From the outside perspective, NHL 18 may not offer a whole lot of new features, but any big fan of the serious is going to see some phenomenal improvement in the series. Fixing a lot of the issues NHL 17 had, and adding features to make the game more like a real world hockey game, we love the direction the franchise is taking, but we are still curious when the total revamp will happen.
When the NHL series jumped to the next generation consoles the fact that EA has a rather small team working on it really showed. The franchise was missing many of the key features and modes, and it wasn’t great. A few years later and NHL 18 is right where we want things with very little to change. NHL 17 came pretty dang close to getting here, but NHL 18 does a lot of finer things correctly that are hard to ignore.
The smaller things include board play, passing, deking, and many other mechanics that veteran players will be fond of. Passing the puck to the boards to another player is very streamlined, and clearing zones is much easier with the new mechanics. A great addition is the ability to purposely aim the puck wide of a goal to shoot it off the back boards, and back out into play. I’ve score countless goals like this, and I’ve watched as opposing players have developed plays involving the boards more instead of simply skating around. Player movement, puck movement, and overall mechanics are very fine tuned as well. I found it easier to skate along the blue line while in the offensive zone, and set up plays with more precise movement. This also makes things easier as you can skate around, or through, an oppenent that simply checks you all the time.
The game still has its quirky moments where a skater might randomly turn and go off sides for no reason, or skate into the boards and lose the puck, but with so many moving parts you kind of expect that to happen. However a lot of these smaller issues have been worked out in this years addition. For example clearing pucks from the defensive zone won’t have your player randomly turn and slap shot it out of the rink, instead the game knows your intention and will find ways to either guide it along the boards, or shoot it more towards center ice. AI skaters will also do a good job of simply attempting to clear zones, instead of trying to make awkward plays all the time. You might even see the AI attempting the new deke moves, which are rather easy to do compared to past games. There are still issues like over skating loose pucks, or a player simply not obtaining possession when he should, but it feels more rare this year.
Two big points about NHL 18 that I want to highlight are passing and poke checks. For passing there seems to be a big improvement. In past titles it was rather hard to get passing right. Either your player wouldn’t do it right, or any AI opponent in the middle would easily knock it away. In NHL 18 I found passing into traffic actually works if done right, and trick passes are a lot easier to pull off correctly. Not super polished, but enough to be a noticeable improvement. As for poke checking, it’s still absurdly over power as it works 9 times out of 10, but what I did notice is that they increased the chances of a penalty when spamming it. When I pressed poke check more than twice it normally resulted in a penalty. In younger skaters, or less skilled skaters, that increased heavily. So I assume their quick fix for poke checking was to simply punish users for spamming it.
Beyond these small things you could say that this years update is more of a “boring” change to the game. I will say that these updates make it totally worth updating because it made it hard for me to return to NHL 17, but overall I could see some people not seeing the small details worth the price of admission.
That is until you throw in NHL Threes. EA didn’t do a good job of advertising this game mode, simply suggesting it was a 3-on-3 game mode, but it isn’t. This new mode is basically an arcade style game similar to what the franchise was back in the 90’s and early 2000’s. There are huge hits, the rules are basically turned off, and it’s extremely fast paced. The greatest thing about it is the pacing. Faceoffs are basically non-existent, and the game sings back and forth as both teams try to score on each other. Anyone that is a casual hockey fan will absolutely love this, and core hockey fans will love the thrill of setting up plays and playing at a high level.
But like I said, that isn’t all this is. This game mode actually had a lot of effort put into it by the NHL team with a full fledged game mode at your fingertips. You start out with a basic team and set out on a journey to conquer the different divisions. As you beat teams and do special goals in each game you unlock new players and new team based things such as arena’s, jerseys, etc… You can even be team mascots as players!
It isn’t done perfectly though. For example when unlocking players, the next unlock is typically overall better than the last, so there really isn’t a “team building” experience. There is no need to mix and match players. Team unlocks will just make you look like a standard NHL team which I thought was kind of lame.
However, it still gives you a sense of pride as you continue on. Sometimes the games will be tough, other times it will be an easy victory. There will be games where you will need to simply win, move on, then come back and get 3 stars to unlock a better player. A nifty thing about the game mode is that before each game you will flip a coin and the winner will get to choose the specifics for the game. For example, the first one to 6 goals, or a 2 minute period limit, etc… They can also choose “money pucks” which will do things like add 2 goals per goal, or take away an opponent’s goal and add it to your total etc… Sometimes the AI might win and make the rules really lopsided in its favor which means it might be a good idea to leave and come back so you get something you are better at.
My favorite thing about Threes was the announcer. Matching the high intensity and fast pace is a more energetic and funny announcer that talks about all aspects of the game. He will start to repeat things rather fast, but for someone that just pops in a few games here and there he is thrilling to listen to. I kind of wish EA would let the actual game have an announcer like this, instead of the “NBC” crew they have.
Speaking of the NBC broadcast style, that and basically the rest of the game remain the same. I’m not a fan of the NBC broadcast. I find it cheesy, annoying, and dull. The nice thing is they at least removed the mandatory in-game cut aways, at least from my many games but I play as the Coyotes so they probably have nothing programmed in there for them.
The only other real change is the ability to relocate and play as an expansion team in Be A GM mode. This means that outside micro-managing features have also been re-added to the franchise. So you will be taking care of stadium upgrades, adjusting prices, and making sure attendance is up for your team. Basically keep winning and spend money when you have it. If you want you can uproot any team and relocate them to a new city (many cities to choose from) with approval from the owner, or you can choose to be an expansion team. This includes a 31 team layout where you can be Vegas and do your own expansion draft, or not be Vegas and be a new city. You can also do a 32 team layout where Vegas is there and you select a new team.
I want to say other changes, such as the ability to request a trade in Be A Pro mode, are very minor changes. There are a lot of small things that changed, but overall nothing that will drastically change the game. It’s nice to see them working in all areas to fine tune an already stellar franchise, but then there is the looming upgrade coming where the franchise eventually starts utilizing Frostbite. NHL is the next game on the list to be upgraded to the engine and I can’t help but fear if all these small changes will be lost in translation. Let’s hope not.