In the dark old days of the early 90s, ice hockey was pretty much my staple diet in regards to sports videogames.
There were many different versions available back then, thus was the popularity of the puck smashing sport in gaming at that time. We loved the fighting, we adored the fast paced action and we still couldn’t work out what the hell “icing’ was. But we knew it was bad.
Fast-forward twenty five years and I’m spending some time with the latest ice hockey title – EA SPORTS NHL 18 – and interestingly enough the only one of the year to truly represent the sport. The question is… does it still have that fun playability?
So loading up the game and I am introduced to the training schedule, for no reason other than to get my eye in. This is done by showing real video footage, with real hockey players, and goes through the basics of gameplay, before advancing to the more complicated stuff. This is a good introduction, and makes you feel like you’ve got the hang of this hockey lark and you can deke like the best of them. Then the advanced stuff comes up and you instantly think ‘maybe I’ll leave this for later or… never’. By the time you find yourself in the main menus, the choice of options is staggering. Where do I start? Well, as this is an EA title, I quite obviously started with Be A Pro.
Here you get to customize your own player, occupy a position and aim to become the best player in the NHL. You get to play a whole season, at least after a pre-season competition determines whom you get drafted to. The gameplay is simple to start with, but lends itself to skill moves and addictive complicated set pieces as you get better. Depending on your control choice in attack, one button passes, another shoots and then you have the iconic slap shot. There are advanced controls like reversing the puck, deking and more – all of which will take you a while to master.
In defense you have the most satisfying body slam – a move that will make you feel like a badass – a defensive move to get the puck off the stick and a whole lot of zonal marking opportunities. NHL 18 is thankfully an easy game to pick up, but by golly it can get hard. In the Be A Pro mode you get a detailed assessment of your stats after each half and after each time you go to the bench. This will tell you of your failings or successes in defense, team play and offence with ratings. It even gives you helpful links to videos to help improve what you might be lacking on the ice. This is a brilliant mode that will suck the hours away like the slow coming of winter. It’s so full of detail and stats that it can feel overwhelming at first, but is hugely satisfying when you start to understand the intricacies of the gameplay.
The other modes are all tightly orchestrated and full of hockey action. There’s the standard franchise mode, where aspiring NHL owners can take over their team and control all aspects of the season, from ticket merchandising to player contracts. There’s a new expansion draft choice added which is all about slots and things – frankly stuff that I still don’t really understand. But all I know is that it must be good for hockey fans worldwide otherwise it wouldn’t be included. Right?
What I did get very excited about was the design a mascot section where you can choose the animal head, body and colours. My god, I spent too much time on this mode. Then there is Ultimate Team – again because this is an EA product – and will ensure all those people who like drafting the perfect team through coin collecting or just spending hard cash are well catered for. The EA Sport Hockey League, which is like FIFA’s Clubs mode, is a great excuse for creating a team, drafting in friends and possibly recruiting others in order to take on the world. It has a really nice upgrade system, and plenty of things on offer that can be fun for the online team to progress. Draft Champions mode is mainly unchanged from last year and so are the other online modes, except that there is a certain new kid on the block. NHL Threes.
NHL Threes gives players exactly what it says on the tin – a three on three game to play. This mode is aimed at bringing both new and old players back into the fold, with its quick free flowing arcade action. The goals are plentiful, whilst the action is fast and brings plenty of over the top chaos. It can be played online, as well as with friends, and there’s also the chance to travel the country taking on bigger and more ferocious opponents. It’s a lot of fun and one of my personal highlights taken from NHL 18.
The gameplay on the whole is great to play. For ice hockey fans this has everything you need in order to spend hundred of hours on it. It can be still be overwhelming for a newbie, especially if you have to put the time into training to become anything better than average. But for as good as it is, I really think NHL 18 needs a story mode like the Journey on FIFA, or like the story mode that has just released inside Madden. This will help you feel more connected to the experience and for newcomers, give you an understanding of the set up and legacy of the game.
Presentation in NHL 18 is top notch with stunning stadiums and players, whilst the integration of video is excellent. Sometimes the crowd is a bit too generic and they seem like they are connected on puppet strings. I did like when you are in the penalty cool down booth and a couple of members of the crowd are abusing you though, or when a fan holds up a placard declaring their love for your player. It’s the nice little touches that make a good game.
The soundtrack that accompanies the action is great, with lots of rock tracks and stadium pleasers. The commentary works very well indeed with the right amount of enthusiasm and cheering from the professionals. It’s always hard to hear your name get criticized, but when they compliment you, you’re on top of the world. All the sound effects -the grunts, slaps, pokes, thuds, screams and cries – are top notch, and make the game feel hugely authentic.
To conclude I’ve really enjoyed my time with NHL 18, and I’ll continue to plough through the hundreds of hours it has to offer. It has a huge amount of modes, old ones with improvements and very good new ones. Is it an improvement on the franchise? Well it has NHL Threes, new additions to the career modes and some nice cosmetic touches. Maybe next year there will be a story mode to help really connect with a new audience, but for now I am having a blast like it was 1993 all over again.
Now excuse me while I just play with my mascot again.