I’ve been playing EA Sports’ NHL franchise since NHL 94 was a new game Every year, as the quality of the game systems improves, so does the innovation in the game play. When the franchise has found itself on the same system for a while, the game developers take that opportunity to make improvements and tweaks to the AI, the interface, and the graphics. This often lends a sense of familiarity to the games from year to year, but that isn’t a bad thing.
This year’s edition has an interactive training mode with Team Canada, complete with videos, move walk-throughs, and an opportunity to practice working on your dekes and shots with Ray Ferraro. It’s an improvement from previous years’ training modes, which involved you skating around a rink, blindly practicing things. I still suck at faceoffs, but I appreciated the tutorial mode.
NHL 18’s gameplay isn’t drastically different from NHL 17’s, but it’s got enough nice touches and cleaned up play that it’s worth upgrading to. The passing in particular seems sharper and less prone to error - I don’t feel like my players are missing as many passes as they did on the previous games. Dekes are still more complicated than a Street Fighter II special move, but if you have patience (and spent some time in the tutorial) you can figure them out. A lot of them, like the between the legs deke and the puck flips, look awesome when executed.
Another perk is stronger defensive awareness and stick utilization. The switch from offense to defense feels faster, the players are more aware, and the stick swiping to take away the passing lane is useful. The game seems hell bound and determined to get players to do a stick lift. Do so at your own risk. If it’s executed correctly, it’s handy. If it’s not, it’ll get you sent to the box for high sticking. I’ve spent a lot of time in the box.
The game’s coaching and coach feedback is similar to last year’s, and it does a surprisingly solid job of improving your game if you listen to it. Overall, the game’s AI is smarter and the players are more aware of where the puck is on the ice and what the player you’re controlling is up to. This makes for a significantly more enjoyable and productive game.
HUT and EASHL are back, if those things are your bag. I’ve honestly never spent much time in those modes - my addictions have always been Be a Pro and Franchise Mode. BAP this go-round seems to move your player through his or her journey a bit faster, eliminating the slog that held back previous PS4/XBox One iterations of the game. The addition of off-ice and on-ice training schedules are a nice way to boost XP, and the game’s generous at rewarding you for a good performance (listen to your coach!). You can also request a trade and create no trade lists, which is handy if for some reason your pro gets drafted by the Winnipeg Jets, or does not want to be traded to the Winnipeg Jets.
Franchise Mode should be a treat for everyone who enjoys a good game of micromanagement. From upgrading the Scottrade Center’s club seats to repairing the bathrooms, it’s there. Want to tweak the cost of stuff in the team gear store? Boom. Need to extend QOs to RFAs? Boom. Want Magnus Paajarvi to be an offer-sheet hold out prima donna? Check. The Franchise Mode offers up an opportunity to start the season at the first pre-season game, eliminating the need for contract issues/free agent signings. If you want your team’s current roster, do it that way. If you want to go through the expansion draft and the NHL draft, there’re options for that, too. You can do a 31 team draft or, if you’d like, create a team and do a 32 team expansion draft.
The game introduces a new mode this year, and EA Sports is pretty pumped about it. The NHL Threes mode is inspired by the three on three round-robin style of the All Star Game, and it’s fun. Oh, boy, is it fun.
It’s wide-open, arcade style gameplay. You can play solo in Campaign Mode, where your threesome challenges the NHL’s other teams’, or you can select on-line Team Play, local Team Play, or head to head play. Head to head team play is an absolute blast. I honest to goodness cannot overstate how much fun this new mode is to play, and they upped the fun (and absurdity) by allowing you to play as the Eastern and Western Conference mascots. You can unlock more mascots and more arenas for every win in Campaign Mode. There’s something incredible about watching a big, goofy mascot scoring a goal on Carey Price.
Overall, NHL 18 improves on NHL 17, but in ways that aren’t glaringly obvious. To be honest, this is what you should expect from an already excellent franchise. Tweaks to the AI, new gameplay features, and slight improvements here and there make an solid gameplay experience that much better. There’s a lot to lose yourself in here - I got sucked into the Franchise Mode today and ate away a couple hours wrangling ticket pricing and concessions upgrades. It’s just as easy to go full Sims and kill an afternoon on a brand new NHL franchise, designing uniforms and mascots and arenas and everything else. There’s something here for every style of hockey gamer, and not much to nitpick.