The last two entries into EA Sports’ hockey simulator, the NHL series, have seen huge improvements after a rough outing with NHL 15. After getting fairly stale from being the only big name hockey simulator on the market, the NHL series has seen a big upswing in terms of gameplay and development. Now, with NHL 18 out, that upswing continues to swell, as this is another entry with huge improvements in various areas.
As far as looks go, NHL 18 does a great job at presenting the sport, as they have continued to do for the last two years. The team jerseys all look very good, and the commentary over the game continues to sound as genuine as the actual games go. The only disappointing aspect is that, after the inclusion of the Frostbite engine into the world of Madden, it would be nice to see the NHL series have it down the line. The difference between Madden and NHL in terms of animation and physics is pretty evident, and it would be great to see an upgraded game engine for the NHL series going forward.
The big new addition this year is the NHL Threes mode. Essentially, Threes is a new, over-the-top arcade style mode added to the game (think arcade mode in MLB The Show 17). As the name implies, Threes shifts the gameplay to a three-on-three game and harkens back to the days of hockey games on arcade cabinets. Penalties are removed, an over-the-top announcer (in the vein of NBA Jam) is added, and players can add special pucks that have various abilities. The mode feels almost like a completely independent game and is a great mode for fans that just want a fun and quick way to play some hockey.
Once fans get into the real meat of the game and jump onto the real ice, there won’t be too much of a chance to notice. The action on the ice is pretty similar to NHL 17 and still offers a great simulation the sport. Making your way up the ice and getting shots on the goalie is still as satisfying as ever, and the AI teammates seem to have been tweaked and do a much better job as acting like real teammates, though there are still problems with them. I’ve had multiple instances where the AI cannot pick up loose pucks or get into position on time, which results in a few frustrating moments, but can easily be fixed via updates.
The only major changes that seem to have been brought into the gameplay are the tweaks made to the offensive and defensive stick skills. Both stick skills get more attention and add some fancy new moves that will help players get goalies off of their feet or even get tricky and flip the puck. Defensively, the stick skill doesn’t seem as fine-tuned but is certainly still there. Players get a bit more control on where to sweep the stick and disrupt plays. Even the AI defenders seem to use the stick well, breaking up passes and generally causing problems for offensive players. Fans of the series will know what to expect with the stick, but the game makes sure to add some very detailed tutorials for newcomers as well.
Elsewhere, NHL 18 continues to offer a good variety of its gameplay modes. Be A Pro mode continues to be a solid way to create a player and guide them through a career. It’s kind of disappointing to see that the game has yet to add a true story mode like its NBA Live, Madden, and FIFA brethren, but Be a Pro is adequate for the time being. The Franchise mode in the game continues to be a great simulator for living out your fantasy of being the owner of an NHL team, even going so far as to allow players to relocate a team elsewhere, like in the real world. Also included were huge rehabs to player ratings, training, and the draft process. All in all, the franchise mode is likely one of the best inclusions to the game.
When it comes to online gameplay, the NHL series continues to get it right, and the EASHL (EA Sports Hockey League) continues to get better as the years go on. The mode has been updated to allow for drop-in games that use skill-based matchmaking to make for more balanced games. Players can also now get into 3-vs-3 games with their teams, which makes it slightly easier when it comes to finding people to play with. Hockey Ultimate Team makes another return and brings it with a new mode called HUT Challenges. Much like the solo challenges in Madden Ultimate Team, HUT Challenges allow players to complete specific tasks in games to earn various packs to better their team. It’s a welcomed inclusion to an already fun mode and should keep people hooked for the entire life of NHL 18.
At the end of the day, NHL 18 continues the pace that the previous two NHL entries did, and it seems as if the franchise has settled into a groove of steadily improving. While there is still much to be desired in some instances, NHL 18 brings with it enough changes to warrant a look. Brand new modes in pretty much every section of the game help keep everything fresh, and slight changes to the norm help improve the game at a steady pace. If you’re a rabid hockey fan, you definitely won’t want to miss this one.
This review was based on a digital review copy of NHL 18 for the Xbox One provided by EA Sports.