September generally marks the release of a new NHL game by EA Sports, and this year is no exception. NHL 18 is now available on Playstation 4 and Xbox One, and we tried it out on Sony’s system for the purpose of this review.
In a matter of weeks, EA Sports is churning out new versions of NHL, NBA Live and FIFA – and it hasn’t even been that long since the latest Madden came out. But while FIFA and NBA Live face stiff competition (from PES and NBA 2K), EA’s NHL series occupies a lonely throne. It’s been the best hockey game for ages now, and NHL 18’s inclusion of NHL Threes is a smart one in that it also corners a more arcade-like approach to the sport.
The recent NHL games haven’t been the shining example of innovation in recent years though, which is the price I suppose you have to pay for a lack of competition. But although there is little in the way of revolutionary new features, subtle tweaks do improve the game in various ways. New offensive and defensive moves have been added, and an excellent Training Camp mode is available if you don’t feel comfortable diving right in.
Training was already strong in last year’s version, but this year’s combination of video tutorials and hands-on exercises is both meaningful and extends into the actual games that you play. The way this works is that the game assesses your gameplay performance mid-game, and an on-ice trainer will offer up video tutorials that might help your performance. This helps players who didn’t start off with the tutorial modes first, but it also serves as a friendly reminder for those who did. The videos are optional so it never feels forced upon you, but I’ve found that they’re nearly always helpful.
The in-game action will feel instantly familiar to those who played the previous versions – excellent presentation, fluid gameplay and a great passing game are all accounted for. There are additional options for defending the puck once you have possession and for trying to steal it away from the other team, and the tutorials do a good job at explaining these. The game’s Franchise mode is also largely the same as last year (though you can now build a team up from the ground as well), and there still isn’t a story-driven campaign mode – even now that EA’s NBA Live has moved into that direction as well.
The biggest innovation that NHL 18 brings is NHL Threes, which is designed to be arcade-like and fun. We’ve seen EA’s NBA Street and FIFA Street variations before, and NHL Threes brings a similar experience to NHL hockey. There’s a campaign mode (basically a tour mode) and the option to play individual games, which can also be done using team mascots rather than players. This last option works well with the over-the-top nature of this mode, which also extends to the commentary style. While serious and on-point during regular games, it switches to an NBA JAM/WWE style presentation when playing NHL Threes. It may not be for hockey purists, but it’s a great addition for casual fans and those who enjoy a more arcade-like formula. The rules for NHL Threes can be tweaked a little as well, changing how the scoring system works or modifying the conditions for winning.
Heading back to regular games of hockey after playing Threes does make you realize how little has changed in terms of the commentary and presentation when compared to last year’s game. It’s good, but it’s also very familiar.
Perhaps we’ll see the NHL series follow the same path that EA Sports’ other titles have embarked on. A story-driven career mode would be nice, as would a shift to a new engine that would allow for greater detail in how players (and their faces) are rendered – which FIFA did last year. Until then, NHL 18 is still an extremely solid hockey game that’s hard to fault in any meaningful way except for its lack of innovation.