It’s September and that means two BIG things if one is a hockey fan. Firstly, preseason hockey makes its triumphant return and our men of winter take the ice once again. Secondly, it means hours of sitting (or jumping around like me) behind the television playing the newest rendition of EA Sports’ NHL franchise. In recent years, I have found myself severely disappointed year after year after the franchise jumped ahead to the then “next-gen” consoles. Gameplay was always choppy, players looked like huge, box-shaped beefcakes rather than real hockey players, and AI always had me wanting to throw my controller out of the fifth story of my apartment complex.
This year, however, feels much different. With the addition of Real Player Motion Technology, and a more streamlined skater design, along with the introduction of the World of CHEL, I can finally say that NHL video games are fun again.
As mentioned in the paragraph before, Real Player Motion Technology makes its first appearance in the franchise. RPMT completely changes the look and feel of skating, while still remaining familiar to the player. Gone are the days of being stopped with the puck then magically being at a full sprint, and here to stay are the explosive quick steps a player like Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid display as they break from dead-stop and gain speed into a full sprint. The new skating system does a fantastic job of catching the real-life splendor of deking out an opponent or initiating a breakout. Similarly, five player celebrations are finally in NHL 19, adding more realism to the game.
A new collision system finds itself into the game this year, and boy-oh-boy does it feel fantastic. One of the major issues I’ve had with the “next-gen” releases is that players looked and felt like rocks slamming into each other, and although some hits were bone-crushingly gratifying, it didn’t feel real. This year, EA has made some major strides into making a bone-crushing hit fun. Now players controlling a smaller player can compete with a larger puck carrier by skating side-by-side with the carrier and forcing them into the boards. The animation the players will see will involve shoulder contact and many times the player getting caught up on the board and losing all momentum. However, if the player is controlling a big hitter like say Dustin Byfuglien, a solid side check to the torso will send a smaller player right off the puck, their body reacting to the location of the check.
Player design seems to be much more improved as well. Like I said, it always felt like players were rocks. Now players seemingly match their real-life body counterparts and faces also look a lot better.
Bye-Bye Poke Checks
One of the major issues the previous iterations of NHL have had was that a player could spam the poke check button over and over and over again with little consequence of drawing a tripping penalty. Well, you can kiss that goodbye this year. Players this year will find that a majority of poke checks from behind will, in fact, draw that dreaded two-minute minor. Which is good from an online standpoint, yet I feel the frequency of tripping calls is too high. This year, players will have to learn the skating and checking system and adapt to new ways to check the puck carrier off of the puck and utilize other defensive skills such as the stick lift in order to cause turnovers.
World of CHEL
Holy cow was this a gem for the NHL franchise. Essentially, the World of CHEL is what one could consider EA’s response to the Neighborhood in NBA 2K. In the game mode, players will create their own custom skater, unlocking extra equipment and goal horn specialties through hockey bags, the progression reward system. Honestly, EA handles this system really well, too. By basically eliminating the “pay-to-win” aspect of World of CHEL unlocking certain skater traits becomes even more fun, knowing that every other player online has to grind for their skills as well. I found myself playing ONES religiously. In essence, ONES is a 1v1v1 no rules game of 21. Except the game is played with a time limit rather than a goal limit. One thing I found, being a two-way forward worked wondrously for stick handling and dekes, but being a defender was more advantageous to destroy a player, making the game a 1v1 rather than 1v1v1. Big disclaimer here, if you’re a fan of classic hockey, this isn’t your game mode, but overall it is fantastic. Of course, EASHL makes its return as does NHL Threes.
Pro-Am though is a perfect blend of arcade and normal simulation gameplay. As another three-on-three experience, the offline mode allows players to play with the very best of the best and complete challenges as a way to hone your skills.
The next few topics will get shorter, as although changes have been made, the overall experience is more or less the same. Franchise Mode—oh, boy. To say the least, the mode has needed something to refresh its feel. EA took steps this year in adding a brand new scouting system that is surprisingly in depth in its design. Adding the new Fog of War system is awesome because it requires the player to send one of their 20 scouts to figure out attributes of a player otherwise hidden during the season. Similarly, how a player scouts affects how trades, free agency and even the draft play out in the mode. The game mode still lacks a lot of the in-depth manager abilities and cutscenes as is seen in games like FIFA and NBA2K, but it is a great leap forward.
Be A Pro
Much like Franchise Mode, the core of this mode is unchanged. This may be a huge downer for fans who have been wanting a story mode like what both Madden, FIFA and to a lesser extent, NBA Live have. Not this year, fans. Not this year. Yet, Be A Pro does add a skill tree into the mode, which makes the experience at least a little more refined. This is probably the single game mode that needs to an overhaul, and with the changes in this year’s title, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a story mode for NHL 20.
I mean, it’s a game mode that many people play, so I do need to mention it. Legendary players from the NHL’s golden history make an appearance in HUT this year. Other than that, it’s still the well-known HUT people know (and love?).
I get that no game can be made completely without bugs in the system, but one issue that always has been in the franchise is sticks going through the boards or other players. This clipping issue is a major turn off for many gamers as you lose a lot of the realism if a stick doesn’t react to hitting another player or the boards. Other than that, the presentation of the game is probably my biggest concern. Petty, maybe, but presentation can make or break a video game in my mind. Eddie, Mike and the NBCSN crew make their return and much of the dialogue of the previous few years return. Maybe, just maybe, it is time for EA to follow MLB The Show’s philosophy and make multiple fake broadcast packages and use NBCSN for rivalry nights and the playoffs. It’s time for a presentation refresh.
EA Sports came out swinging for the fences this year when it came to NHL 19, and for the most part, it really has paid off. The game feels refreshing and many of the gameplay issues that would make a player want to rip their hair out have been addressed and made, at the very least, more bearable. The new skating and hitting systems along with NHL ONES makes NHL 19 a worthy investment in and of itself, but for those who wait a year or two before upgrading, I recommend you give this one a shot. For the first time in almost five years, it seems EA has built an NHL title that stacks up to the intensity and pleasure/pain of its real-life brother.
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