While it isn’t a big leap forward, NHL 23 adds enough new features and fine polish to make it feel worthwhile for hockey fans.
Stepping away from the NHL series for a bit has allowed me to get a fresh take on the series with the return of NHL 23. This year we got some nifty new presentation features, a fully developed franchise mode, and some on-ice moves that further refine gameplay.
Developer: EA Sports Vancouver
Platforms: Xbox / PlayStation (played on PS5)
Release Date: October 14, 2022
Is all that enough to warrant a full new game release? Probably not.
As I stated, I stepped away from the NHL series for a few years. Before then, I was an avid buyer. I’d play every single year and with introductions in the past (like the skill stick and on-ice physics), it was pretty cool to see the “small guy” at EA Sports pioneering some new advancements. The series would hit dry spots throughout the years, however, typically early in new console generations. A point where all this super awesome innovation hits a roadblock and slows WAY down. That’s what NHL 23 feels like to me.
For someone new to the franchise overall (or coming back to it after many years) NHL 23 seems as though it has quite a bit to offer. As I found out by visiting last year’s entry, however, a lot of that newness was already available in previous games. For example, ‘Be A Star’ mode is hardly changed at all. It has a few new animations in-game, but beyond that it’s literally the same exact mode as the previous year. ‘NHL Three’s’ and other modes are nearly identical too, with nothing major added to any of them.
The only real difference seems to be ‘Franchise Mode,’ which has been expanded upon by allowing you to fully create your own league with as few teams as you want, or swing the other way with over 40 available options. There are some added perks to customization, and Franchise mode feels like it dives super deep into what it’s like to be an owner of a team. There are a ton of settings you can tweak and adjust. The only thing kind of missing is a custom logo/team upload and download area so you can join a community of others.
I found franchise mode to be extremely compelling though; with so many settings at your disposal and the AI being a little smarter with trades, and overall management, at least in the time I’ve been playing. I personally enjoy playing as an underdog team like the Coyotes and utilizing the mode to build upwards. It adds a nice challenge trying to find decent players, or building up my draft picks to solidify a future. Every team also has really solid goals for owners and if you go with a more established franchise the goals are a little harder to achieve.
Everything in Franchise mode is laid out and easily accessible at all times too. There is a lot going on at any given moment and all the data spread across tiles on the screen can be overwhelming for some new players. Once you start to understand the importance of it all, however, you are very thankful on how you can get to basically any tab to manage your team, or arena, with just one button. The further you go, the more in-depth everything gets and you never really hit a wall where something feels unfinished at all.
One of the biggest additions to NHL 23 is the new Stanley Cup celebrations. You can now select 3 players who will hoist the cup, and decide how they will hand them off when your team wins it all. However, unless you are doing quick tournaments then you’ll hardly even notice this is a thing. Other changes also include new refinements to crowds, such as changing the hat colors thrown on the ice when a player scores a hat trick (3 goals) in a game.
In fact a majority of the “big new” changes basically revolve around a better overall presentation in the game. Which, I will say, is done extremely well. The game presentation revolves around an AR style view where stats and other updates appear live on the ice itself. It’s pretty neat to see face off percentage, or your teams Power Play stats, as a face off is about to begin.
The game also fine tuned some of the on-ice displays to further help all players adjust to the fast paced gameplay. The vision of your player will be lit up when you have the puck, and potential pass routes are highlighted, along with your chosen aim. If there is potential for an offsides then that half of the ice will light up red to tell you to not cross the line. Overall there is A LOT going on the screen, but it’s really well streamlined to help you get up and going pretty easily.
Another big improvement is goalies now have more animations and the AI nature to them have been improved. So now, some standard plays that were guaranteed goals in previous games are somewhat shut down. However, goalies are still very easily tricked, but the game did a good job of improving other player AI abilities which allows the AI to shut down these plays before they ever develop. For example, passing back towards the front of the net is quickly squashed by multiple defenders shutting down the passing lanes and/or taking the puck carrying player out of the play with a big hit.
This is all assisted by the new ‘Last Chance Punch Movements.’ With this players can still make a play on the puck with animations added that allow you to swing at the puck even when you’ve fallen down. You can also create plays before reaching the puck in open ice. These animations basically mean that even though a player has fallen down—or would otherwise be out of the play in previous games—they can still make a play and shut down lanes or push the puck forward.
When you do manage to get major plays off, the game amps everything up by hyping up the crowd and having the announcers getting really into the game. The excitement of a near goal, or your goalie making a ton of saves in a row, is met with heavy chants and the announcers going crazy in excitement. It’s really neat that the crowd will react to more than just goals. For instance clearing the puck from the zone during a power play warrants some cheers. Conversely, seeing the crowd booing a player injuring their hometown player every time they touch the puck is neat.
One of my favorite features in the game is also the Dualsense haptic feedback. The controller literally vibrates just like a skate does on the ice, and it follows each foot perfectly. It’s really neat and I can’t get over how friggin ‘cool it is. I do wish that the controller would have a bigger vibration effect to feel big hits, but it’s still really neat to literally feel like you are skating on ice.
Now…onto the bad stuff.
One of the new features in the game is a new “X-factor” perk for select players. These perks basically give certain players an elite perk that makes them a slight step ahead of normal elite players. Imagine a sniper who can score basically any time they get a chance in front of the net with a toe drag. There are different perks and overall it’s a really neat feature, but I’m pretty disappointed that it’s not balanced across all teams.
Some teams will have multiple players with an X-Factor perk, while other teams (like my Coyotes) only have one. In that instance, it sucks when the player is easily shut down by defensive assignments. In my experience the one player I had was injury prone and constantly getting hurt in almost every game. However, I have other Elite players on my team with some high stats so it would be nice to at least assign the minimum of 3 X-Factor per team.
Another downside is that along with the copy paste formula for a majority of the game, some new real-life changes are missing. The biggest changes I noticed is that the Coyotes “new” temporary arena is missing. While I’m sure some die hard hockey fans don’t care, I was honestly looking forward to playing in a smaller arena. I’m not sure how it’d impact Franchise mode and perhaps would have added an unneeded challenge…but still. Instead I’m pretty sure they just took the old Glendale arena and removed all the branding, and called it “Arizona Arena” with no location and generic looking stands.
I also noticed the game has a really weird glitch where the lights in a game will literally not turn on. You are basically playing in the dark, if you can see the game at all. One instance where this happened to me the screen was totally black with just the players names floating around. Another time the game began crashing during the team select screen. The players showing off the sweater selection randomly vanished, then the game booted to a black screen. There also seems to be a glitch with online play where utilizing scratched players will cause the game to crash entirely.
I still feel passing, and sometimes grabbing the puck, is a bit awkward and certainly could have used some more fine-tuning. Overall, the game plays smoothly, but sometimes the puck decisions by players don’t make a lot of sense. I could be literally aiming one way with the puck and press pass, and instead it will go an entirely different direction. During times when the AI attempts to be a powerhouse and randomly increases difficulty, I notice passing becomes even more inconsistent. It’s a bit frustrating when you see a wide open player and attempt to pass to them, but instead the game picks a different spot and the puck gets intercepted.
Hockey Ultimate Team is what we are used to with sports games at this point. You buy cards (loot boxes) and put together a fantasy team of players with these cards. The good news is that this year we get Women’s leagues which can now blend women and men on single teams, which creates a whole new dynamic in-game.
The bad news is that HUT didn’t change enough to make me want to play it. I’m not a fan of basically loot box style play, and there is way too much going on to really balance the mode. Not only does it need to balance your skill level, but also the attributes of your team with others. If you spend real world money on better cards you’ll have a better team. If you are cheap, like me, then you’ll mostly likely have a subpar to average team at best and it just isn’t fun to me.
If you skipped out on the previous iteration in the series, then NHL 23 offers a ton of new features and animations that really polish the game for an overall superior title. However if you have the recent iteration then there isn’t quite enough added to the game to warrant rebuying it at full price. The key visuals and added overlay for newer players really makes NHL 23 the better stepping in point though.