Quick Thoughts – NHL 21 is more of the same and that’s a problem

The NHL 21 Logo from the game's start-up screen

Today, almost no game launches in a ready and complete state. This is especially true with any that considers itself a ‘Games as a Service’. Because of that, you often have to wait weeks (if not months) until you’re playing something the developers are fully proud of and that the community can rally around it (for the most part). This is especially true when speaking of EA SPORTS’ NHL series. For the entire lifetime of the PlayStation 4/Xbox One generation, the developers have never been able to find its footing in the sports game landscape.

The NHL 21 Menu

It started back with NHL 15, which launched with almost no modes and had to patch in key elements months after launch. Since then, they have attempted to bring in more modes and to copy with other sports games have done in the hopes something would stick and bring the series back to the popular heights it once enjoyed. NHL 21 continues this with a few new modes and changes. Unfortunately, the legacy issues are still on full display, and the lack of proper innovation too hard to ignore.

With regards to accessibility, both in terms of how you can play the game and the modes available to you, NHL 21 doesn’t mess around. For years now, they have given you multiple control options so that just about anyone can pick up the game and begin playing. You can go the easy button press control schemes, the decade-old control stick method, or a combination of the two. They all have their pros and cons but the choice is always great to see. 

Then, you’re asked to pick the core modes you want to see on the game’s main menu and that’s where you see just how much content there is in the game. You have your returning modes like Hockey Ultimate Team, Franchise, and World of Chel, updated modes like Be a Pro, and new modes like HUT Rivals (and eventually NHL 94 Revival which comes out later in the year). There is so much choice here and this is part of the problem with NHL 21.

Yes, it’s nice that you have options to play but it also shows how not one mode gets enough focus from a development standpoint. For this year’s game, the big focuses appear to be HUT Rivals and Be A Pro.

The starting lineup of my 3v3 HUT Rivals Team

HUT Rivals takes the arcade action of NHL Threes! and puts a HUT spin on things. There are two game types here 3v3 and 5v5 and each week the mode is supposed to have variations on the types of teams you play with. Early on with 3v3, you drafted a team of players alongside the Philadelphia Flyers’ mascot, Gritty. Another week in the 5v5, your team consisted of two Tampa Bay Lightning players, then draft the other positions to fill out your squad.

On the ice, HUT Rivals rewards you with points based on your actions on the ice. String together a series of nice hits, passes, shots, and goals to get the most points. Winning games and playing on higher difficulties definitely earns you more points but you can still grind the mode for rewards that unlock in HUT.

The other big change comes in Be a Pro, NHL’s player career mode. Every other sports game has incorporated their own player career mode to varying success but NHL’s has felt the least developed for quite some time. This time around, they added a minor story mode that isn’t really a story. Unlike what FIFA did with The Journey and NBA 2K does with their Prelude Mode, NHL 21 doesn’t offer a cinematic story. Instead, you’re just playing games, completing tasks, and then interacting a bit via dialog sections with teammates, coaches, or the media.

My created character having a conversation with another player from the team

This is something that should have been in NHL years ago and the mode itself isn’t fully developed. I began my career in Europe, playing for Sparta Prague in the Champions Hockey League, but immersion wasn’t there. For some odd reason, regardless of the jersey I wore in a game, post-game footage always had me walking into the dressing room with my white jersey. There is no real speaking except for the occasion commentary appearance or my agent when he’s talking about me in a cutscene.

Also, the dialog sections were so generic or awkward. Most of the time, I didn’t really have a choice in what I said, so I never felt like my character was unique. As for tasks, my defensemen’s requirements were always just to maintain our lead in the game. I never got to the point where I was required to take X shots in a period or avoid penalties when I was getting called for tripping early in the game. 

Be a Pro could be so much more but it starts on such a dull point. Yes, you don’t have to go the route I went. You can play as a Junior in the Memorial Cup or start right away in the NHL. I’m assuming the dialog options open up more when you get into the big leagues but if you want to develop your character in the smaller leagues early on, then prepare yourself to be bored or to sim through as much as you can.

Be a Pro also shows off some of the other problems the game has, most of which have been around for years.

The coach gives some instructions late into the 3rd period of a game

I was playing as Sparta Prague, which is a team in Czechia. I was playing games in Europe but the arena announcers spoke only in English. EA has never bothered to put much of an effort into authenticity outside of the bare minimum. This isn’t exclusive to Be a Pro, it’s across the different modes. They forget to update the clothing of fans, arena signages are the same, and the between play moments are few and rarely interesting. Even the commentary repeats itself so many times that it’s comical.

On the ice, the game still suffers from the same problems. Early on, the community has found that cross-crease one-timer goals were super easy to perform and they are. I’ve scored so many like that. AI intelligence is still a problem, especially on defense. Too many times two defenders will skate trying to cover the same opposing player. In Be a Pro, the game would constantly change my defensive assignment and penalize me even when I was closer to a different opponent. 

The graphics are showing their age. When EA and DICE are ready to reveal Frostbite 4, NHL 22 and beyond must incorporate it and get away from the nearly 10-year-old Ignite Engine. They cannot afford to begin the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X generation behind the rest of the genre.

A younger Wayne Gretzky skating with the puck in a game of HUT Rivals

HUT also hasn’t really advanced if you’re a casual player of the mode. I didn’t play too much of the standard HUT mode but when playing against the CPU using community-created teams, I was already facing off against some really well-stacked teams. It’s not fun being new to the game with my low 80 rated players skating against a team that featured both Gretzky and Ovechkin. HUT has consistently had the problem of having far too many high-rated players and that still hasn’t changed. I’m not sure the best way to handle this other than maybe incorporating a similar pack/player pack set-up like what MyClub does in PES 2021.

In all honesty, the game is most enjoyable when there are fewer players on the ice. It’s why I was enjoying 3v3 HUT Rivals the most during my playtime. There are still problems but it was more likely the mistake was my own doing instead of something the computer foolishly did. 

It’s clear that NHL 21 lacks a true identity and the franchise has been looking for it for years. But based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve enjoyed, they probably should lean more on the arcade side of things. I didn’t get around to playing Franchise mode, but with Be A Pro not quite ready, maybe focusing more on the arcade modes and the one-v-one World of Chel modes is where they can really thrive.

A generic arena in NHL 21

I was really hoping that NHL 21 would be a proper send-off for this console generation and a sign that the future could be the start of something really special, but that isn’t the case. I don’t expect a lot of people who’ve missed out on hockey games will see anything of interest here and I’m worried that the small community it has will quickly turn against it. Like all of EA SPORTS lineup of sports titles, NHL needs a restart. Unlike its bigger cousins, I don’t think they can afford to start from scratch.