In a year where nothing has been normal and the current NHL season has just finished, EA Sports offers some sense of normalcy with the release of NHL 21. An autumn favorite for hockey fans worldwide, this year’s iteration includes some solid improvements to core gameplay mechanics that make the on-ice experience shine.
Core Gameplay Improvements
If you’ve read my previous reviews of the NHL series, you’ll know that I am always most interested in how the actual gameplay mechanics improve year over year. This area hasn’t always been the strength of new NHL releases, often being overshadowed by flashy new game modes. NHL 20 took some steps towards improving the skating experience, and NHL 21 continues this trend with great success.
Players will find that their intentions come to fruition slightly easier on the ice, as the skating and puck pickup mechanics have been further improved. Checking, and particularly play along the boards, feels significantly more realistic and less frustrating. While there are still occurrences of an AI opponent recovering from a situation faster than a human player can, these are far less frequent than they used to be. Now, a big clean hit in open ice provides more satisfaction as it appropriately disrupts the game’s flow. Furthermore, the infamous penalty button, the stick check, can now actually be used as a defensive tool without fear of constantly being called for tripping.
The animations and AI for goalies have been tweaked to make it easier to cover up loose pucks and transition from one save animation to another. Along with improved defensive AI, this should lead to less unrealistic goals scored on the ice and provide a more authentic hockey experience. EA Sports has added several flashy new moves to allow your creativity to shine through on the offensive side. Special dekes, such as lacrosse moves and the infamous Kucherov “no-move deke,” are now available for players to try and pull off. Be warned; however, they are challenging to perform, but that’s just fine in my book.
Be a Better Pro
Be a Pro is my favorite NHL series mode to play outside of online games with friends. In NHL 21, EA’s Burnaby studio has made a wide array of additions to the title’s career mode. Players can now begin their rookie year in Europe in addition to the CHL’s Memorial Cup or directly in the NHL. However, it is no longer possible to play out an entire season in a junior league leading up the Memorial Cup.
Your way to the NHL is documented by new audio dialog by returning voice talents, James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro. In fact, your entire career will be documented by them in typical talk radio fashion, something which comes extremely natural to both of them since it is their day-to-day occupation. EA has worked in everything from skeptical fans phoning into the fictional radio show to new social media rankings and stats to judge your performance by. This is clearly the biggest focus of this year’s release, with many new features packed into the Be a Pro mode.
Players will now have conversations with their team management, coaches, and the media to provide some more realistic insights into a hockey professional’s life. However, it is clear that this is a first-year feature, as many of the dialog choices seem stale and restrictive. Players are often forced into making promises to coaches or teammates that seem highly unrealistic. Score three points in my second-ever NHL game, sure… why not? Unfortunately, when you’re unable to follow through on promises, you feel the negative impact on your line time and social media presence.
Players can also take on new sponsorship opportunities and begin raking in the cash while building their legacy. Money earned can be spent on perks ranging from philanthropic donations to purchasing expensive cars. Many of these perks provide direct benefits to your player’s stats, though I’m not sure how a sports car adds to my skating abilities. This is certainly an area where I would expect EA to make improvements in next year’s iteration, but it is a nice new addition nonetheless and gives you some tangible goals to achieve during your Be a Pro career.
New HUT Rush Mode
If you’re a fan of ripping open packs of cards, then this year’s new HUT Rush mode will give you another avenue to show off your line-ups in. This mode is geared towards ease of use and focuses on getting you on the ice as quickly as possible with your customized lines of pros. The multitude of challenges, both online and offline, available in the various HUT modes, remain and should give you many hours of entertainment. Or many ways to spend money on new hockey card packs to build your dream team. That’ll be up to you.
On the online side of NHL 21’s feature set, World of CHEL is continuing to expand with new ranked seasons where your EASHL team can compete for more than just bragging rights. Players and teams are rewarded with unique cosmetic items, and your achievements will stay with you throughout your NHL 21 career. In general, the online gameplay experience in NHL 21 is largely unchanged from previous years; this may be to your liking, or it may not.
An Eye on the Future
NHL 21 will be the last iteration of this series on the current generation of PlayStation and Xbox consoles. Those of you upgrading to the next generation later this year will be happy to know that NHL 21 will run on the new system without the need for another purchase. Whether the gameplay or graphical experience will be any different is yet to be known, but there have been significant improvements made already in this version. Player’s faces seem to be much more lifelike across the board, and the commentating team has new voice lines, injecting more life into your rink-side audio experience.
I’m still hopeful that one of these years we’ll get some new game modes that I’ve wanted for decades, such as online co-op seasons, for example, but NHL 21 is nevertheless a solid upgrade packed with new features and tuned gameplay mechanics that make it well worth the purchase.