NHL 18 Review (Xbox One)
For a good long time, NHL was my favourite of the EA SPORTS titles to come out each year. EA SPORTS are currently in a bit of a transition though, moving their games from their own custom Ignite engine, over to the Frostbite engine developed by DICE, a subsidiary of EA. While FIFA and Madden have made the jump, NHL 18 (along with NBA Live 18) are left to languish on the Ignite engine. And the stagnation is evident.
In terms of the existing features of NHL 18, these largely remain the same.
Some attempts have been made with Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) to go more towards the Madden equivalent. Challenges have been added for you to compete against, either solo or cooperatively (both off and online), but these challenges aren’t really as well tuned as the ones in Madden. An example would be one of the early ones that has you playing a game in easy mode over a 2min period game. Each challenge sets you three goals. The “Score X goals” and “Win the Game” challenges are all fair and well, but then there are the ones that are Score a Power Play goal. Well first of all you’d need the AI to take a penalty, and in a 2min period game that’s not going to happen very often. And without completing that third challenge (rewarded as a star) then you are going to miss out on the maximum rewards for that game.
Be A Pro
My favourite mode in NHL is largely unchanged in NHL 18. The only new feature worth mentioning is the fact you can now choose to hand in a trade request to your team. The Be A Pro mode in NHL 18 is still, in my opinion, the best amongst the sport franchise games, mostly down to its authenticity in allowing you to play the college circuit and go through the Entry Draft to find your professional team. Yet you can find yourself being sent down to the affiliate clubs in the AHL for some experience before earning your chance at a call up to the NHL. From there you still need to prove yourself to move up and keep your spot on the lines, earning yourself more ice time and greater opportunities. It’s certainly no Longshot (Madden) or Journey (FIFA) mode, but Be a Pro is as solid as always.
Big things are happening in the Hockey world this year. For the first time since 2000, bids were made for the addition of a new team into the NHL. Welcome the Las Vegas Golden Knights. To create this team there was an expansion draft, where the Golden Knights were able to pick one player from each of the 30 existing NHL clubs. There were various rules about players that could be tied down to contracts etc. which limited who they could pick from each team, but the result is that there are now 31 teams in the NHL.
NHL 18 embraces this when you head into Franchise mode. You get the choice between playing with the drafted Vegas Golden Knights team, or running the draft again and seeing if you can create a better team. Additionally, you can choose to run the draft to add a 32nd team to the league. One which you can make up and fully customise yourself. Everything from the name, home city and arena, to the uniforms and mascot.
This addition to the Franchise mode shows how EA stay on top of developments in the sports that their games cover. Building your own team from scratch is a great way to get the player fully immersed in the Franchise mode, especially for those of us from Europe that are perhaps not sold on any specific NHL team.
New ways to Play
EA Sports seem to have focused a lot on multiplayer and ways to play it this year. They claim to have over 64 ways to play with friends in NHL 18, some of which I’ve mentioned above. EA SPORTS Hockey League (EASHL) is the online equivalent to Be a Pro, where players can form clubs playing as their individual skaters and take the challenge to other teams, or drop in to random match ups on their own. To help facilitate the drop in games this year, a 3-on-3 mode has been added to the drop in games. The result is open, fast paced hockey with a lot of action. When you can get it.
The 3-on-3 is designed so players can get into matches quicker, but the lobbies in EASHL are still some of the worst I’ve ever seen in a video game. Wether it’s for 6-on-6 or 3-on-3, players jump in and out of these lobbies faster than the USS Discovery jumps systems in the new Star Trek series on Netflix. I appreciate that we are based in a time zone where the game isn’t as popular, but I’ve been trying it out at times that should be fairly active in the States. After playing a grand total of 3 games in a whole nights worth of trying, I’ve had enough. It may be alright if you have an active team playing together, but the drop-ins are a shambles.
The Return of NHL Arcade
The 3-on-3 concept extends itself into a new mode also. Back in 2009, EA Sports released NHL Arcade to the Xbox 360 and PS3. It was silly, power-up filled, arcade hockey that was a blast to play with friends. In NHL 18 they have tried to recapture some of this by bringing in NHL Threes. It has the same roots as being a 3-on-3, arcade style. Everything about the presentation is over-the-top, from the commentary to the goal celebrations. You can set unique rules for each game also. How many periods do you want to play for? Or is it first to 7? Win by 2?
The thing is, it doesn’t quite fully recapture the spirit of NHL Arcade. It’s a valiant attempt, but the underlying problem with NHL 18 is evident here too.
On the Ice
On the ice, NHL 18 just doesn’t feel as smooth any more. EA Sports have done a lot to provide you with the tools you need in the control schemes. And the knowledge on how to use them. There are a host of training videos and scenarios provided by the Canadian National Team in NHL 18. But really, it’s just left me thinking more about how awkward the game has become to play. Passes seem to go astray, saucers don’t really have any lift, one timers seem to stick and aren’t nearly as effective. Unless it’s the computer using them when you try to play as a goalie in Be a Pro. Then they are lethal, and the AIs main, if not only tactic.
The AI does take more shots though this year. That was a big problem with previous NHL games where you tried to play goalie, the AI wouldn’t shoot unless it was a high percentage opportunity, so they would end up scoring maybe 4 goals on 16 shots. In NHL 18 you are getting a good 30 shots on you (obviously depending on the game settings/period length you choose), allowing you to get a decent save percentage even if you do let in a couple. However, I still noticed a pattern playing as goalie that stuck out. Playing the college games (higher score-lines anyway) I would maybe let in one or two during the first period, but then up to five or six in the second, before letting at most one in during the third period. Now if this happened every now and again I would say that it was down to luck/skill. But this seemed to happen in almost every game I play.
Off the Ice
And as much as I have complaints about the on ice action in NHL 18, getting there is part of the problem too. I’ve already mentioned the terrible online lobbies for EASHL, but the menu system all round in NHL 18 is bad. Menus with so many sub layers and too many options. Menus that are slow to load and react. And then loading into the game itself takes an age, especially when you compare it now to Madden. NHL used to be one of the quickest, probably down to the fact the arenas are smaller and more compact. But now it feels like the slowest.
One of the saving graces of NHL 18 is the fantastic soundtrack it has this year. The songs chosen are all great. However, for some reason EA haven’t given you access to choosing which ones to listen to or toggle out of the playlist, a feature that is available in just about every EA Sports game ever! There are around twenty tracks on the playlist, which sounds reasonable. But when you find yourself stuck in the menus so often, it won’t be long until you are hearing songs on repeat. In addition to the soundtrack, there are a whole host of music clips that you can use for your team in franchise mode for goals, entrances etc.
The march of Europe
One final saving grace for NHL 18 is a greater inclusion of Europe. As mentioned earlier in Franchise mode, if you choose to create that 32nd NHL team then you can base them just about anywhere, including a host of European cities. Also comes the addition of Champions Hockey League, Europes top competition (similar to the Champions League for Football). This means that we finally have a couple of UK teams; Nottingham Panthers and Cardiff Devils, making an appearance in the game. Hopefully by NHL 19 we might see the arrival of the EIHL.
I think my final feelings on NHL 18 are ones of frustration. The team have obviously gone to quite an effort pushing in new features in an attempt to spruce up the game. However, it feels like they have just come up a bit short here. Especially compared to their colleagues that are working on the Madden and FIFA franchises.
6 failed attempts to join a drop in game out of 10