Playing NHL 21 makes me feel old.
I say that as someone who used to religiously buy sports games starting way back in the NES days so my brother and I can play them to death. By the time the rivalry between EA Sports and Visual Concepts came about, there were times when we would actually buy their competing games during the same year. That’s how much we both enjoyed playing sports games.
Somewhere along the way, though, we just stopped.
Looking back, it’s really no surprise why my love affair with sports games ended with the whimper of an errant airball. One reason was that I started noticing that there really wasn’t much of a change between many of the brand new games and the titles they were replacing. I thought maybe it would be better to skip the next couple of games, at least until they kill the servers for the game I had. In other cases, I found myself just completely turned off by the blatant use of in-game microtransactions. Regardless of the reasons, I just stopped.
All that being said, there have been a couple of exceptions in recent years when it came to my sports game apathy. One of those would be EA’s annual escapade on ice, the NHL video game series.
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When it comes to presentation, NHL 21 makes a good first impression. The introductory movie featuring hockey superstar Alexander Ovechkin narrating his own rise from a promising hockey phenom to finally winning the Stanley Cup was a masterful stroke of editing that pumped me up for what was to come — and I’m not even a Washington Capitals fan. (Go, San Jose Sharks!)
Once the glow of the opening intro fades, however, I couldn’t help but notice that the game itself is starting to look a bit dated, especially when compared to the NBA 2K series. From the player models to the visuals on the ice, the game doesn’t really look like that big of a jump from, say, NHL 18. It’s not a big deal for the most part because you’re typically playing with the camera zoomed out. When the game gets up close, however, the aging visuals become apparent, at least on the PlayStation 4 version that I was playing on my 80-plus-inch television.
Onscreen graphics for team logos, goals and player mugs, on the other hand, have a modern, kinetic feel to them. This is especially apparent when compared to the NBC branding that was used a couple years ago, which had a more old-school feel. This part of the presentation is pretty subjective and it all boils down to whether you’re a purist or prefer today’s style of sports TV presentation. You’ve also got the announcing duo of radio guy James Cybulski and former player Ray Ferraro, who do a solid job overall with the play-by-play.
While the game could look better, it’s also important to note that looks aren’t the most important thing for games such as this. Gameplay is king after all, and that’s where NHL 21’s worth will be ultimately measured. At the same time, paying attention to the little things also shows the amount of care that is being put into a game. As far as visuals go, though, NHL 21 might appear like it’s aged but it also looks good enough.
If there’s one thing that the folks behind NHL 21 really spent a lot of time on, it definitely would be the game’s Be A Pro, or BAP, mode. This year’s iteration of BAP really fleshes out the personal story of your created player, including his journey from being a new, inexperienced player to an ice-cold assassin on the rink.
Although you can jump straight into the NHL, one of the more intriguing prospects — no pun intended — is starting your career in Europe and building your reputation and brand recognition from there. It certainly adds a nice twist to the story, especially with the role-playing elements that try to simulate what life is like as a new player.
Anchoring NHL 21’s Be A Pro experience are three metrics that impact player development and ultimately factor into your likability rating. One is the teammate metric, which impacts your relationship with your fellow players. Raise this and you can see benefits on the ice, like receiving more passes from teammates during games, for example. Management, meanwhile, measures your relationship with the team’s leadership or brain trust. Brand, meanwhile, influences your image as well as things like endorsements. Doing well with these parameters will reward you with perks that you can use to improve your player, making them essential in your journey to superstardom.
To raise your parameters for all three, you will need to take advantage of the new conversation system. It works almost like a Telltale-style chat where the choices you make end up having consequences. Note that just because one choice helps raise one metric doesn’t mean it will raise the others. In fact, a good choice for one metric might actually lower your rating in another metric. Painting the town red with your teammates or making overconfident proclamations filled with bravado might boost your teammate or brand, for example. As far as the folks who oversee the team, however, well, let’s just say that management will remember that. There will also be segments where your coach will issue you a challenge or perhaps set an in-game goal for you to fulfill. You can choose to respond to this in a safe way, which garners a smaller reward but also minimizes the risk if you fail. Otherwise, you can pick a riskier choice, which heightens the rewards of success but also leads to worse consequences should you choke. In that sense, Be A Pro adds a risk-reward element to the mix to stir the pot and keep things interesting.
While the likability mechanics of the game are a nice addition, however, they also have some obvious hiccups. There will be times, for example, when the feedback you get from your coach after you’re given a challenge ends up not matching your performance on the ice. This gets annoying when you do well but still get criticized for supposedly not performing up to standards, causing your likability to drop. Basically, you can do great but if the rest of your team sucks, you can still get punished for it. This is especially an issue when you play as a goalie and have to rely more on your AI teammates not being brain dead dunces on skates. It’s one of the downsides to what’s arguably the standout mode of NHL 21. There’s just a disconnect between your performance and your evaluation sometimes, which can get frustrating when it occurs.
Besides BAP, the other shiny feature of NHL 21 is the new HUT Rush mode.
This can almost be described as a more arcade-style hockey experience, complete with variable rules and goals. Forget about substance, this mode is all about style — literally. Anchoring HUT rush is its unique scoring system, which uses a style-based metric that awards multipliers and higher points when you score with certain shots. You can choose to set the parameters for victory as well as player counts, like 3 vs. 3 or 5 vs. 5.
If you like to play something different than the traditional hockey game, HUT Rush can provide a nice change of pace.
While the more fleshed out Be A Pro mode is great for people who love it, other aspects of NHL 21 didn’t quite get the same amount of attention.
Franchise mode, for example, got some quality-of-life additions such as improved tracking for statistics plus a new trade deadline experience that provides a more heightened sense of urgency. All in all, however, it’s pretty much the same experience from last year. There’s still no connected franchise mode, for example, and scouting can still be cumbersome at times and not as intuitive as it could be.
Roster sharing, which is one of the most requested features from the community, also continues to be a glaring omission. Yes, you can download the official roster updates or create new players and custom rosters. However, there’s still nothing like being able to tap into an entire community’s work for a wide variety of rosters that would take you forever to replicate yourself.
On the plus side, gameplay for NHL 21 has gotten even better. Movement on the ice feels especially good right off the bat and I didn’t feel like I needed to make any major adjustments to the slider settings in order to enjoy it. I didn’t struggle as much with getting my player to move how I wanted on the rink. The only thing I’d like to see is improved mobility when handling the puck away from your body.
One result of the improved movement, by the way, is a quicker pace of play. Granted that might make the game feel more arcade-like — something that might not float well for folks who prefer a more sim-like experience. Personally, though, the quicker pace felt great to me overall. The improved feel also extends to the goalie, which makes manually controlling your keeper a better experience than before. Goalie control just feels more responsive, which is good news for folks who like to play as net defenders.
NHL 21 also adds some new tricks, including the Michigan move for sneaky behind-the-net scoring. You can also do a self-pass by banking or bouncing the puck from the net back to yourself. Then there’s the Kuch deke, which you had to manually finagle with in past games but is now officially incorporated in NHL 21’s moveset.
One issue in terms of gameplay is that the AI can still be inconsistent at times. This can be especially noticeable during BAP mode, when you’re more at the mercy of AI teammates. It just can be maddening when AI mistakes either cost you a scoring opportunity or results in a goal against your team. The game also has occasional bugs like missing feet, corrupted roster files or getting stuck in the dressing room.
Despite not being as big a fan of sports games like I used to be, EA’s NHL series is the one I still have a soft spot for among the ongoing crop of sports titles. I just like its balance of fun gameplay and how it doesn’t shamelessly abuse microtransactions like other more popular sports games out there. For NHL 21, the series brings in a more fleshed out Be A Pro mode as well as more intuitive movement on the ice. The minimal improvements to franchise mode, however, combined with the lack of key fan-requested features such as shared rosters make NHL 21 feel incomplete. It’s still one of the better, more consumer-friendly sports games out there. At the same time, I also feel that it could still be much better.
Jason Hidalgo covers business and technology for the Reno Gazette Journal, and also reviews the latest video games. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhidalgo. Like this content? Support local journalism with an RGJ digital subscription.