The NHL series is one of the greatest classic sports series of all time. EA has managed to evolve the series from its roots with the inclusion of the Skill Stick back in 2006. Fast forward and the series incorporated an adaptive A.I. to make adjustments to your play style during the game. That is a feat that no other sports franchise has accomplished. The player and puck physics got overhauled when coming to the current generation of games and the game has acquired quite a following with this new gameplay. The goal with NHL 18 is to keep fans interested with some new modes, but was it enough to make the actual game feel like it took a leap forward?
The NHL series has always had a ton of modes. The expected modes return including the EASHL, Franchise, Season, Draft Champions and Ultimate Team. The EASHL now allows for 3-on-3 action rather than trying to get a 5-on-5 game going. EA also states that there are 64 different combinations to play with your friends as this includes online and offline. There is now a training mode known as Hockey Canada Training Camp. This allows players to work on their stick work, shooting, passing and defense. The mode includes real instructional videos from Canada National players.
The two biggest additions to NHL 18 include NHL Trees and the Expansion Draft. NHL Trees attempts to throw a nod back to the NHL Hitz series by offering a 3-on-3 arcade experience. EA had recently tried to do a 3-on-3 arcade mode and it didn’t bode to well. While this is a nice change of pace, it doesn’t feel like arcade hockey. There are arenas to unlock and they are colorful and eccentric, but this feels like something that was tacked on. It isn’t necessarily faster, smoother or a high scoring affair. Players can customize how the game is won, and there are money goals that net a higher score, but ultimately it combines the current engine into something that should include smooth and consistent action and it doesn’t. This can be played offline against a computer, with friends or online. It’s worth a few plays, at least.
In this author’s opinion, the biggest addition to the game is one of the most important additions to any sports game in years. The proper way to evolve a franchise mode is to build your team within the constraints of true expansion team rules. This is something I have wanted to see in sports game for fifteen years. While a few games in the past have offered an expansion draft, there has never been anything like this. Players can jump into a franchise with a current NHL team, complete the draft with the new Las Vegas Golden Knights or create a team from scratch. Adding a 32nd NHL team is the best way to go, as players have a ton of locations, cities and logos to choose from. Players will create mascots and customize jerseys and arenas complete with entrances and the entire atmosphere. This is truly the perfect way to evolve a Franchise Mode in sports games.
After completing the customization, players will be ushered into the offseason. One thing is completing this is no quick affair and takes quite a bit of time before seeing the ice. Completing the Expansion Draft is the best aspect. While time could be shortened, getting organized in conducting the draft is frustrating. The rules involve managing the salary cap, roster spots, and finding the best players. One player can be chosen from each team. It would be nice to be able to mark players to return to that you are interested in. It feels more like the developers said here are the players, have at it. You don’t want to commit to a player from a team if you know you can do better at that position elsewhere. There is also no option to view all available players. Besides these setbacks, this is still truly fun for the fans that enjoy this type of thing.
From there, players will conduct the NHL Draft and enter Free Agency. One other notable annoyance is that the system automatically dictates who goes to the AHL and who stays in the NHL. This can affect strategizing who you need to go after in Free Agency. There’s no way to set a lineup during this process. After signing free agents, they will want to sit down with you as player and team morale plays a huge part in Franchise Mode. Winning and keeping players happy will keep your job for longer. Other tasks include managing and upgrading your arena and managing finances.
The on-ice action is familiar and in need of a major overhaul. While the game features the NBC broadcast presentation, it’s identical to its induction. This includes the commentary. This series has suffered from balance issues for some time. There are too many times that the A.I. feels unstoppable. Frustration ensues when you can’t develop a play and every pass gets deflected or intercepted. You could argue it’s realistic due to the puck physics, but when the opposing A.I. gets checked, stands up and gets the puck, it gets old. Speaking of A.I., your teammates love to stand and look at the puck. This has not improved and is in desperate need of an update. Sure, the dekes have been updated this year, but this is only for the hardcore players. Defensive Skill Stick exists where players can freely poke check just to either whiff or pick up a tripping penalty. The gameplay is in serious need of a direction change and this can be blamed for lack of competition. If only 2K would do something besides basketball.
While the visuals and sound have always been excellent, much like the gameplay, it’s unchanged. NHL Threes looks colorful as do the arenas, but this was introduced in previous years thanks to the lighting. Player models look great and the game runs at a solid frame rate. Running on a PS4 Pro, however, there is no excuse why this game cannot look even better, especially with the Xbox One X on the horizon.
NHL 18 introduces two major modes to its solid array of dated options. The near-revolutionary Expansion Draft takes center stage and needs to be incorporated by other sports games. Hopefully, this won’t be a one-and-done for the series. NHL Threes is a solid change of pace, but ultimately lacks the feel of an excellent arcade experience. Otherwise, balance flaws and lack of innovative gameplay mechanics don’t differentiate between prior years of the game. While it’s still a solid game of hockey, you’ve skated this rink before.