One common point of criticism for many sports games is that people think there is little improved upon or implemented with each yearly release, and that the series can sometimes even diminish over time. This was exemplified with EA’s NHL series a couple years ago, as when it went to the (then) next-gen consoles with NHL 15, some classic features were stripped away or simplified, angering many. Luckily, over the last few years, EA Canada has slowly been rebuilding the franchise, and got it back to a feature-full state with last year’s entry, so the series finally has the space to expand and evolve with this year’s installment, NHL 18.
I recently got the chance to go hands on with the game at an EA Sports event, and while it did feel quite similar to NHL 17 at first, the brand new “Threes” mode brings new content to NHL 18 that I am sure I will sink a ton of time into when it releases on both PS4 and Xbox One next month.
The first time one boots up NHL 18, they are brought to a special menu. This menu flaunts the game’s revamped Training Mode. NHL 18’s Training Mode is super in-depth, as it both teaches players how to do simple things like passing or shooting, and more advanced new mechanics such as offensive dekes and a better defensive skill stick. When playing, I used the Hybrid control scheme, as I liked to have the option to use both buttons and the sticks when I needed to.
In addition to the simple gameplay sections, Training Mode also features videos made through a partnership with Hockey Canada, allowing players to see actual hockey players pull off all of the moves. This tutorial was super informative, and while I was already familiar with most of the game’s mechanics, I could see it being of great use to new players.
Afterwards, I went and played a Stanley Cup match between the Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins. During this match, I did see that the AI was slightly smarter, and there were a few more things I could do with my hockey stick, but it did feel pretty samey for the most part. There have not been any radical changes to the base gameplay, but the series didn’t really need that as the current controls are very tight and responsive.
Once I finished the match, I moved on to the main menu which displayed all the game’s different modes; I could even put my favorites in a “Quick Menu” for easy access. After playing a couple more matches and spending a bit of time with series’ staple modes, all of which still work well, I delved into this game’s new mode: Threes. I was really curious to see how basing entire games around having only threes players, less penalties, and a more arcadey feel overall would fair for NHL 18; fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed by what I played.
When you first hop into Threes mode, you fittingly have three different options to choose from: Threes Now, Threes Circuit, and Threes Online. I first hopped into Threes Now just so I could get the feeling of the mode. I made my team up of different team mascots, and went onto the ice. Having less players on the ice makes this mode much more fast-paced, visceral, and exciting. I usually play rough in regular NHL games, and that behavior is encouraged even more here.
Plus, watching mascots slam into other players never got old. While they can’t get into individual one-on-one fights with other players, they do have special little goal celebrations that were actually made by using motion-capture on the actual mascots, according to the developers. It felt great to knock an opponent onto the ice, take the puck from them, and immediately go for the goal with little repercussions, especially as a mascot.
Special events can also occur where scoring a goal can either give you double points or take points away from opponents. Most Threes games are a first to “X” goals ordeal, so these modifiers can really reflect the flow of a match. An online match I had with other people at the event lasted around forty minutes as we were playing to 10; we were all equally skilled, and constantly got score modifiers to change the course of the match. Even a match that long didn’t get old for me, so I can definitely see this mode being a huge time-sink for some once NHL 18 launches.
I won that match and moved onto Threes League. This mode splits North America into five different leagues, and has players try to play tons of Threes games in order to conquer an area and move on to the next. A coin toss determines who makes the rules at the start of the match, which includes whether or not the game has a set number of periods or not. In the few matches I played, I faced the Edmonton Oilers with my basic starting team: The Fridge Raiders (no, I did not choose the name).
After winning my first match, I was rated on my performance and unlocked the Edmonton Oilers logo and uniform to use on my own team. If I had received a better rating, I would’ve been able to put their mascot on my team. Splicing some RPG loot elements into Threes was a very interesting choice, and I am curious to see how it functions in the later parts of this mode.
While the NHL series is an EA Sports franchise that many are still skeptical about, from what I’ve played NHL 18 seems to feel complete by having all the standard features you’d expect in a hockey game, plus Threes mode, which left an excellent first impression. I can’t wait to jump back into these modes in September and see just how much longevity they have, and determine whether or not NHL 18 stacks up against NHL 94 as an accessible and fun hockey game, as that was a title the developers were constantly comparing this game to when presenting it.
NHL 18 will release for PS4 and Xbox One on September 15th, 2017.