NHL 22 takes the long-running hockey series and steps into the realm of next-generation consoles equipped with the Frostbite engine atop the usual annual upgrades.
This year's offering from developer EA Vancouver goes heavy where players might expect—more upgrades to career modes, gameplay itself gets an overhaul thanks to the presence of a new overarching engine and the presentation and immersion gets a bump courtesy of the next-generation hardware.
A year ago, NHL 21 made the series feel like a franchise in a holding pattern, which wasn't that uncommon given the release timing of the new consoles. But like other annual sports games this year, NHL 22 feels like the first big leap for the series.
NHL 22 feels slower—the good kind of slow.
The revamped mechanics courtesy of Frostbite make themselves known from the first time a player picks up the controller. On-ice players are more responsive than in the past and some of that floaty skating that has been a problem for the series in the past isn't there.
One area that sticks out right away is skidding the puck across the ice in live action. Passing is a little more natural and, in turn, more difficult. The puck doesn't just magnetically attach to teammates anymore. That might mean a learning curve for even veteran players, but it's a smooth one that is worth the effort before long.
Tucked within the new engine is the addition of improved stick physics. Battles over pucks feel more skill-based, and the officiating appears to be smarter too, so over-aggressive checks and steal attempts that worked in the past might not fly this year.
One of the game's biggest talking points this year is the Superstar X-Factors. Those familiar with the Madden series over the last few years know what this is all about: In an effort to make the game more realistic and separate the best, the top players in the sport have special skills.
This is a new ability system with unlocks spanning 29 abilities over six categories at game's launch. So far, a total of 50 players get one primary X-factor ability and a secondary set of skills below that.
One star, for example, gets improved accuracy and power on snapshots while skating. Auston Matthews gets a power dubbed "Shock and Awe" that gives him more power and accuracy right after a deke. Others include skating perks like sharper, almost unbelievable turns, and defensive ones such as better abilities when taking the puck carrier in a one-on-one situation.
The true star players feel a step above the rest on the ice, which gives the game more personality, even if some of the skills may turn out to be too powerful and need adjusting slightly.
Players and A.I. counterparts aren't without counters, though. Netminders, for example, make more use of their hands when defending the goal. And the new physics, especially paired with some of those mentioned defensive abilities, make it more responsive than ever when trying to defend the middle or cut a sprint down the ice in its tracks.
In some of these respects, NHL 22 feels like it's trailing Madden by a few years. Shifting to Frostbite and player-specific X-factors occurred in the football counterpart in 2018 and 2020, respectively. But it's a better-late-than-never situation given how much it upgrades the experience.
Graphics and Presentation
The NHL series' immersive camera angles, broadcast presentation and use of statistics has previously given the game a next-generation feel. Rest assured that all returns here with some notable new camera angles inside the reproduced arenas with crowds that look good from medium-range and react well to the action on the ice.
Details that show up in close-ups and replays like patches on jerseys and hair detailing stand out as notable improvements. Granted, they aren't necessarily anything different from what players have seen in FIFA in recent series, but an upgrade is an upgrade.
Elsewhere, one can really feel the next-gen horsepower when looking at the different types of ice and the skate marks players leave after kicking up some dust. Some of the most brutal checks can also produce broken glass.
Lighting is another area that got a huge upgrade. Whether it's the reflection of lights on the ice, off glass, off a player's visor or even in cutscene-like broadcast camera angles, the lighting work is a huge step forward for the series and helps showcase the rest of the visual upgrades.
Another noteworthy upgrade is the presentation of statistics. Key numbers and facts that help players evolve their in-game strategy now get splayed on things like walls, or even directly on the ice. It's fluid, looks great and is nice to see compared to some boring pop-up menus—or worse, having to dive into the pause system to find the data.
All the presentation upgrades, even in how players move around and chat with each other while waiting for a puck drop, just breathe new life into a series that felt a little robotic or like it was missing personality before this.
Be A Pro, Features and More
NHL 22's laundry list of modes continues to go the way of other sports games, offering something for everyone.
Be A Pro is the heavy hitter. Last year's game finally took the step of making big upgrades to the mode. Creating a player in the suite, then working up to the pros was a blast.
There aren't a ton of additions this time out for Be A Pro, but the game really hinges on the new X-factors to mix up the formula compared to last year. The X-factors unlock through the overarching progression system. Some get unlocked in-season, while more notable ones could be locked behind multi-season goals have been reached.
Some of these multi-season goals might seem absurd to a portion of players. But it's important to remember that last year's mode, for the most part, lost much of its appeal after the created character's first season. This is a way to remedy that.
Like a year ago, that robust conversation system is a smooth way to let players set goals they want to hit, whether it's chatting with teammates or media and setting promises. In tandem with the arrival of meaningful goals that stretch beyond a created player's rookie season, it feels like Be A Pro could have some serious legs to it, even if it's not boasting as many upgrades as last year.
Over in the more arcade-focused World of Chel, the menu and UI system gets a major overhaul that is geared toward helping players link up with friends more easily. Like other modes, it gets Superstar X-Factors, which are available to all classes, given the presence of the right attributes.
The game also promises future abilities and boosts for the mode, though the real hook is still participating in some of the fun Ones and Threes tournaments online. Player customization is as robust as usual and users are still free to gun for glory in EASHL modes.
Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) gets a splash with the addition of the X-factor abilities, which get their own upgradeable card. Synergy slots are still a good way to have better control over a team's construction and strategic approach, and the mode now permits a refresh of opponents in squad battles, which means more options and rewards for players who want to grind the mode.
We'll have to see how the inclusion of the X-factors changes the competitive online landscape, if at all, but it's a welcome additional wrinkle to an almost RPG model.
Last, but not least in the minds of players is Franchise. Not much has been added to this other than the X-factors playing into things like scouting for free agents. But besides the on-ice benefits, those traits make it even more enjoyable to spend serious time in scouting, attempting to find those draft steals with huge upside.
Franchise mode does sport expansion drafts with up to 33 teams. Team creation is a nice thing right before the game adds roster sharing in a later update this winter, which marks off another checklist item that most sports games must include these days.
And as usual, NHL runs great and returns its best-in-class series of options. The varied number of possible experiences thanks to different difficulties and control schemes is again back and as brilliant as ever.
If last year was a holding pattern of sorts for this series, NHL 22 is a big step forward.
No, every mode doesn't have some big shiny new feature. But the game leans into the next-generation hardware to provide what matters most—better gameplay on the ice and overall immersion.
This is the biggest leap the series has seen on the ice in a long time. It now both resembles the real-life product and asks a little more of players in the way of skill. The arcade modes and even a collector's haven are there, too, but everything pales compared to just how souped-up the gameplay feels.
As an annual installment for regular players, this is a must-have. There also hasn't been a better onboarding spot for new players, especially with where the series could go from here thanks to this rock-solid foundation.