It is an incredible time to be a fan of sports video games, with NHL 18 standing tall as the latest example.
The console generation sits in a sweet spot where sports games from EA Sports can add features on top of a strong base game after years of fine-tuning the gameplay itself. This means fan service in the form of requested features and deeper modes more accessible to broader audiences.
NHL 18 takes on both areas in stride as cover star Connor McDavid does speeding down the ice and making plays. EA Sports uses this year's edition to not only add the layers and accessibility expected of a game this deep into a generation but also to completely rewrite the controls and gameplay experience to give users more freedom than ever.
Are the additional features enough to justify grabbing the latest edition? Are the gameplay changes well-executed, and do they make the game feel different enough from past iterations? Let's find out.
Hockey hasn't felt so intuitive in a video game in a long time. Veterans and newcomers to EA Sports' series alike will appreciate the depth of the gameplay.
Gone are the days of feeling like the result of a shot or press of a button is randomized. With the new freedom on both ends, users can get creative with on-the-fly maneuvers normally reserved for a broadcast.
Defensive Skill Stick lets users control a player's stick independent of everything else, meaning free reign to poke-check or cover zones. This is as great as it sounds, as the controls are responsive and do just what a user would expect once they get accustomed to their control scheme of choice.
Same story while guiding the puck. New offensive deke moves provide similar freedom while trying to run an attack and get the puck past the opposing netminder. The smooth controls with the stick don't just give users freedom; they allow for some of the wild moves like toe drags, puck flips and more in-chain combinations.
These changes aren't restricted to the user's player, either. It isn't rare to see the opposition doing similar things with the puck. Overall, the A.I. gets steadily more aggressive as a user bumps up the difficulty, which sounds like an obvious detail, but it hasn't always been a staple of the series.
Stressing freedom is important. Gameplay felt good in last year's edition thanks to general improvements. Revamping the controls to give users the ability to do whatever they want is a much-needed evolution for the franchise.
There isn't a high barrier to entry, either, as non-intrusive graphics offer tips as to available moves in the heat of the moment. Overlays on the ice show where passes will go, and a green meter on the net lets users aim where to place shots.
Graphics and Presentation
EA Sports already had a strong package looks-wise.
Ice wafts when players skid to a stop, the crowd reacts well to events on the ice and seems varied enough, and jerseys flow to reflect a player's momentum. Player faces aren't all perfect, but the recognizable names from each team seem to be well-accounted for out of the box.
The televised pregame segments with the announcers and the crowd behind them is a nice touch. Unlike other sports games, I found myself watching the entire run-up to the game itself instead of skipping.
The game did have a few problems at times, with textures on the jerseys looking a bit off from a distance every now and then until viewed up close. Once, a player on the bench glitched inside another, though otherwise the bench area is realistic, with coaches looking the part, players reacting well to the current action and guys sitting alone in a penalty box doing the same.
It's hard to complain about rare immersion-breaking hiccups when overall the presentation is the best we've seen in years from a hockey game. There's something special about clobbering an opponent and watching his helmet skid across the ice while the action unfolds, only for his teammate to skate over and fist-fight you while the broadcasters call it out well.
NHL Threes, Expansion Draft and More
Like NBA Live 18, NHL 18 takes a cue from past arcade games and dives into the deep end in this regard with NHL Threes.
It's exactly what it sounds like: three-on-three experience emphasizing fun shots and high-scoring games. The ability to hop online is a great addition. In fact, it's all the more impressive because the mode now has unique commentary, new arenas and an actual campaign mode. It's fun and fast, with the physics creating interesting collisions and breakaways.
Franchise mode makes a return as well and has all the bells and whistles from the prior year. The biggest new talking point, of course, is the expansion draft.
Inspired by the Vegas Golden Knights (officially in the game, by the way), users can create and draft a team from a bevy of locations and then jump right into the front-office mode—after creating a mascot of all things, of course. There aren't an overwhelming number of options here, so my random team in Hawaii got a Lions mascot, but it's a nice touch.
It'd be remiss not to mention Ultimate Team, this one labeled as Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT). Like Madden 18, the usual aspects of the collection frenzy are here, though this time challenges help users progress and competitive online seasons keep the competition alive year round. Other staples like Be a Pro and EASHL also return.
For many fans of the series, all of this matters little if they can't hook up with friends and explore these new modes and features. NHL 18 hits this check mark well with online play and local co-op.
It sounds odd to tout local co-op as a necessary talking point in 2017, but recent trends in the video game industry necessitate it. NHL 18 gets bonus points for making it happen in a big way, so much so two local players can team up with online friends and dive into the game's modes.
The wealth of new gameplay wrinkles and seemingly endless modes make NHL 18 seem intimidating.
This is nothing short of a good thing, and EA Sports brilliantly walks the tightrope between depth and accessibility. The game asks users to pick control schemes and difficulty on first boot. After, the game helps users pin modes to their homepage like the game is its own dashboard on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
The number of modes and things to do in NHL 18 to the point users need to sort it all out via pins never feels like too much. Even better, it never feels like filler content. There's value in each mode and opportunity here, especially when each sits atop a foundation of superb gameplay offering players more on-ice options in the heat of the moment than the last few editions have.
With freedom and accessibility to appeal to casual and hardcore fans seeking a strict simulation, NHL 18 resets what sporting game fans can expect from annual editions. Like its cover star, we're left wondering what the series will do next.