For a long time and across multiple disciplines, EA Sports has made some of the very best sports games, and among them is the NHL series, which was the best of the best a few years back. With the transition to the current generation of consoles, however, the studio's ice hockey games endured a major setback and have received a lot of criticism. With NHL 19 they hope to take back the throne and it wouldn't surprise us if they did just that.
Ever since the parody of a game that NHL 15 was, EA has struggled to satisfy their fans in the hockey genre. NHL 16 was a positive release solely because of how bad its predecessor was, but the development since then hasn't been as good as it might have been, culminating in the 8/10 we awarded last year's NHL 18. Now, with NHL 19, we're starting to see promising signs that we might be returning to the golden days.
We'll start with the most important aspect. The skating mechanics have gotten a total overhaul this year after getting feedback from players (mostly the EA Gamechangers). The game has felt slow for several years which really hasn't mirrored the fact that ice hockey is the fastest team sport in the world. EA has really sharpened their skates the correct way this year and everything seems to flow so much better. Instead of having to spend two seconds making a sharp turn, we are now able to make razor-sharp turns just like in real life. This makes the game faster and much better than it has been for many years.
Most sports games have online play as their most popular modes, but there are also fans like us who really appreciate good single-player activities. The franchise mode has also gotten an overhaul this year, which we assume will inspire more people to try it out. A new scouting system gives us much more control of which talents to scout for in the upcoming entry draft, but it doesn't end there. We also have to scout players within the league to get an idea of how good they are if we want to make a trade, for example. Without scouting the San Jose Sharks at all the whole season, we won't know how good of a player Erik Karlsson is and what his value is if we want to trade for him. This gives the mode a whole new dimension which several sports games have been longing for for years. The fact that NHL is the first franchise to bring this into their game is very satisfying for us as hockey fans.
Speaking of game modes, EA has introduced World of Chel this season. And for anyone wondering, "Chel" is the lingo used for NHL around the society lately, like it or not... Several modes have been added to this group of ways to play. The good old EASHL, NHL Threes, and drop-in games are now all a part of World of Chel, and new modes like Ones and Pro-Am have also been added. We'll get back to those two modes soon, but first, we have to take a look at something that goes across the whole World of Chel, the appearance. We are able to choose one set of clothing for casual play, and another for pro play. The pro play clothing is used for EASHL club games only, and casual clothing for the rest of the modes. It's the casual part that is the new and most interesting thing, as we are able to choose from jackets, parkas, jerseys and hoodies along with jeans and hats. Sound emotes are also customisable for when you score a goal, make a big hit or a big save, which really personalises the experience. There are a ton of various clothes and sounds to choose from, and there is likely to be more added later.
Even though there are a lot of changes we can make in terms of our clothing and equipment, there still is the same old 211 male and 18 female preset heads to choose from appearance wise. Several of these also look pretty much the same so the total number of choices is actually much lower. EA has clearly not spent any time renewing this part of the game, but to be fair - it's not the most important part either.
Back to game modes and Ones will likely be popular, for a little while at least. Three players face off against each other with the goal of scoring against a neutral goalie. There is a lot of variety in this mode as we may be just as good as a small dangler as we are with a big bad enforcer. The games are played on ponds all over the countryside, and this makes the whole experience pretty charming. We still have a feeling that this will end up pretty much like NHL Threes when it was introduced in NHL 18, which was popular for a few weeks before people stopped playing it.
Pro-Am is the single player version of three-on-three hockey. Likes Ones, the games are played outside where we team up with two NHL players (and a goalie) to face another team consisting of NHL players. It's set up kind of like a career path, where you play the easy games first before moving up to the tougher opponents. The games are usually played with a lot of speed and intensity, as there are no rules like offside and icing to hold the play back. Pro-Am was also our first meeting with the new and improved AI in NHL 19. EA has really listened to The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, when he says "I'm playing where the puck is going to be", as they pass the puck while reading game situations and our movements on the ice. This is one of the things we've missed in previous versions of the game.
Another popular mode is Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) and there have also been improvements in this mode. The biggest complaint players had last year was that there were too many players with high ratings available early on in the game, which made it feel like the progression stalled earlier than usual, and there were fewer played HUT games than before seemingly as a result. EA has made several moves to prevent this from happening this year, starting with the fact that a player can only increase one rating point every month. This makes it easier to make the most of the cards we receive early on in the game, where they were useless after a few weeks in NHL 18. These changes have been well received by the community so far, and we are finally looking forward to playing HUT again.
Alumni are a big part of this year's HUT, with a lot of former players from every NHL team available, and more to come. A forward line consisting of Brett Hull, Wayne Gretzky and Vladimir Tarasenko is going to be awesome! Thankfully these players aren't as easy to come by, so we won't see a ton of them out there, at least not to begin with. Some appear in packs, but for the higher-rated ones we have to complete sets to upgrade them and this is much less of a "pay to win" mechanic than in previous years. With a whole new set of solo challenges, we are able to build a very competitive team without having to use our dad's credit card for microtransactions.
The NHL series has always been superior both visually and audio-wise, and this year's edition is no exception. Even if other aspects of the game might have struggled, the audio-visual side of the game has always been top notch. We would like to see either replacement or updates to Mike "Doc" Emrick and Eddie Olczyk as announcers since it can be a little bit annoying hearing the same dry jokes for the fourth year in a row, but thankfully this isn't a big issue as we usually just turn them off after a week once we've realised there is nothing new from last year. The soundtrack for this version is pretty good with artists like Bishop Briggs, Imagine Dragons and Panic! At The Disco, giving a true hockey feeling to the game.
Finally, we have to address the poke checking. This was a thing that was heavily discussed on various forums after the beta earlier this summer, and also during the early access period. It is still hard to poke check, and very easy to get a tripping penalty, but we promise you that it will be worth it when you finally learn to time it correctly. This little adjustment alone gives new life to the game. And if everything else fails - you could always deactivate the R1 / RB button on your gamepad...
To summarise, NHL 19 is back where the series is supposed to be. There are still adjustments that can be made to make it even better, and that's why we're not ready to give it the top grade just yet, but the franchise is heading in the right direction once again and we can't wait to see where it goes from here. This is going to be a very fun NHL year again, finally!
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