The NHL is back and EA Sports has put out their latest entry with NHL 23. Hundreds of new animations, the inclusion of Women’s teams (in one mode), and a deeper World of Chel are here to try and entice your $70 out of you on the new generation of consoles. I’ve played the heck out of it over the last few days and found a deep, content-rich title that can play as arcade-like or sim-heavy as you want. In a year of solid sports releases EA has another damned good title on their hands, so let’s break it down.
The Money Maker
Sports games have one of the toughest development cycles in all of gaming, especially now with the long period of cross-generation we’ve been stuck in. This is a review of the Xbox Series X|S version of the game. I covered last year’s and was far more positive on it than most, looking back now I can see what I missed in my rushed time with the title. The graphics looked nice but feature-wise it felt like a copy-and-paste job from NHL 21. The gameplay wasn’t nearly as smooth as I remembered, and the Hockey Ultimate Team (aka HUT) mode was rife with typical price vs. grind issues. Not all of that has been fixed this year, HUT is still a bit of a grind-fest mess, but the graphics and gameplay shine. (Though the latter requires a bit of fine-tuning on the user’s end).
One big change for HUT is the inclusion of multiple Women’s National team members in both the main HUT & Hut Rivals 2.0 modes. For any sports title, the microtransaction-laden modes are the bread and butter that make the game the most money over time. Thankfully in NHL 23, the HUT mode is not nearly as front and center as in other games. I never felt like I was constantly being pushed towards it with massive UI buttons or constant prompts reminding me it exists. We were provided with the X-Factor edition of the game which offers up a ridiculous amount of HUT card packs and currency.
It’s the typical buy-or-grind card packs to unlock players for your team real-money-fueled mode. There is one offline option for progression that was decently fun to play but it is mostly focused on playing other players. The deeper your pockets the better your team, otherwise you have to grind an insane amount to get a top-tier team. It is what it is, and fans of the mode know what they’re getting into. This year’s has more in it, including season progression paths.
Speaking of playing against other humans, this year introduces a light form of crossplay. Xbox Series console owners can matchmake against Playstation 5 players, but not group up together. Xbox One players can do the same against Playstation 4 players, and there is no cross-gen matchmaking functionality. It should help with the longevity of the title, though cross-platform parties need to become a thing as soon as possible. Let’s get into the modes, which are largely the same from previous years.
A Plethora of Familiarity
Your online options consist of:
Hockey Ultimate Team – This is the aforementioned microtransaction heavy PVP focused real money mode.
World of Chel – Here you will create a character to play with your friends against other people in an outdoor, more arcade-focused fair. It’s a lot of fun and features a ton of unlockables.
Online Versus – Your basic PVP mode of real-world hockey featuring as many real players as you can fit in a rink.
HUT Rush – A 3v3 Outdoor take on the HUT mode that lets you play as unlocked characters including team mascots.
NHL Threes Online – Taking one of the best parts of hockey, 3v3 overtime, and making a full game out of it!
Offline Modes are:
Play Now – A straight-up game of hockey featuring current NHL or All-Star Teams
Be A Pro Career – A lengthy, cringey dialogue-filled mode where you’ll create a player and lead them through their entire career. There are full-on voiced cutscenes and it’s become a pretty standard thing to see in sports games.
Franchise Mode – This one got a bit of love as the number of things to worry about has been ramped up. You are a General Manager of your team of choice and you can choose to run every single aspect of a hockey franchise. From which bathrooms to repair to doing your best from keeping the owner from moving the team to another city. They’ve added in things like a “fog of war” for scouting systems, which keeps the numbers hidden for a while along with more demanding requirements out of the AI-run ownership. This is where I spend most of my time in sports games.
Tournaments & IIHF Tournaments – The regular tournaments feature the sport’s “top tournaments” while the latter is focused on playing as National Teams against each other in bracketed events.
Ones Now – An outdoor mode where you play 1v1v1 in an arcadey take on the sport. It’s a weird one, and not well-balanced.
NHL Threes – 3v3 action with yet again a more arcadey take on the game of Hockey.
Season Mode – Another personal favorite as you take your franchise of choice through a season of the NHL. It hasn’t seen any major changes, and it didn’t really need them.
Playoff Mode – Try to win the Stanley Cup, of course.
One funny thing about the Playoff Mode is that EA is that “The Stanley Cup celebration is now interactive, allowing users to choose whom they want to pass the cup to next, and 65 audio commentary stories have been added to convey the story of your team…”. There is nothing groundbreaking on offer here, but it’s a solid selection of modes that tend to favor a faster and less realistic style of play.
Graphics & Gameplay
Visually NHL 23 looks fantastic. Textures are clean, stadiums pop, and most of the player’s faces look reasonably close to their real-life counterparts. The biggest improvement for me though, and it ties directly in the gameplay, are the new animations added in. The new “desperation move” system has added 500 new animations to give you that last chance to make a play on the puck and it has felt great in practice. I’ve had to go in and tone down the speed of the game a bit to make things feel more realistic, but once I did the animations helped add in a sense of control and “this really feels like hockey” in a way that had been missing for a long time. Play along the boards feels improved as well with scrums resulting in fevered fights over possession. I have had a few issues with passes not going in the direction I was holding, leading to a few goals against that had me feeling a might perturbed.
The outdoor areas match the arenas in quality and help give the game’s outdoor-focused modes more of a personality than some of the drab exteriors of last year’s entry did. This is all helped along with a solid but buggy presentation. I routinely had the play-by-play bug out and stop working, and I had to double-check the audio options to make sure I hadn’t turned it off. Normally swapping back and forth between on and off fixed things but a few times it required a full game reset to get it going again. When it was on though it was well done, felt natural and I didn’t hear many (if any) repeated lines.
None of this would matter if it wasn’t fun to play, of course. Much like last year, after some massive tweaking of the numerous in-game settings and sliders, I found that sweet spot of realistic but fun that makes video game sports shine. One thing I couldn’t quite solve though was the ridiculous accuracy of the CPU when it came to passing the puck. The game loves popping up stats while you’re playing and routinely the CPU’s pass completion percentage would be 100% for the game, and I swear I’m not terrible at it! Eventually, I felt forced to up their skill sliders but lower the overall difficulty of the game from pro because even the worse-rated player on a team was better than Wayne Gretzky with the puck on his stick.
NHL 23 looks great, is fun as hell, features a ton of modes, and will set you back $70 at the time of launch. If you’re a big fan of the sport, and especially if you’re into the Hockey Ultimate Team mode then this latest entry is worth getting. For others, especially on Xbox if you have Game Pass Ultimate, use your 10-hour trial and try before you buy.
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
|Available on||Xbox Series, Xbox One, Playstation 4&5, PC|
|Release Date||October 14th, 2022|
|Rated||E for Everyone|