Ice hockey deserves far more attention this side of the pond. I mean sure, we have our UK league, the EIHL and teams are associated with most major cities but it never comes close to being a water cooler conversation like football does. Personally, I’ve loved ice hockey since I was a kid, and the Mighty Ducks movies have a lot to answer for. I even tailored my honeymoon around hockey season and the Leafs/Marlies games – and thankfully my wife did not mind.
Great 1990’s Disney movies and honeymoons aside, the sport is fast paced, frantic and full of action. There is decent TV coverage here in the UK on the channel free sports, as well as the option to subscribe to premier sports for even more games. In fact, there are plenty of options available, letting those in the UK get into the sport. Gaming being one of them.
NHL 23 is this year’s iteration of the yearly ice hockey franchise from the folks at EA Sports. As a fan of the franchise since the early days of the Mega Drive, I was keen to see what has been added and improved upon in NHL 23. One of the things I absolutely love about EA’s NHL titles is that they allow players of any level to take part and have fun. NHL 94 is one of the greatest hockey games of all time from the Sega Mega Drive and they allow the simple control scheme from it to be used here, instead of the more complex advanced modes.
Talking of skill stick modes, NHL 23 features the skill stick option. Skill stick is a control scheme that assigns moves with your stick to the right analogue stick, yet for me, I’m old school and prefer the simplicity of NHL 94 controls. Neither option is a wrong choice and it is fantastic to see support for the old control schemes so that everyone can jump on NHL 23 and have a good time regardless of their skill level.
In fact, the entire quick settings menu that pops up at the first load of the game is a valuable place to spend time. Each section is totally customisable towards skill level and preferences. Total beginner but want to try the skill stick mode? No problem. Seasoned vet who prefers the NHL 94 control scheme but with a higher difficulty? Done. EA truly lowers the entry barrier for everyone, ensuring that each player has a chance to have fun the way they choose to.
NHL 23 looks as beautiful as always, and this year EA are using their Frostbite engine; the results are clear. The reflections on the ice to the player animations and the lighting have never looked so good, as each year the title adds and improves on what has come before. This is one of the best looking sports titles available, standing on the pedestal with 2K’s NBA series.
Player likenesses are all really accurate and EA update the rosters throughout the season to match team changes. Creating your pro still has basic options but does the job all the same. But it’s in watching back replays which really highlights the power of Frostbite, showing off various facial expressions as well as the superb lighting on the ice.
But let’s get my personal gripe out the way first shall we? Every year I am disappointed to see that the licence for the EIHL is not part of EA’s worldwide selection of leagues. The closest is the CHL which features only one team from Britain and sadly it is never my local team – the Glasgow Clan. That aside, the selection on offer is more than comprehensive and there will be a league for pretty much every hockey fan’s tastes.
Talking of personal tastes, it is great to see the return of World of CHEL in NHL23. The CHEL mode is effectively pond hockey; take a game that’s already rough and ready, make the team smaller and remove some rules. It is tremendously good fun and a starting point I would suggest for all fans new and old as it gives a taste of playing the game and will allow you to build technique and work on foundations for other modes.
When it comes to the other modes like career and season, I like playing in the AHL as the Toronto Marlies, before moving up to the NHL to play as my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. There is something rewarding working your own virtual way up from the lower leagues to the big time and EA’s NHL games allow you to do just that.
Actually, there are a bunch of modes both suited for online and offline play and yet again NHL 23 shines with the amount of content on offer. The ability to practice any technique or brush up on skills at any time is also another way the game welcomes all kinds of players and really allows you to find your feet and learn to play the game.
EA of course have their dreaded multiplayer mode Ultimate Team, made infamous by FIFA players worldwide. However, in NHL this mode is never forced to the front so does not come across as predatory. Newly added for 23 is the IIHF Women’s National Team players who are included in mixed women’s and men’s teams. Ultimate team can be fun building your own dream team and taking them online towards victory. That said it is still a very much pay to win mode and in a game with so many alternative modes that are much more fun, such as NHL Threes, Ultimate Team can be ignored altogether if you choose.
New for this year and the most welcome addition is the ability to crossplay with other platforms. PS4 and Xbox One players as well as Series X|S and PS5 players can get on the ice and duke it out. It would be a nice touch to have a PlayStation Vs Xbox style tournament with jerseys to match whichever platform you are playing with.
Also returning for NHL 23 are X-Factor players; players who have special abilities such as powerful snapshots or sniper-like wrist shots. They are a great way to shake things up and add a whole new layer of strategy when putting together your team. This combined with the new strategies means you can truly take control on the ice and get those wins in.
Customisation takes a leap with all new Stanley Cup celebrations that can be tweaked however you see fit, perfect for the player that plays multiple seasons over the lifespan of each title. On ice projections are also new and add to the realism of pre-match build up. The customisation this year is unmatched and has many welcome improvements from previous years. In addition, the newly added last chance puck movement adds 500 new animations for those last minute scrambles for the puck to keep the game going.
All this said, the complete NHL 23 package comes across as generous, comprehensive and a fun way for all to play. Want to play as a single player through a whole career? Be a Pro mode has your back. Want to take your favourite team to Stanley Cup victory? Yep, that’s here too in Franchise mode. Even if you prefer to manage a team and stay off the ice, EA has it covered from the pond to the board room.
The immersion continues with EA putting work into crowd reactions in NHL 23. This year the crowd react more realistically to the action on the ice, cheering for goals happens more on time than ever and boos – when heading to the penalty box – kick in quicker. However, crowd animations and graphical style still feels caught in the last gen as sports games continue to make them look and feel realistic.
Each year the NHL series continues to improve and impress. Some may say the game has been too samey with each iteration, however if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The accessibility provided and the customisable experience found in NHL 23 make it perfect for fans of the sport, and even those who have never tried an EA hockey game before. And that’s the heart of hockey isn’t it? All are welcome to take part and have fun.
NHL 23 is again a job well done by EA Sports.
NHL 23 is on the Xbox Store
- Hockey has never looked so good
- Filled with content
- Handling is superb
- Crowds are as unrealistic as ever
- Occasional janky animations
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - EA Sports
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, PC
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 14 October 2022
- Launch price from - £69.99