It’s a known fact that EA’s yearly releases of both FIFA and Madden get a lot of attention; they have the best graphics, the most detailed player-likeness’ and lots of money pumped into them, allowing the chance to develop real-time physics for a believable game experience. The NHL series, however, always seem to get a little left behind. But this year EA have moved it over from the Ignite engine to the same one that is used in FIFA and Madden, Frostbite. This came along with the talk of better graphics, better physics and some great new additions to the overall package. So will NHL 22 finally revamp the series? Or will it be another cut and paste hockey game with a shiny surface?
With its long overdue switchover to the Frostbite engine, NHL 22 promised some bold improvements. Now these are definitely here and it’s a step up from its predecessor but, sadly, these are surface level improvements. That’s not to say that some aspects aren’t noticeable; the light reflection on the rink looks outstanding, the jerseys and shorts fabrics are clearly visible now whilst whipping and creasing with every movement – they have never looked better. The new AR graphics are projected directly onto surfaces mid-game to show stats and they’ve now incorporated some stunning cinematic replays where the camera zooms and follows play, slowing down time and showing your goal in all its beauty.
However, in the grand scheme of things, these are just minor graphic changes. Player models are still poor compared to FIFA and Madden. I can spot Ronaldo, for example, playing for Man Utd from the other side of the pitch or I can tell it’s Aaron Rodgers in Madden by his throw. However, I could very rarely tell which hockey player I was looking at when I was staring at them from no more than 2ft away; unless it was a TOP player like Matthews or Ovechkin I stood no chance in identifying them.
These changes are very welcome and it’s a huge step in the right direction, but these are just aesthetic changes and none of them have any impact on physical gameplay. In regards to actual gameplay improvements though, there’s the usual “the stick physics are now better” and “better movement along the boards”. These are marginally noticeable, but NHL 22 doesn’t feel like a big upgrade and at times, during gameplay it is hard to distinguish between this game and last year’s installment of NHL 21.
One of the biggest additions to NHL 22 are the new Superstar X-Factor Abilities which are given to the league’s top players. The game features a total of 29 different abilities that are split between Shooting, Skating, Passing, Hockey IQ, Defense and Goaltending and gives specific players that extra boost to emphasis where they excel in hockey. I’m a New York Rangers fan, so for the Rangers, Panarin has “Make it Snappy” which gives him a huge boost to power and accuracy when taking snapshots whilst skating, Zibanejad has “Magnetic” that gives him elite pass reception and puck pick up and Adam Fox has “Tape to Tape” that gives him elite passing within vision. However, not every team has players with X-Factor abilities so you’re not always guaranteed them.
As well as the gold X-Factor abilities, these top players can also have “Superstar Abilities”, which are a rung down from X-Factors; there are usually multiples of them, that give players abilities like increased payback to hitters or great trick shooting. These Superstar Abilities are also given to the better players on each team, not just the X-Factor players, so you know who is going to play which key parts in your lineups.
These added abilities are a fantastic idea to show who the stars are, but if I’m being completely honest, I barely noticed a big difference in my players. It didn’t really matter if it was my first line or my third line, all the players made great passes, could deke with skill and could all score both slap shots or wrist shots with ease. I feel like these skills maybe need to be ramped up a little more, or the other players need to come across as a little worse (preferably the first option), as it’s a fantastic addition to each team, having star players who have unique special abilities. I just didn’t notice them enough.
This year’s new Be A Pro mode still isn’t anywhere near the same standard to that of FIFA or Madden either. You once again take control of your custom-created players, get them drafted, build their stats and eventually get them their very own X-Factor through games and experience. Sadly, this mode feels a bit under-developed – the character never speaks, and all encounters with any coach, agent, media etc. are all done through text boxes. I did get to choose which kind of response I gave, whether that was to solely help myself or be more of a team player and gain fan likeability, but it all felt very two dimensional. The whole story is narrated through a fictional podcast that will keep you informed but, frankly, it just feels a little lazy. I seriously hope this mode gets more attention in the next installment as it’s clearly an avenue they haven’t pushed enough yet.
NHL 22 once again includes all the other game modes we’ve come to expect. World of Chel returns where you can create your own player, unlock abilities for them (which now include new X-Factor abilities) to take on other players either locally or online. This also includes the more arcade-y mode “Threes”, where you play in fictional rinks with fireworks and special pucks (e.g. if scored with, can actively reduce your opponents score), as well the intense mode “Ones” in which 3 players play in a free for all to score the most goals in the allotted time. These are a great rest from the usual more simulated styles and intense feel you get in the real games of hockey. They are definitely here purely for fast paced fun with friends.
Franchise mode is back again, this time with the addition of the Seattle Kraken and X-Factor players. We also see the Ultimate Team again where player cards are bought with either in-game currency, or real world cash, to create the… well… Ultimate Team. It’s a deep and engaging mode where you can build the perfect fantasy team and spend hours adjusting line-ups and trading players to create perfect team synergy and be top of the league. Unfortunately, as EA likes to do, levelling up players and getting in-game currency is a grind, so spending your hard earned real world cash to unlock mystery card packs is encouraged and thrust upon you. It’s the ugly side of gaming that’s so hard to like and makes me want to tell people to avoid it altogether, purely out of spite.
NHL 22 has started to lay down the groundwork for a great ice hockey game. It’s incorporated new mechanics in X-Factor players, graphically it’s improving and the gameplay is a mixture of fluid simulation and fast paced arcade which is a great balance. However, Be A Pro mode is still stagnant, there is a heavy reliance on spending real money on card packs in Ultimate Team and there just doesn’t feel like enough new additions to get excited by. At least not just yet.
NHL 22 is available on Xbox One and optimised for Xbox Series X|S. Hit up the Xbox Store for a download