Sports video games are going through a tough transition. It’s a down year in terms of overall quality – who knows how much of that has to do with to ongoing COVID-19 concerns, the real seasons for most sports being thrown off by the pandemic, next-gen efforts taking focus off the current-gen versions, or perhaps just a general malaise that comes at the end of a console generation. However, NHL 21 has more working against it than most others in that regard: The next “real” NHL season won’t start until January 2021 and there is not going to be a next-gen version of NHL 21 this year that can give it a second wind like we’re promised for FIFA 21, Madden NFL 21, and NBA 2K21. The effect is that almost immediately after I booted it up for the first time it already felt outdated, even though I know it’s supposed to act as the version that will coincide with the next real NHL season.
Some of this is out of EA’s control: The Tampa Bay Lightning just hoisted the Stanley Cup on September 28, so it barely feels like there has been a chance to breathe between seasons. On top of that, the NHL Draft and NHL offseason have either just concluded or are still going strong. This means the NHL 21 rosters are already out of date, the real NHL schedule isn’t even finalized for next year so franchise mode games don’t feel as authentic by default, and we won’t see any of the new batch of NHL rookies before January due to NHL Players’ Association licensing issues (which is why no rookies are usually ever in the EA NHL games before they take the ice for their real NHL teams).
But the bigger problems here are still the ones we’ve been complaining about since the series transitioned to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One with NHL 15. This starts with the general flow of most every game in NHL 21. As a fan of hockey, I understand there is more to the sport than the rush, but in NHL 21 it still feels mostly like I’m playing end-to-end hockey while taking turns with my opponent busting into the offensive zone. NHL hockey is a fast sport – and really only getting faster – but there’s an organization to that speed that doesn’t really exist in NHL 21 in most ways.
Now, I will say that the rush – the strength of the series on offense – is even better this year. There are not as many instances where the CPU will fail while attacking you and just idle around the red line, creating odd stalemates that kill the flow of action and just look unrealistic. I can usually see clear organization here as the AI tries to create proper passing lanes and outlets to sustain an attack. This applies to my own breakouts and teammates as well, and was especially noticeable in Be A Pro games where I was only controlling one player and had to rely more on my AI teammates to feed me the puck in stride.
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However, smoother breakouts and improved forechecking to try to prevent those breakouts doesn’t excuse the chaos that reigns when you try to create after establishing yourself inside the blue line. It was still usually in my best interest to break into the zone and then make that critical pass or two before taking a shot – it’s not like I can’t set up in the zone and cycle the puck, but there’s no excitement to it. I can break into the zone the same way pretty much every time by either hustling down the sideboards or cutting into the middle of the ice. From there, I whip the puck behind the net, make a basic pass back to the point, or send a pass across the rink to a streaking teammate.
What it boils down to is that the movement away from the puck is not varied or unique enough to make me feel like I’m really reading and reacting moment to moment. I just fall into similar muscle memory patterns that I’ve built up over the years rather than thinking on my skates like real players have to. Plus, it’s just not usually very rewarding to cycle the puck – it usually ends up with a mess of bodies colliding before an unenjoyable puck battle plays out, or I slide out from my position along the half boards for a wrist shot in the slot or a one-timer attempt.
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The same “ping-pong” passing we’ve all grown used to in this series also still exists. The AI is incredibly accurate when passing around the ice, and even if the passing does not happen at quite the same breakneck pace as prior years, it’s still unrealistic. In fact, everyone feels like an elite passer, so I don’t feel like I’m taking any risk when making passes with Nicklas Backstrom versus a random fourth-line center.
To some extent, these issues are minimized in things like online HUT Rivals games. I know what I am signing up for when I play a game online, and so I’m ready to race up and down the ice and use some of the really smart additions to the skill moves to beat the defense through the neutral zone. I am especially fond of the new self-pass off the boards and the slip deke to skirt around a defender trying to check me against the boards. On top of that, the self-pass behind the net (made famous in recent years by Sidney Crosby) does create some scoring opportunities that did not exist in prior versions of NHL. Likewise, I don’t think I’ll ever pull off the “Michigan” deke or use the “Kucherov” to score goals, but these are nice signature touches that I always welcome in sports games.
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On top of that, there was certainly some focus put into trying to change the online “meta” in some areas. For example, the one-handed deke on breakaways does not seem to be a “money” goal anymore, and goalies overall have certainly improved in how they read your skill moves. The puck does not feel as “sticky” anymore, so I don’t find myself just trying to build a team of hulking giants in Ultimate Team who can shrug off checks. Rather, I’m looking for more player diversity and trying to move the puck more.
The other aspect of playing in “non-traditional” modes in NHL 21 that I like is that I’m able to remove myself from even trying to find a “realistic” experience – which is especially important now, in a year where there’s no such thing. So whether that’s a HUT Rivals game with my Ultimate Team roster or playing the new HUT Rush 3-on-3 mode, I’m ready to just turn my brain off and go up and down the ice, dangling to my heart’s content.
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I don’t want it to seem like I’m only praising some of these arcade modes in passing. I love goofing around in Ones while playing on the pond, and the new HUT Rush is a change of pace where you get to draft four players and then play with a unique ruleset like having a money puck that’s worth more than a normal goal that helps keep things fresh. Stuff like the EASHL has only improved as now there’s a practice mode where you can take your created player and squad up with your teammates to work on strategies before going into real games.
Speaking of created players, the Be A Pro mode is without question where most of the development focus went this year, as far as single-player gamers are concerned. BAP has been a weak spot for the NHL series in recent years – just about the worst Be A Pro-style mode in the entire sports genre, to be frank. This year is an improvement, to be sure, but the developers still did not create the same kind of linear, guided story like you would see with NBA 2K’s MyCareer or the “Longshot/QB1” story that’s in Madden. What’s here is more like Road to the Show from MLB The Show, or even those old MLB Power Pros games. My character’s not searching for a girlfriend like he might have in some of those, but you can buy property, build up relationships with teammates, hone your brand, and do a host of other things off the ice before stepping back onto it.
The overall structure takes the conversation system that was used a lot in last year’s upgraded franchise mode, and then infuses that with RPG elements that ask you to balance management, teammates, and your own brand while improving your overall rating. In essence, I tried to min/max my way up to the top rating in all three of those categories while also unlocking traits that serve as attribute boosts or ways to improve my conversational skills so I could get better results – think of any number of conversation systems in games like Fallout or The Outer Worlds where you can use upgraded conversation skills to get new dialogue options. I didn’t need more conversation skills to min/max my way the top levels, but the conversations themselves break up the flow of just going game to game. Even if it’s relatively uninteresting to haggle with a teammate over where we’re going to eat, being able to try and talk my way into not paying the bill is a fun little maneuver to try and pull off. And even if telling a coach I’m definitely going to score two goals next game was going to be my plan either way, having a clear goal for the next game still adds some weight to those next 60 minutes on the ice.
There is still some layer of a linear story season to season, but I was mostly creating my own story along the way. The first season is strictly based on your rookie player trying to win the Calder Trophy (awarded to the best rookie), and while I did win that trophy, the real thing I cared about was based on the fact that I’d lost the Memorial Cup Final (the equivalent of the Stanley Cup in the CHL) and wanted to win the Stanley Cup as a sort of redemption arc. I was drafted first overall by the New York Rangers (ironically, they won the video game lottery after winning the real NHL lottery this year), and I did end up redeeming myself in the end.
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But again, that was all something I created for myself; the actual moment-to-moment story events that are written for you are not very interesting. I quickly understood the formula: speak to management/teammate/press and get a mission or make a “promise” to do something on the ice, and then go out and try to fulfill that mission or promise. However, that’s also the strength of this more non-linear style: While it doesn’t hit the highs that NBA 2K’s MyCareer mode can sometimes reach with its linear stories, being less concerned with that guided playthrough meant I could create my own.
There are also dynamic goals that come up, but those mostly boil down to simple things you were going to do anyway like protect the lead, make a comeback, or stop doing something dumb like taking penalties for the rest of the game. The element that actually helped push me forward more than buying cars or completing dynamic goals were the radio updates from James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro. That duo also does the in-game commentary, but the radio updates are a nice touch that center around discussing my latest exploits or the next challenge I would soon be facing. These updates provided the right kind of background noise that helped fill that airtime while I was unlocking my latest attribute upgrades or looking at my player stats in comparison to others around the league.
Unlike Madden, NHL’s franchise mode actually received a large number of updates last year, so it’s more understandable that not as much was done with NHL 21. The “fog of war” elements continue to make scouting matter in a way that does not exist in most other sports games. In addition, the trade deadline was blown out this year and feels like the truly chaotic event it is in real life. You can go in looking to be a seller or buyer, and throughout the day players can go up or down in value based on other trades taking place. So, in essence, there is a risk-reward factor that goes into when you decide to trade for someone or not. The deadline also occurs in real time, so you have to make these decisions or search for trades as the clock ticks down. It’s a blueprint for how every other trade deadline should feel in sports games.
The big problems with franchise mode, once again, are legacy issues. First and foremost on my list is that there is still no ability to share your roster of created/edited characters in NHL 21, so you won’t be able to rely on the MVPs in the community who create all the rookies not currently available or update the rosters after all the offseason moves take place.
This also ties into the player ratings, which are a problem on and off the ice. Because NHL 21 includes juniors, international leagues, and various levels of talent overall, the NHL player pool has a narrow range for its player ratings. Most of the league fits into this 65-85 overall area. What this leads to is most players feeling pretty much the same on the ice. While it’s noticeable when I play with the Connor McDavids of the world, most third-line centers are indistinguishable beyond height and weight differentials. If there were custom rosters that could be shared, I’m sure some hardcore folks out there would put in the time to re-rate a lot of players and try to widen that skill gap between various NHL players. But without any way to share these things, the rest of us are stuck with the flat-feeling default roster.