line, and the game’s look needs to rise up from the fourth line to match it. I guess we’ll find out next year — if there is a next year.
It has been a difficult 2020 for all of us, and sports fans have been left with to contend with makeshift versions of their favorite distractions. Thankfully, video games have stepped in to fill that void, and while fans wait for the next real hockey season to begin, NHL 21 does an amazing job of keeping us occupied and entertained. With new gameplay additions and some fun new game modes, if this is the only hockey we will have for a few months, I think we’ll be okay.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of NHL 21. A review copy was provided to us by Electronic Arts.