It could just be 2020 cancelling public events, but I have found myself playing a lot of sports games this year. I was fortunate to review Madden 21 and R.B.I Baseball 20 despite only knowing about one of these sports, and it wasn’t the one with the bat. I purchased FIFA 21 after swearing not to because it didn’t include Elland Road; heck, I even bought PGA TOUR 2K21.
Which brings me to NHL 21, a sport I know very little about. If pushed, I do have a hockey team though – the Colorado Avalanche; the team I played as the last time I played an ice hockey game: NHL Hitz Pro in 2003. Let’s see what I can remember from 17 years ago.
Thankfully, there is a hefty tutorial to start things off in NHL 21, and it isn’t long before you will be deking about the rink. I hope that is the correct terminology. The tutorial gives a great introduction to the dual stick controls, and you’ll be pinging the puck around the rink with ease. Defending though remains a weak point; not because of the tutorial, but purely due to my ineptitude.
After the slickness of Madden and FIFA, the menus of NHL 21 seem a bit confusing. The aforementioned sports titles will usually keep your latest game mode on the main menu and then offer a much more dynamic feel to the options available. NHL 21 instead lets you select your three/four main modes and ‘pin’ them to the top menu; everything else is hidden below in a separate menu.
The main menu does put its accessibility options front and centre though, I am pleased to note. Menu narration is also on by default, so straight off the bat – or stick if you please – it is aiming to be more accessible to more people.
One thing that has been brought in line with Madden and FIFA this time around is the revamped Be a Pro mode, NHL’s career mode. It has been greatly expanded to be much more in-depth and engaging. After creating a rather generic looking character, the Be a Pro hub offers plenty of information to digest. Here you can check your player’s stats, overall rating, likeability, social media followers and dynamic line scores. You also have a skill tree, giving an RPG-lite feel to this mode where you can purchase traits to improve your skills and also ‘equip’ specialities that act like passive abilities for your player.
On the ice, you have the option to simulate the action whenever your player is not involved, or you can keep an eye on the action whilst reviewing your current performance and objectives through the Coach Feedback menu.
You can choose to start straight into the NHL or in one of the feeder divisions and take your chances in the draft. Then, in between matches you will have conversations with members of the press, fellow teammates or even direct with the coach. Despite being face-to-face they take the form of text conversations, without any real speech. Whilst it may reflect 2020 to have most conversations over instant messaging, it is still disappointing for a triple-A sports title to not have any voice work.
Once again, Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) returns to take as much money from you as possible. There is another welcome tutorial here to help you get to grips with this mode because – despite being made alongside Madden and FIFA – there is still a lack of coherence in the menus and UI of all the titles.
For anyone that has played FIFA Ultimate Team though, HUT follows a similar gameplay loop with Squad Battles, Rivals and Online Divisions being three of the biggest draws. There are also Squad Building Challenges, but in HUT these are simply called Sets. Unlike FIFA though, returning to HUT every day offers a free pack to open and boost your roster with.
New this year to HUT is HUT Rush. Available as a separate mode from traditional HUT, Rush is exactly what it implies – fast-paced alternate rules hockey that feels even more arcade than the traditional NHL 21 experience.
As a newcomer, I had to check at times whether NHL 21 was an arcade sports title or a simulation one. More standard modes such as Franchise Mode and Be a Pro still feel very arcade-y, despite this aiming to be a simulation. You have a ton of control and options available to you when using the Skill Stick controller layout, that really allows you to fine-tune your players’ actions and movements, but this can’t hide the fact that the puck will be pinging about between players as you pass it around.
However, this does mean that HUT Rush and World of Chel – essentially NHL 21’s version of Volta mode in FIFA or The Yard in Madden – are much more enjoyable modes as a result. This year’s World of Chel introduces Seasons; if you’ve ever played a game with live elements then you know what to expect here, and World of Chel Seasons are no different.
Between this, HUT Rush and their ability to offer a steady stream of rewards, you’ll likely spend most of your time in these two modes. With their many options to tweak traditional hockey rules such as number of players or golden goal games, their variation does them a lot of favours.
Commentary is the weakest element of these modes, especially in comparison with the bigger options. Franchise and Be a Pro feature great commentary – perhaps the best in the EA Sports catalogue. It doesn’t sound choppy when inserting team or player names, and does a great job detailing the action on the ice. Compare this to commentary on World of Chel that sounds like a bad impression of an X-Games commentator, and the difference is night and day.
In recent years, EA Sports have added plenty of new modes across their licensed games, and NHL 21 on the Xbox One is no exception; there is a lot of ice hockey on offer. The variety will offer something for everyone, but there are issues with the gameplay on the rink that mean some modes work better than others. There probably isn’t enough here to convert a non-hockey fan – and perhaps not enough ‘new’ features for returning fans to be excited about – but on the basis of NHL 21, it is one of the better annual releases from EA Sports this time around.