Similar to the Washington Capitals, EA Sports’ latest installment in its NHL series further establishes itself as a franchise that prides itself on fun, satisfying, and incremental improvements, but one that will ultimately need a full reboot in order to ascend into the elite space currently occupied by other franchises.
NHL 18’s primary addition is a mode titled Threes. Its premise is simple, yet refined : 3v3 hockey with a less ice, fewer penalties, a uniquely colorful aesthetic, and a game-changing element called the Moneypuck.
The Moneypuck can radically add or subtract multiple goals for each goal your team scores, and it adds an element as dynamic as Threes itself. Down by eight and feeling hopeless? Moneypuck can quickly add a half dozen goals simply by scoring two. Up by eight and feeling overly confident? Failing to responsibly protect a big lead can quickly send it packing as quickly as the lead arrived.
This is where Threes’ brilliance demonstrates itself. It creates the look and feel of an old-school NHL game (think your typical NHL series experienced mixed in with the right amount of Blades of Steel and Open Ice), but never feels complacent or comical. Even as a bigger fan of sim-esque gaming, Threes won me over pretty quickly.
It opens up further as you delve into the Threes’ circuits modes, which lends itself to either single-player gamers wanting a deeper experience, and two and three player co-op crews looking to do the same. You’ll experience huge hits, less penalties, and even a fun mascot cameo as you move from one town to the next, trading in wins for unlocking star players and iconic arenas. Unlocking NHL heroes allows players to turn their Threes teams into pseudo-Ultimate Team fun, without the messy micro-transactions.
Threes is an unquestioned success, but it also needs refinement. There’s very little room in customization in terms of your circuit team’s identity, and the sticker shock of your circuit team’s poor ratings and lack of recognizable names don’t always jive with the fast and furious nature of Threes. Threes’ announcer is also a little bombastic for his own good at times. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see why EA doubled down on this mode, and it’s hard not to recognize it as a welcome addition, and a mode with a bright future.
Deking Out a Close Win
Moving onto the on-ice gameplay itself, the largest addition to NHL’s latest installment is one-handed dekes. By holding or pressing the L1 (LB on Xbox One), the player can utilize the left stick in a manner that more efficiently unlocks NHL’s most potent dekes. As someone that has often struggled to use skill stick beyond a left and right deke option, this can only feel like a substantial improvement.
It’s unfortunate to see NHL stand pat in its current engine for another year while EA brethren Madden and FIFA move into the Frostbite era with overwhelmingly positive results. Regardless, allowing a previously frustrating mechanic to become easily accessible. It is very reminiscent of dribbling moves in 2k’s NBA series, and that’s meant as a compliment.
Ready for a Rebuild
NHL 18’s finished product is a positive one, and for those of us that live and breathe with NHL hockey, it’s easy to recommend the game is a no-brainer purchase. But for sports gamers that often venture out of hockey’s space, there’s an overarching need for a total reboot.
Franchise mode remains, but is very similar to previous installments. EA has piggybacked off of the Golden Knight’s recent expansion draft experience by allowing the player to create a 32nd NHL team, choose protected and unprotected players, and manually re-align the divisions in the process. It’s a fun process while it lasts, but on a season to season level, the only major improvement in this mode is the addition of mid-season contract negotiations, a feature most sports franchises have had for a substantial period of time.
Be a Pro mode returns, and it is nearly a carbon copy of NHL 17’s model, but with simply the addition of being able to request a trade from your current team. Again, a feature that has been frequently utilized for multiple years in games such as NBA 2k and MLB : The Show. Even mores than franchise, this mode is simply begging for an overhaul, or a narrative driven experience, not unlike what EA’s longstanding Madden franchise brought into the fray with Longshot, or FIFA’s Journey mode.
Fans of Ultimate Team in NHL 18 will also be experiencing a substantially similar product to NHL 17. Draft Champions interface is improved, and HUT challenges feel more streamlined as a whole, but both modes combine for an experience that also feels like what we just experienced a year ago.
EASHL is also nearly identical. The arena unlocks are almost the same as they were in NHL 17. The only substantial change is the ability to play 3v3 in EASHL. To EA’s credit, doubling down on 3v3 hockey ends up being a smart move. For those of us that are often unable to find four other human compatriots in crime, playing EASHL in this manner feels very satisfying. Nonetheless, EA asking EASHL clubs to grind away for nearly the identical payoff as a year ago feels like a swing and a miss.
It also should be mentioned that couch co-op players will be immediately satisfied with NHL 18. It allows for online and offline co-op in most non-franchise and non-HUT instances. If you
Final Score - 7/10
If NHL 18 were an iPhone, it would be a satisfyingly drab S model. In its current state, and on its current engine, NHL has simply maxed itself out. It’s hard to nitpick the finished product, and longtime fans of the series will likely be very satisfied with exciting addition. Casual NHL fans will have a blast with Threes, and longtime co-op fans will have a bevy of modes to join their friends in.
It’s a strong product that is worth upgrading to, but one that ultimately will require a larger leap in NHL 19. It’s time for EA Sports to add an NHL 08 level of refresh to its beloved franchise on ice.