In the later years of the previous console generation, Electronic Arts’ NHL series was one of the premier sports video game franchises available. However, following some missteps at the beginning of this console generation, EA Vancouver has spent the past few years attempting to add in new features and win back the trust of its once loyal fan base.
Those efforts appear to have culminated in NHL 19 with the introduction of World of CHEL, along with noticeable improvements in skating, puck pickup, and AI hockey IQ. How does NHL 19 hold up against other sports games on the market, and are the additions made in the past year worth another lump of cash? There are many nice additions and improvements in this year’s game, but the answers to those questions will largely depend on your expectations.
In terms of game modes, the biggest addition to NHL 19 is clearly the World of CHEL, which rolls together every playable mode in which you can create your own player and customize him or her with whatever equipment you earn. World of CHEL includes Pro-Am, NHL Threes Drop-In games, NHL Ones, and finally, the EA Sports Hockey League. The new Pro-Am mode finds you taking your created player into matchups against teams assembled by a select NHL star from the past or present on an outdoor rink. Customizable gear is in play in this mode, and the rules are thrown out of the window – there are no offsides, no icing, and no penalties. The speed of the players is also dialled up, giving this mode the feel of a very arcade style of play. Considering that your player in the World of CHEL can level up by playing any of the above mentioned game modes, Pro-Am is an easy and effective way to level up and earn new gear.
NHL Threes is simply that – you are put on a team of three players through matchmaking, and you take on another team of three. These games are very fast-paced and fun, though they can be frustrating if you are teamed with or against someone who is either a team killer or wants to score every goal themselves. Again, this mode is a good way to earn XP and level up your created player. NHL Ones is 1 v 1 v 1 hockey, played on an outdoor rink that is basically the size of the offensive zone. The goaltender is CPU controlled, and each of the three players tries to score as many goals as they can in the short three-minute matches. There are no rules either, so feel free to check from behind and do everything you can to stop your opponents from scoring. After playing a few games in this mode, the best advice I can offer players is that when the puck is put back into play and it goes against the boards where the blue line would be, do not be the first player to the puck. Waiting for someone else to get there first and crushing them with a check can eliminate one of your opponents for valuable seconds and give you a great chance to score.
Customization within the World of CHEL is vast, as there are more than 900 items you can unlock and equip in NHL 19. These include sticks, skates, jerseys, and even hoodies, parkas, and tuques, among many more items. Granted, some of the unlockable items are just new colors to apply to an item like a visor or stick tape, but there’s still a huge amount of items to choose from, allowing you to make your player truly unique. None of the items give any sort of competitive advantage over another either, so it really is all about customizing the appearance of your player to make them represent you. You unlock items by earning hockey gear bags to open each time you level up. While all items are cosmetic, simply levelling up will allow you to assign traits to your player that will increase certain attributes (while possibly decreasing some others). It’s a nice way to mould your created player into the type of player you want them to be attribute-wise, rather than having the same cookie cutter attributes for everyone.
EA Sports Hockey League returns in NHL 19 as the final part of World of CHEL, and while it is very familiar in a lot of ways, there are some key changes. For those who are new to EASHL, it is the mode in the NHL series where you join a club with your created player and play games together against other clubs. You are locked into a position in the games – if you choose to be the center, you will control only your player as the center for the entire game – and you have to work together to get good chemistry and master all aspects of the game in order to win as a team. If your club only has two players online, you can play a game with four CPU controlled teammates, and if you have six, you can play with every position on the ice controlled by a human player, including the goaltender. You can only be part of one club at a time, so I recommend choosing a group of friends that you enjoy playing with or a club that you mesh well with.
Full disclosure: EASHL is the mode I have played the most in the NHL series since it had its debut in NHL 09. I very much have a love/hate relationship with the EASHL mode, as do most of the people I play the mode with every year. NHL 19’s EASHL, while better, still brings out those love/hate feelings in me. There have been times over the years when you absolutely know the team you’re playing is really good and you’re playing stride for stride with them, with some of those games going to multiple overtimes. Those games are exhilarating, and one of the best experiences I’ve had in sports video games – especially when you look up their record after the game and discover the opposing team is ranked in the top 100, or in one case, the top 5 in the game. When you’re on a team that works well together and has a good time playing, EASHL is one of the most rewarding experiences in sports gaming. When you’re not, it can be somewhat toxic – at no fault of the game.
The biggest changes that have had a major impact on the EASHL mode in NHL 19 are all related to gameplay and customization. In past years, when customizing your club’s jerseys, logos, or the club’s home stadium, it meant levelling up to a certain level with your club or achieving a milestone in wins, cumulative goals or power play goals scored, or many other measurable statistics. NHL 19 changes that by awarding the club a hockey gear bag each time your club levels up. In that bag are new jersey designs, logos, goal horns, stadiums, and more. The items range from common to epic, with some items being a much more rare pull than others. Again, none of these items impact attributes on the ice – it’s all purely cosmetic. Also, as of right now there are no ways to purchase the hockey gear bags. They can only be earned through levelling up.
The gameplay changes that have a large impact on EASHL in NHL 19 also affect every other mode that I will cover after this, so they apply to everything. First, puck pickup is dramatically improved (while still not perfect) and makes for a cleaner, more authentic experience. In NHL 18, your skater would just skate right past a puck without picking it up, and that would often lead to a slowed down game with no flow to it. The improvements in puck pickup have made it much easier to cycle the puck in the offensive zone and set up on the power play, not to mention it has made the dump and chase strategy more viable again. In addition to that, the way the CPU controlled players perform in NHL 19 is a dramatic improvement, and a truly game changing one in EASHL. Defensemen will now use the boards to pass the puck up the ice, they don’t panic and inexplicably push the puck into the goaltender (as much) and their offensive zone pass decisions represent a significantly increased hockey IQ for CPU controlled players. This will especially benefit those who prefer to play in EASHL or Be a Pro modes.
Perhaps the most impactful gameplay change in NHL 19 is in skating. Sure, huge improvements to skating mechanics and physics have been promised in the past with mixed results, but this year’s improvements can actually be felt when playing the game. Using their new Real Player Motion or RPM technology, EA Vancouver has changed their skating mechanics in a way that makes NHL 19 much more enjoyable. Turns are much more responsive, speed bursts matter, and it finally feels like not all players are basically the same speed. In one of the first games I played, I got the puck onto the stick of Clayton Keller, a Calder Trophy finalist from last season who is one of the faster young players in the NHL, and the dominance he was able to have with his speed going up the wing to put defenders out of position was so new and different that I took notice of it right away. Players that play a dangler style will absolutely love the new skating mechanics. The one drawback in the gameplay is the hyper-sensitivity of the poke checking function in NHL 19. Until you get used to it, you will probably be killing a lot of penalties.
Franchise mode returns in NHL 19, and it offers an experience that is about as deep and immersive as you want it to be. When you start up a new franchise, you’ll have the option of playing in the 31-team NHL as it is today, or add an expansion team to make the league an even 32 teams using either a draft with default players or a custom draft. As the general manager, you can manage your team with contracts, free agent signings, and promoting players to the NHL roster from the minor league team, all while staying under the salary cap – unless you turn the salary cap off. However, you’ll also be able to manage all other aspects of the team: building maintenance, concessions, advertising, and even relocation if you choose to do so. As the GM, you will also need to hire and assign scouts, and this becomes even more critical if you turn on the new Fog of War feature. Fog of War will blur out certain attributes for players; they can only be revealed by scouting them. This will have a large impact on any potential free agent signings you attempt to make, as well as how well you draft. Unfortunately, there is no Connected Franchise mode in NHL 19 like there is in EA’s Madden series.
Unfortunately, there are some modes in NHL 19 that don’t quite stand as tall as their counterparts in Madden or FIFA, and Draft Champions is one of them. For those players unfamiliar with Draft Champions, it is a mode where you draft a portion of your team to either play against the CPU or online against other human players in versus mode. You are given a base team and then you draft through 12 rounds to round out your lineup with better players from the NHL’s present or past. You are allowed to choose between four themes at first – Snipe Show, Speedsters, Young Guns, and Legends – and that style will dictate the types of players you choose from in each round. By successfully defeating the competition in Draft Champions, you can earn rewards that apply to Hockey Ultimate Team. When playing the Draft Champions mode (I drafted two teams, one of speedsters and one of legends), I found that the mode would greatly benefit from having two missing things added into it. First, being able to draft more than 12 players would really help. Madden’s MUT Draft mode has far more rounds and there’s only three more players that play on a MUT Draft team than on an NHL squad. Second, it is pretty inexplicable that there is no Play a Friend feature in NHL’s Draft Champions mode. I might be wrong, but it really doesn’t seem like that would be all that difficult to add. Drafting teams is fun and all, but the overall lack of things to do and ways to play in Draft Champions leave it lagging behind its Madden and FIFA counterparts.
Considering that Madden Ultimate Team is among my favorite modes in the Madden series, I was excited to see what Hockey Ultimate Team had to offer this year. I was overwhelmingly disappointed. First, please take contracts out of the game mode. It has been wildly successful in other EA Ultimate Team modes. Second, I understand that the new Player Loan program is designed to try out a player and see how they fit in on your squad, or just give you a taste of what they can do so you have something to work toward acquiring. However, I personally prefer that every player I get is on my team permanently and not for just a set amount of games, so the loan addition was not something that makes me want to dive in.
The amount of sets, ways to play, and card variations all pale in comparison to what Madden or FIFA offer in Ultimate Team. In total honesty, the only thing in HUT that matches those two are the amount of packs they will let you buy. While MUT is becoming increasingly accessible to all kinds of players every year, HUT is still much more for the truly hardcore fans that want to build and assemble a team they’ve always dreamed of. It’s fair to say that I shouldn’t expect as much from HUT as I do from the other Ultimate Team modes, but it’s also fair to say that NHL 19 costs just as much as those games and they’re equally happy to sell me packs in NHL 19. Given the great things modes like World of CHEL and Franchise have offered, I firmly believe that the EA Vancouver team can do better with Hockey Ultimate Team.
Visually, NHL 19 looks very similar to other NHL iterations on the current generation of consoles, but that’s not a bad thing. The visuals and graphics were never a problem with the NHL series; it’s the physics, player movement, and AI that needed attention. Each of those things has been addressed this year, and while EA Vancouver hasn’t provided total fixes, the game feels much better to play and delivers a more fun experience. From a presentation standpoint though, EA Vancouver deserves credit for the menu system in NHL 19. It is very easy to use once you get accustomed to it, and makes a game with a lot of small modes have a very simplified menu that is intuitive. They even allow you to pin up to three modes to the front page of the menu, meaning the modes you play the most will always be easily accessible to you.
NHL 19 is not a perfect game by any means. If you’re expecting perfection, you’ll find the flaws easily and become frustrated quickly. However, NHL 19 is a far superior game to NHL 18 in almost every way, offering new and fun ways to play with your created player – while also correcting the skating system, puck pickup, and improving the hockey IQ of CPU controlled players. These additions and improvements help NHL 19 take a large step towards the direction of once again being one of the best sports gaming experiences out there.
If you’re a hockey fan, this game is highly recommended, as NHL 19 has made gameplay changes that make the experience much more authentic, while at the same time introducing new modes and adding to many old ones in order to bring the fun back to the series.