NHL 22, the next gen debut for the NHL franchise, is a big step forward for hockey fans, bringing advancements that games like FIFA received earlier. We played both the PS4 and PS5 versions, but focused on the PlayStation 5 edition of the game.
Hockey may not be the biggest sport on a global level, but we’ve enjoyed its digital recreations even since the days of the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. EA has been releasing one of the classic entries from that era alongside NHL since last year as well, so if you’re in the same boat then you’ll probably enjoy the chance to play NHL 94 Rewind too. But as tempting as that is, the focus here is NHL 22, and how far it’s come. Not since 94, but over the entries that were released in the past two years.
This is where the jump to next gen platforms comes into play, and it brings major changes with it – though in all fairness some of them aren’t exclusive to next gen and can also be enjoyed on a PlayStation 4. Case in point: the Frostbite engine that now powers the experience. It shines brighter on the PlayStation 5, but from lighting effects to how realistic the players look and move it’s a significant change in the right direction. We’ve always considered hockey to be a bit of a spectator sport, so the boost in presentation is a more than welcome one – combined with rich audio, it puts you right there on the ice amidst a packed venue.
NHL 22 introduces the X-Factor mechanic as its big new gameplay change, and it’s built around the chance to make superstars of the league stand out for the rest due to special abilities that only they have. This doesn’t turn the game into an over the top NBA Jam-like experience though, as the gameplay remains mostly the same and the devil’s in the details. You can view players who have “the X-Factor” as ones with boosts to certain abilities, and these are based on the areas in which they excel in real life.
Part of us feels like this shouldn’t be hyped up as a standout feature though, because when you’re playing FIFA you also expect Messi to be a better dribbler than Harry Kane without granting him X-Factor status. A more cynical part of us feels like it’s a great way to add value to certain player cards when dealing with EA’s in game trading system. At the end of the day, however, it’s nice to see superstars be consistently better at certain things than other players are – and it makes for a better and more realistic experience. It’s especially noticeable when you play as a single player rather than an entire team, which you can do in the Be A Pro mode.
Other more minor gameplay tweaks feel related to the introduction of Frostbite, with better puck and stick physics and animations. Sticks now collide with players and skates rather than regularly float through them, and at the same time they’ve gotten better at trying to steal the puck without it resulting in frequent fouls and penalties. Player behavior has gotten more realistic in the process as well, and can best be seen when looking at your passing game. While quite arcade-like in recent years, less than perfect passes now take a split second longer to control. This makes for a game flow where the game regularly speeds up and slows down, rather than playing out at full speed non-stop – we think it’s a change for the better and makes for more dynamic games. Next gen support extends beyond the visuals towards DualSense features as well, which includes very subtle feedback when skating for added immersion as it changes when you speed up or turn.
The biggest downside about NHL 22 is that, beyond obvious improvements to the core gameplay and visual engine, not much has changed. There are no big new gameplay modes, nor is there a cinematic story campaign to enjoy. Instead, what you get is a solid set of improvements across the board, and if you’re jumping back into the franchise after a few months or even years away from it this is a big leap forward.