The annual September parade of sports games is getting close to wrapping up with FIFA’s release later this week, but let’s shine the spotlight on NHL 19 first. Out for Xbox One and Playstation 4, how did EA Vancouver improve on last year’s edition?
My initial response to that question was “not by much”, but let’s say upfront that I really enjoyed NHL 18 and think it was one of the best entries in years. I actually enjoyed it so much that I spent the bulk of my time in the EA press lobby at Gamescom playing a near final build of the game and completely ignored the Battlefield demo pods as a result.
My lukewarm response to NHL 19’s first few hours was mainly due to the fact that I just jumped straight into a few single games to try out the core gameplay in full length matches. Everything was very similar to last year’s version and instantly enjoyable, even though subtle nuances do change the flow of gameplay. The Real Player Motion system (that was also introduced in other EA sports games like NBA Live this year) helps in creating the kind of smooth flowing moves that evoke memories of those classic 2D NHL games of the 16-bit era. The difference with NHL 18 isn’t that great (compared to Madden or NBA) because, well, your players are still on ice and can’t turn like football/basketball players can – but the nuances are there.
Those subtle enhancements to the core gameplay wouldn’t be enough to warrant a recommendation though – after all, NHL 19 is still a full price offering. So where’s the meat on the bones of this year’s edition? As was the case with NBA Live 19, it’s in the non-league (or non-NHL) portion of the game. The Threes mode from last year returns and is still fun, but completely new are the World of CHEL and Ones modes.
World of CHEL echoes what they did with NBA Live this year, and has you creating and customizing your own character – both in terms of looks and skills. With a big selection of gear to choose from, those who enjoy visual customization and personalization have a ton of ways to express themselves. After doing so, you can enter the Pro-Am leagues and enjoy some three-on-three hockey – played on outdoor rinks, which is the big innovation in this year’s edition. You can also hit certain objectives and unlock more gear in the mode, which builds on last year’s Threes gameplay.
More online-oriented is the new Ones mode, which is even more of a step away from traditional hockey. In this mode – perhaps closest to a one on one game of basketball, you only use half the rink and find yourself facing off against two other players. It’s everyone for himself, and there is an online ranking system as well as a way to earn more unlockables for your World of CHEL character. It’s safe to say that World of CHEL follows the trend we’re seeing in games like NBA Live and NBA 2K as well – adding personalization and game modes that emphasize the “fun factor” in addition to just playing regular games.
NHL 19 wouldn’t be an EA Sports game if the Ultimate Team mode didn’t return, so Hockey Ultimate Team reports back for duty as well. It includes a bigger role for legendary players of the sport this year, giving center spotlight to Wayne Gretzky for this year’s edition – I suppose they could’ve made worse choices there…
Which leaves me in a bit of a tricky spot when it comes to recommending NHL 19 or not. If you couldn’t care less about anything but the core NHL mode where you have your favorite teams face off against each other, then NHL 19 is an expensive roster update with slight tweaks to the gameplay formula through player motions and animations. If you like your hockey videogames as a more rounded celebration of hockey in many forms, then NHL 19 is definitely a step in the right direction.