Review by Brad Long
NHL is a sport that is not very well known to the vast majority of people in my native Australia. Most fans that I have spoken to were attracted to the hard-hitting sport due the fast-paced arcade games of the ’90s such as the Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey and NHL Breakaway series. EA, of course, has published licensed NHL games ever since 1991, so it would be safe to assume that EA has handled the sport of ice hockey very well.
Not only have they achieved this; NHL 19 is the best ice hockey game I’ve ever played.
Like the majority of sporting games, EA Vancouver make tweaks here and there, throw some modes together to freshen up the experience and update the rosters. This is usually a rinse and repeat process for sporting series on a yearly basis. NHL 19 seems to step out of the shadow of its predecessors and stand out among the pack, as it contains an utterly insane amount of play modes, and each and every one of those modes has been done very, very well.
The meat and bones of every mode obviously involves playing a game of ice hockey against an opposing team. One of the aspects I always had trouble with in previous titles was performing dekes. For the casual fan, a deke is like a fake out move a player does with the stick and puck in an attempt to trick an opposing player into thinking they will do something, but then actually do something else. The opening sequence of NHL 19 takes you to a tutorial mode hosted by Hockey Canada. Many passes, shots, dekes, and defensive decisions are explained by the experts from Hockey Canada, followed by a video including a visual representation of the controls in action alongside the on-screen player. Finally, the game gives you a turn at it. I found this so intuitive, and after a long session messing around with dekes, I could finally perform them properly, making my experience playing the game more enjoyable.
…it feels like a personal journey, starting as a young aspiring player, doing their best to make it into the big leagues.
As mentioned previously, each of the modes presented in NHL 19 are done with the fans’ enjoyment at the forefront. The mode I spent the most time with was the Be a Pro Career mode. This mode involves creating a player from scratch, all the way from what they look like to what equipment they utilise, which is all licensed gear that NHL players use on the ice. After this, you choose a league to be a part of which determines how long it will take to be picked up by one of the 31 NHL teams. The thing that attracts me to this mode the most is that it feels like a personal journey, starting as a young aspiring player, doing their best to make it into the big leagues. I spent nearly an hour alone creating my player to my desired specifications, so I grew an attachment to him as he progressed as a player.
Franchise mode is certainly one for the hardcore fans. It takes last year’s story of the Vegas Golden Knights, and charges you with creating a brand new, 32nd team. I spent nearly two hours creating my Saskatoon Roosters, carefully choosing the logo, team colours, uniform styles, Jersey fonts and more. This was before I even took part in the Expansion Draft, where I had to pick my entire team from scratch. Much like the Golden Knights’ Expansion Draft, I had to carefully pick one player from 30 other teams, before finally taking part in the Entry Draft, where I had the opportunity to pick the best of the best of 18-20 year old players, while also making trades with other teams, offering them players for better draft picks and receiving trade offers to consider from other teams. After all was said and done, it was about 4 hours total before I actually played my first game. Running the franchise is a constant job between games as well, upgrading car parks, concession stands and setting ticket prices are just some of the things I had to do for my team in between games. It’s very detailed and there is just so much attention to detail.
World of CHEL is a new mode created for NHL 19. Like Be a Pro, you create a player from scratch, except it’s more of a casual affair. Rather than choosing professional gear, you start off with basic gear and a pair of pants, jacket and a beanie. As you progress in World of CHEL, more gear is unlocked for the player, as well as a skill tree and level up progression system that improves the created character over time. Various game modes in World of CHEL include Pro Am, where the player combines with three NHL stars and plays other teams in order to play bigger and more prestigious tournaments. NHL Ones is an online only mode involving a 1v1v1 system to see who can score the most goals in a game. This is the one EA is promoting a lot for NHL 19, and while it’s not my favourite mode, there is a lot of entertainment to find here.
NHL Threes makes a comeback from NHL 18. This involves a 3v3 match that allows a freer flowing, fast-paced style of ice hockey. Like a throwback to the arcade titles of the 90’s, it’s a fun mode to pick up and play with a few friends when you don’t want to take things too seriously. NHL Threes can also be found in the World of CHEL mode as well, further adding options to grow a player in that mode.
The big cash cow for EA makes its return in NHL 19. Hockey Ultimate Team is a card-based mode where you can either pay real-life money to purchase packs of cards to add to your team or play and earn packs yourself. The big hook this year is the addition of Legends that are able to be added to a team. There are some incredible alumni that have been added to this mode, including Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. These players can be combined with current day players, so playing a team with both Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux, or Wayne Gretzky and Ryan McDonagh are combinations that are possible in this mode. The card system makes this difficult to achieve, though, as different players are on different tiers of cards. Bronze cards are easier to achieve than Gold or Legend cards, obviously, so it would take some time to build a team of gold rated players. Overall though, it’s a good mode that spices things up by throwing players all over the place to create some cool, new combinations.
All of this is wrapped up in a presentation that feels like a labour of love. Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Ray Ferraro from the NBC return for commentary, and aside from some issues where a player scores mid-sentence and forcing the game to load a new line, the commentary flows naturally and sounds like what you would expect from watching the game on the NBC. Pre-game presentations are done with pre-recorded footage and the onscreen hub is stripped straight from the graphics used on the NBC. It all feels so authentic and has been achieved without taking away from actually playing the game. It’s a job well done.
The phrase “labour of love” isn’t something I use to describe the games that EA release very often. I feel as though a lot of sporting series don’t allow the developers enough time to add so much in the way of new and refreshing ideas to keep the games interesting. NHL feels like a standout sports title in the world of Madden, FIFA, WWE 2K and other yearly titles, just because new modes such as World of CHEL feel like a fully fleshed out game in itself, rather than something added on to a series that contains so many modes already. The attention to detail in modes like Be A Pro and Franchise modes, as well as how authentic the presentation of each match feels when compared to the television broadcasts just goes to show that EA Vancouver simply love their ice hockey, and they may just as well have created my favourite sports title of all time.
|Developer: EA Vancouver|
|Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC|
|Release Date: 14 September 2018|
|The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.|