Hockey is the best of all major American sports. I think this, but I might be in the minority. Baseball is America’s game, the NFL is America’s most popular sport, and basketball has the most recognizable stars. But hockey is my favourite. I love its speed and toughness, and the skill needed to play; that the most talented players also tend to be the hardest workers. Hockey is my favourite American sport and that’s why EA Sports’ NHL games have always been among my favourite games.
Which is why I have to be careful when I talk about a new NHL game. I’m biased. I just like them too much. So, I might just have to get the things I don’t like about NHL 18 out of the way early.
NHL Threes is the banner upgrade for this year’s title. You can play online, invite friends to join you for co-op matches, or just play offline against the CPU in a trek across the US. It’s the same arcade version of hockey that has been creeping into the title for years; buffs, mascots playing, no off-sides. It is what it is. Only now it’s the main selling point of the game.
The card based HUT (Hockey Ultimate Team) is also back. In HUT you can build your own team by completing challenges and earning packs of players – eventually creating a team strong enough to beat the most difficult challenges and compete online. If that was how HUT worked, it would be great. But, the challenges are uninspired, the rewards are lite, and it all feels strangely non-interactive. You win your games and collect your packs, then you auto-fill your team before the next game, and repeat – continuously, with nothing ever seeming to change. Alternatively, you can pay real money to buy extra packs with “rarer” players. Although what a “rare” player is, who knows.
Don’t worry, there is some good in NHL 18, and I’m getting to it. NHL Threes aside, there’s not much that’s different from previous games. Be a Pro is still there, but the upgrading system – based on your on-ice performance – may be due for an upgrade. If you’re good at shooting, you’ll max that out quickly. If you’re bad at face-offs, it’ll take a long time to get any better.
There are thirteen different leagues from North America and Europe, as well as national teams. You can create tournaments or play head-to head. Franchise mode is still there, and is just as deep as ever. It lets you take control of a team, or build one from scratch. But that too is now standard fare in EA Sports’ NHL games. It’s good, but it’s nothing new.
NHL Threes – whatever you think of it – plays really well online. It’s quick, trouble free, and instantly competitive; the complete opposite of HUT. The mode also tracks your ping, but even with my connection showing two bars out of three I still dropped out of a couple of games and got my share of lag.
Controls have been tweaked for both attack and defense. Using a simple button modifier, you now have greater control of your stick. Defensively you can lift the opponent’s stick or sweep yours across the ice to block a shot. Offensively, you are able pass through your legs or shoot one handed. That’s about it.
If that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s not. But it’s still a good game, and still one of my favourites. The new training mode sets out everything simply, taking you through the basics without weighing you down with the technicalities. With the in-game tips, this lets you get playing quickly, but also allows you to learn the complexities of the game at your own speed.
So, what exactly is so good about EA Sport’s hockey games? I was playing Be a Pro as a goalie, and covered up the puck. The opposing center hit me full speed, tripped, and went flying over me and the goal. In another match I tried to lift an opponent’s stick, missed, and hit him in the face. He reeled back and staggered. He did everything but spit out teeth. Later, I checked a player; a good hit in the open ice. He went down and stayed down, clutching his shoulder. The replay showed that’s exactly where I hit him – in the shoulder. He was helped off the ice holding his wound. While they might seem like little things, they’re the details that make the game so enjoyable. Contextual animations and good collision detection go a long way in making a good sports game.
NHL 18 is a good game, but I’m biased; even I know that there is little in it that’s new, and NHL Threes isn’t enough make it worth buying. There are great details that I love. The gameplay is fast and tough and takes work to master. But hockey is in danger. It’s in danger of falling behind baseball, football, and basketball in the gaming world, just like it’s lagging behind in real life.
Dene received a physical copy of NHL 18 from EA for review.