Reviewed on Xbox Series X
EA’s NHL series has been on the rebound after a rough go of things. Last year’s entry did not have a version made for the new family of consoles though. That’s rectified this year with a solid current-gen version I played on my Xbox Series X. What isn’t so good is the over-the-top monetization that is at the forefront of the HUT (Hockey Ultimate Team) mode. Thankfully the on-ice action is better than ever and an almost overwhelming plethora of modes make this a great edition of the series (outside of some really annoying bugs).
This Feels Like EA’s Version of the NBA 2K Series
Ice Hockey is by far my favorite sport. Growing up near Boston I’ve had a lifelong love of the Bruins and have been spoiled with excellent sports teams for most of my life. EA’s NHL series though has been a mixed bag. After an incredible run in the 90’s they were outclassed by Sega’s NHL2k series, and in recent years had been struggling to find themselves. After last year’s solid showing for the previous generation of consoles, I had high hopes that a proper current-gen version could be a ticket to greatness. I may have felt a bit of trepidation over things moving to the Frostbite engine, but the on-ice action in the game has never felt better to me.
Graphically things are a bit of a mixed bag. Most of the player faces, the jersey textures, the arenas themselves all look fantastic at a high resolution and 60fps (well not in cut-scenes) cap. The crowd does not look good closeup though, and the less popular players in the leagues tend to have terrible-looking face models. Animations are fantastic though and depending on your preferred playstyle it can be as fast as any arcade version of the sport has ever been or a solid attempt at being a full-on simulation (and almost anywhere in-between). The options for tuning the game to your preference are numerous and it is a fantastic system in practice. I tend to enjoy the more simulation style of things with longer periods and slower action but hopping into the threes mode or a quick online game the arcade-style felt great.
One issue I did have was that at almost any difficulty if I tried to simulate a match just with the PC that they would score a goal almost immediately in every game I tried it then barely score any after. It was an oddly specific bug, but it happened in 5 straight games for me. Let’s get into the vast number of modes though, as there should be something for everyone here.
Hockey a ’la Mode(s)
This is an extremely online-focused game, but there thankfully are still many offline modes as well (my preference). I’ll start with an exhaustive list of each, first the Offline modes. Play Now is your standard exhibition mode. Be a Pro Career is the storyline and choice-driven career mode that makes a comeback from last year. I’m pretty deep into it and it’s been stellar so far. Franchise Mode is an as in-depth as you want simulator where you can choose to control every aspect of your team as a GM and play every game as you choose or sim them if you do not want to. Tournaments are exactly what it sounds like with an excellent selection of tournament options. Ones Now is a 1v1v1 mode that I did ok in but it was an odd thing to wrap my head around at times. NHL Threes is a 3v3 (with a goalie on each squad) more open and arcade-style game. Season Mode is exactly what you would think and it has great depth and Playoff Mode where you can jump right into the best part of all of sports.
For Online Mode you have World of CHEL where you create a player and bring them online to play either competitively or cooperatively with other players. Hockey Ultimate Team is the microtransaction-fueled team-building mode and an online version of franchise mode. There is also a plethora of accessibility options which is becoming more common in bigger titles and is great to see.
It’s an excellent list of modes that covers pretty much everything I could have ever thought of for a hockey game as well as having things I never would have dreamed of. My favorite has been the Be A Pro Career mode and the Season mode, both of which I’ve enjoyed the majority of my Trial Version time with. EA did provide us with a code for the game, but it failed to give access to the full game before release.
But How Does It All Play?!?
None of these modes would matter if the game didn’t play well, and thankfully after a bit of fine-tuning with the options, I am incredibly happy with it. By default, things start off quite arcadey, and in 3v3 that worked well. For full-on game’s though I chose to slow the action down, make the puck less magnetic to players’ sticks, and made it more of the bruising game that we all know and love. Controls have multiple options to choose from, and I found myself using the right stick configuration over the classic button layout here. The big new thing gameplay-wise is the Superstar X-Factor abilities, and the game’s menus make sure to tell you this at every single opportunity.
As a Bruins fan seeing David Pastrnak handling the puck the way he does in real life and then effortlessly snapping off a wrister felt incredible. Using Conor McDavid made me feel like I was one of the most talented players on the planet as I glided around making play after play. Controls felt responsive and rarely did I feel like a penalty wasn’t my fault. Though the computer rarely committed any penalties of their own, which can be a bit frustrating. Looking up a goalie’s strengths and weaknesses led me to much greater success in my career mode as well, because the game does an excellent job of considering just how much scouting matters in sports. Knowing your team and what each player can and should never attempt to do is key to the higher difficulties, but there are always the easier ones if you’re just looking to relax and have a good time after a hard day.
Top Tier Presentation
Another thing the game nails is the presentation of it all. I am not a fan of the music chosen in the menus, so I muted that quickly, but the presentation of the game itself when you’re playing is excellent. The commentary features people who they had in the recording booth long enough to make it obvious that there is a ton of it. Repeats were not common, and they almost always fit the situation of the game perfectly. The art style of the TV presentation looks great, though one area that falters a bit is that the in-game cutscenes run at 30 frames per second. Oddly, the pre-rendered video transitions in-between periods can be low resolution at times which is a bit jarring for the otherwise sterling-looking 4k presentation.
One area of concern was in the general bugginess of the build. The first day the game would freeze at “connecting” whenever I would try to change modes, requiring me to completely close the application and open it back up. Sometimes having to repeat this 2 or 3 times before it would work. This stopped happening on day two though and hasn’t come back. There have been some hilarious graphical bugs posted online, though in my time with the game the most I’ve seen are some odd physics interactions during cutscenes with players pushing referees trying to make a call all over the place. I did have an incredibly frustrating first impression, but things have seemed to smooth out for me on the Series X version of the title. I do not have a One X or S available so I’m not sure that version fairs.
Sports games are a tough sell, especially when the Series version of the game is now $70. Thankfully if you have Game Pass Ultimate you get a 10-hour free trial through the EA Play part of the subscription. If you love the sport and want the best looking and playing a version of it of all-time along with a staggering number of modes and options, then I think NHL 22 is going to make you quite happy.