We've been playing NHL games regularly ever since the first NHL game was released for PC back in 1994, and it's fair to say that the franchise has taken up quite a lot of our time. We would happily admit that the annual release of this hockey game is a highlight for us. Still, we've tried to become a bit more critical when sharing our opinions of it, and that has made us realise a couple of things. Does NHL 18 survive our new, critical eyes? Well...
EA Sports Vancouver took a big leap in regards to the quality of their hockey franchise two years ago. Last year, the changes weren't as noteworthy as many had hoped for, which meant players grew tired of the game fairly quickly. This was the first time for us that the virtual hockey season was over before the real one. With this year's edition, then, EA wants to make the game last longer. The most important way that they're doing this is the new NHL Threes, which is also why it's the main focus for this review. The rest of the game is pretty much the same as it was in NHL 17, but we will address the few changes that have been made and what we think should have been done as well.
NHL Threes isn't the same as normal hockey. Even if hockey is the fastest game in the world, Threes takes it even further and increases the intensity of the game. At first glance it might remind us of the NHL 3on3 Arcade we saw released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2009, albeit with a lot more content and polish. Hard hits, minimalistic rules, and an increase in speed makes for a great game to play both for hockey fans and newcomers. We actually think the inclusion of the new mode is mostly meant for the latter, as EA wants more people playing their game, and since franchises like FIFA and Madden are much bigger, who could blame them.
Fridge Raiders is your team in the career mode of NHL Threes. This fictional team filled with unknown players will be our base of operations as we work towards world domination, or at least domination of North America. Our journey starts in Edmonton in western Canada, goes on to Vancouver, before we cross the border and head into Seattle. During our journey across the country, we pick up players to strengthen our squad.
It didn't take long before we noticed one of the most entertaining things we've seen in a sports game, the option to play as the different teams' mascots. Our first game against Edmonton Oilers revealed the Oilers' brand new mascot, Hunter. The Canadian Lynx looks very real, and with skates on it gives us a whole new experience on the ice. Yes, you read that correctly, every NHL mascot is a player that eventually you will unlock on your hunt for the ultimate trophy.
After that initial shock, we got to unlock some regular players. Since our opponents mainly consisted of junior teams, the players we unlocked have some sort of association with the respective teams. After defeating Red Deer Rebels, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is unlocked, and Jamie Benn becomes a Raider when we beat Kelowna Rockets. This part of the game makes it both entertaining and educational for both hockey fans and the regular Joe.
The games in NHL Threes consists of two teams with three players and a goalie. The main objective is to get the opponents away from the puck, even if there are more conservative ways to get it. Because the interference rule is totally absent from the rule book, we see a lot of hits out on the ice. We won't be sent off for accidentally tripping one of our opponents, instead the referees award penalty shots. This, combined with the fact that face-offs are happening once every period, makes for a more action-packed and intense experience. If one team scores or the goalie freezes the puck, the other team starts with the puck on centre ice.
Even if Threes' career mode is extensive and entertaining, we presume many will take to the online area to play many of their games. Play with friends or alone against others around the world, and you get countless hours of entertaining hockey.
This brings us to the second biggest improvement in NHL 18 in our opinion; we're not limited to playing couch co-op, now you can play co-op online in every game mode. In Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) there are even challenges specially made for online co-op play, but we'll get back to that part later on. We think that it's great that EA has started focusing more on team play in hockey, since this is a large factor in all team sports.
EASHL is the definition of teamwork. The mode, which was introduced to us in NHL 09, has grown bigger and bigger and is, together with HUT, the most popular way to play virtual hockey today (even if NHL Threes might overtake them both). The introduction of 3-on-3 hockey in EASHL is a welcome addition, as we're able to play with only three members of our club and don't have to worry about the annoying AI to ruin our games. Hockey with three players on both sides is insanely fun as it gives us more space and therefore more goals. That leads to ask: why haven't we seen this implemented before?
It's always fun to create your own player in NHL. We've always had a good time creating the player just the way we want them. Unfortunately, EA makes this harder than it has to be. There are still 211 different default head sculptures for men, and 18 female, to choose from. This makes it hard and time-consuming for us to make the player look like Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby. Watching these players in the game, they look very real, so we'd love to have more detailed options beyond the presets. Here's hoping that they give us the option to adjust the nose, eyes, chins and mouthes next year.
We promised to get back to HUT, and the addition of solo challenges is the biggest news in this mode. For those of us who don't want to spend thousands of euros on microtransactions to get the best team available, solo challenges is a great way to earn coins (which are the HUT currency). The first few challenges are easy to get through and might feel a bit boring, but it doesn't take long before the opponents get harder to beat and that makes it even more fun. There are already quite a few challenges available, and there will be more released as the season overseas gets underway. Apart from this, HUT is pretty much the same as before, just with a few new heroes and legends.
The other modes consist of little to no changes. Franchise mode now gives us the ability to become the 32nd team in the NHL, but apart from that it's pretty much the same. With Vegas Golden Knights entering the league this season, expansion and expansion drafts are the biggest focus areas. NHL 18 gives us the choice of making our own team from scratch. We get to choose a name for our team, the team colours, how the arena looks, what the mascot should look like, and much more. From here we can take our team to the ice in the biggest league in the world and fight for the Stanley Cup. Where we feel Franchise mode comes up short, though, is in regards to scouting. We would have liked to have had a better option for scouting new players during the year up to the draft, and also have access to more scouts. It's not very realistic that an NHL club only has one scout...
The loading times between the menus and when heading into games have been greatly improved. This has always been good in the NHL series, but this year it's just incredible. The only thing we'd like to see improved upon in this area is having the option of restarting the challenge right away if we fail solo challenges in HUT.
The menu system has been overhauled as well. Classy and with the possibility to add three favourites that we use a lot, it shortens the time we have to spend in the main menu considerably. We are tempted to say this is the best menu we've seen in any game; it's certainly up there with the best.
Training Camp is a new mode where we can learn both basic and advanced controls. Thanks to short videos showing various drills performed by real-life players, we are able to see what we need to do before we get to try it out for ourselves. This is a good thing both for veteran players who either need a reminder or to learn the new advanced controls, and for rookies who need to learn the basics.
Being able to defend yourself is an extremely important part of hockey, and with the new defensive skill stick, it will be easier to cut passing lanes and defend against annoying cross-crease passes. Mid-level players have been having problems defending against these kinds of moves, but this new mechanic will help us defend better against that and even dekes.
Draft Champions is the last mode we want to mention. This mode is still entertaining, but the fact that it doesn't cost anything to participate (unlike Madden or FIFA) makes it impossible to play the game as it should be played. If we're not satisfied with the team we get to draft, we can just back out and draft again. It takes away the charm of the mode, although a form for entry fee would get rid of that problem.
NHL 18 doesn't offer many improvements in terms of the presentation, except for a few new camera angles before face-offs. Mike "Doc" Emrick and Eddie Olczyk are still the commentators, and Ray Ferraro is our guy between the benches. The only change to the commentator tracks seems to be that Doc's voice cracks when he gets very excited, but that's only fun the first few times it happens.
All-in-all we're very happy with NHL 18, but there just isn't enough new stuff to defend the score we gave the game last year. NHL Threes is a great addition, but that's the only thing that made us raise our eyebrows. It's time for EA to spend some time on what's already in the game, and not just focus on adding new things.
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