Attention hockey fans: we are less than three weeks from the puck dropping on a new NHL season. Luckily for all of us, this also means it’s time to take a look at EA Sports’ most recent iteration in their perennial hockey simulation. This year’s outing takes all of the progressive improvements of the prior few seasons and finally ties it up with a nice bow on top. Could this be the entry that catapults the franchise past critical darling, FIFA, or is this just another progressive step in their climb to greatness?
A cornerstone that drives this installment of NHL is the introduction of EA’s Real Player Motion (RPM) technology. Initially introduced in Madden two years ago and making the jump to NBA Live 19 a few weeks back, it could be argued that the enhanced player physics actually make a larger contribution to the sport of hockey than either football or basketball. After all, when simulating skating shouldn’t it be critical to accurately reflect the momentum of the player at all times?
The most obvious implementation of RPM is the frequently occurring on-ice collisions. Player models have never been more accurate in terms of how they both initiate and react to contact on a moment-to-moment basis. Now that the engine allows for numerous more articulated points of impact on each model, the resulting animations are startlingly authentic. The momentum of each body as well as the mass of each player, each body’s positioning, and the angle of pursuit all play a role in determining how each collision plays out.
Physics engine enhancements also have a dramatic impact on how the animation engine renders player contact. Pre-canned animations that allowed little room for variation are now a relic of the past. Over the span of a single game you would likely never see the same two collisions play out. There are now far too many variables at play to replicate a scenario identically. Even when there’s just body jostling along the boards, it’s hard not to marvel at how realistically each player’s model responds.
I would be remiss if I left out how damn good it feels to lay out an unsuspecting adversary with an unsuspected body shot. There’s just something visceral about the way the action plays out that’s so satisfying that it borders on addicting. Ultimately, this burst of endorphins thanks to introduction of RPM and how it has reshaped the controls.
There has been specific attention paid to a player’s maneuverability, depending upon how quickly they are moving along the ice. Obviously, those who are moving more swiftly and have more mass will find it more difficult to make precise cuts. The slower a player is moving, the more malleable their controls will be as a result. However, a unique trait of the sport of hockey is how quickly momentum can be reversed. RPM also accounts for this by allowing for quick shifts in direction and explosive acceleration out of a cut. The action on the ice has never felt better, and once you have perfected last season’s deke play and precision shot redirection, you will feel like Gretzky in no time.
While the action on the ice has never felt crisper, another key design decision was taking the sport beyond the confines of a mere hockey arena. This is where the new “World of CHEL” hub comes into play. The key goal of CHEL is to create a unified structure to link up the previously standalone “Threes” and “EASHL” with newly introduced “Pro-Am” and “Ones” modes. As disparate as each mode may sound, they all share the key feature of not taking place on a traditional NHL rink. This is a more casual form of hockey, reminiscent to weekends spent on the pond, passing a puck around.
A single created character will be used across all of the modes, which also has its own progression and customization systems. Literally hundreds of pieces of gear can be earned throughout play, taking the form of parkas, winter caps, hoodies, emotes, or even taunts. And for those of you searching for the opportunity to cry foul about loot boxes, rest assured that these items are purely aesthetic and have no bearing on a player’s stats. Additionally, pieces of gear can be customized into both home and away sets. If you are a gear tinkerer like me, be prepared to lose days of your life to dressing up your player like a super-athletic Barbie doll. Just don’t get too attached to a specific look, because the next gear drop could turn your perfected wardrobe on its head.
As a player progresses through World of CHEL, they will get the chance to level up and unlock specialization skills. Once numerous skills have been unlocked, there will also be the chance to design a series of different ability loadouts. Each configuration can be used to cater to the specific objective that needs to be accomplished in a match.
One of the key new modes skating to center ice is the Pro-Am. Consisting of exclusively single player content, Pro-Am is a series of different challenge scenarios, where the player’s team of amateurs face off against a team of experienced professionals. Each stage focuses around a specific professional, which has a consistently escalating level of difficulty. Personally, I found this to be a great way to slowly build up confidence in my skills before I went online and was beaten like a filthy rug.
The Power of “Ones”
The second additional pillar to CHEL was the new Ones multiplayer mode. Fresh on the heels of last year’s Threes mode that really has six players on the ice at any given time, it’s ironic that Ones is a mode that ACTUALLY has three players. Each participant is considered a team of one, resulting in what amounts to an offensive one-vs-one-vs-one scenario. Every player is trying to score goals and drive up their own score. The result is nothing short of chaos, and that isn’t a bad thing.
When Ones is at its best there is a constant back and forth, where the chaotic nature of the design helps level the playing field significantly. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are as a player, because if the other participants decide to focus on making your life miserable, you will be facing an uphill slog. This is only amplified in the best way possible when playing with friends. I cannot wait to recruit my siblings to throw down in this fantastically entertaining new take on the sport. Trust me. Things are going to get very ugly.
What stands out most was the fact that this year’s improvements were primarily parts of the fundamental on-ice mechanics. Sure, there were new modes and enhancements to Ultimate Team like addition of legend characters, but those mean nothing if the game doesn’t play well. Fortunately, the introduction of Real Player Motion fundamentally improves most major gameplay mechanics. I would even go as far as saying that this could be the most front-facing implementation of the technology to date.
Virtually everything about NHL 19 is a genuine step forward in quality. While some modes received the lion’s share of the attention, it feels like damn near everything received SOME love. If you have been on the fence, now is the time to lace up and hit the ice. We’ll see you between the pipes.
NHL 19 review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.