In a normal year, this would be the time when we could all look forward to our favorite players lacing up their skates for another season of NHL action. But in case you couldn’t tell, 2020 has been anything but “normal.” Hell, the COVID-shortened 2019-2020 season just finished three weeks ago! Knowing that the start of the season will be on ice (see what I did there?) until at least the start of January 2021, this may be our only trip to the rink for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, EA Vancouver looks primed and ready to impress with their newest entry in the NHL franchise.
NHL 21 Review – Meeting at Center Ice
While we wait for the puck to drop on the next season of real life hockey action, NHL 21 has showed up to save us from the siren call of the outdoors. If keeping us indoors is practically a public service, then this year’s installment deserves a medal. Ever since the game landed on my PlayStation 4’s hard drive, my wife has been going to bed by herself, only to be rejoined by me sometime between 2 and 3 am. The rejiggered Be A Pro mode has its hooks into me something fierce and I’m not even mad about it. My neglected spouse, on the other hand, is about ready hide my DualShocks and cut the power cord.
If you couldn’t tell from my earlier description, Be A Pro mode is the crown jewel of NHL 21. I genuinely can’t remember a time where one single mode has made such a significant improvement over its predecessor. As you might expect, this follows the lifecycle of a career from a player being discovered, the draft, the insane spotlight of a rookie season, and then the later stages of an NHL lifespan. Throughout each campaign, there are numerous opportunities to engage with the coaching staff, teammates, and media. The net result of these dialog-centric and typically unvoiced exchanges are usually either a boost or diminishment of a player’s teammate, front office, or personal brand rating.
Speaking with AI characters tends to lead to arbitrary outcomes, at best. It can be somewhat difficult to determine how someone will react to any statement, almost feeling as random as a coinflip. I’m sure there’s likely more going on under the hood than simple binary choices, but for the player, this is how the outcomes appear. Fortunately, more dialog options can be unlocked by building out a character’s skill tree, but the core empty feeling somewhat remains. On the plus side, these can sometimes also lead to new player goals for an upcoming game. New obstacles or performance tiers help to add more weight to what would otherwise be “more of the same.”
NHL 21 Review – Finding Its Voice
Thought it isn’t necessarily a make-or-break feature by any stretch of the imagination, one of my favorite touches was the extremely amusing commentary tracks. Ray Ferraro and James Cybulski play off of each other tremendously well. Even better yet, their post-game radio broadcast, “call-in show” style of postgame breakdown adds a dose of authenticity that plays well into a player’s overarching story, as told over the span of the season.
The real meat of Be A Pro resides in the moment-to-moment progression, as you get to mold an individual from a literal nobody, into one of the biggest names in the sport. This progression is where a majority of the fulfillment resides, which is further driven home by the skill progression tree constantly incentivizing trying to achieve the next level of personal and teamwide success. You genuinely feel like there is a constant locomotion, pushing you to strive for the best performance possible. The gratification loop is intoxicating, to say the very least.
On the ice action, which applies to both Be A Pro and standards modes, is as smooth as it’s ever been. In fact, the argument could be made that the action is almost too frenetic. At the risk of sounding like an elitist hockey hipster (if there is such a thing…), the transitions of possession between offense and defense are so quick it can sometimes be difficult to keep up. It’s as if the speed dial on the game has been turned up just a smidge too high, which leads to the impression that the on-ice action is far faster than a traditional simulation should be. Heck, I would even go as far as to say that this ventures into the ever-present arcade-y territory. Personally, that didn’t bother me so much, as I found the moment-to-moment action to be very entertaining. However, there are plenty of purists that may find this off-putting.
Along with the increase in speed is the addition of several new, what I like to call, “vanity moves.” Do you need to perform these new skills in order to be competitive? Not really. In fact, I found myself doing worse, while attempting to perform specials like the flip deke, self-pass along the boards and “The Michigan” lacrosse deke. If you can manage to pull these moves off consistently, then more power to you. But personally, I find these additional flourishes to be exclusively reserved for those with far more time to invest in perfecting their individual skills. In the words of a great internet philosopher, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
NHL 21 Review – Addition by Subtraction?
In the place of online seasons and the draft champions modes from NHL 20, there’s also are new Ultimate Team spinoffs, HUT Rush and HUT Rivals. Neither mode is a full replacement for the pivotal features that they are replacing, which is ultimately a disappointing choice. That said, I did find the ability to take dive into Ultimate Team matches quickly to be a rewarding experience. I don’t think the trade off is that fair for long-standing fans of the franchise, but sometimes sacrifices need to be made in the name of EA milking the Ultimate Team cash cow.
The one remaining bright spot from prior seasons, World of Chel, is once again present and accounted for, albeit with not a lot changed from the prior outing. Still, it’s plenty fun to dig into Ones and Threes, to get an alternate take on the sport. At least players are now allowed to rank up separately across each mode, so there’s plenty of gear-based rewards to incentivize exploration. Hopefully there will be a bit more depth brought to Chel in the coming years. After several seasons of mild iteration, it may be time to either dive deeper into the minutia of the sport or re-examine ways to take an alternate spin on the Chel experience. This is not to say that it’s bad, by any stretch of the imagination. I just feel like a serious revamp should be on the horizon.
In a year that likely not see any more hockey at the NHL level, it’s nice to see that NHL 21 is allowing us to indulge our inner superstar. There may not be a ton of other huge innovations, but the enhanced take on Be A Pro alone makes this installment worth investing in. If you’re looking to only dive into the season mode, this may be more of an off-year, but for everybody else, it’s high-time to return to the ice with vengeance!
NHL 21 review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on a launch PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.