For the first time in almost two decades, the National Hockey League will begin this season with a new team and, of course, a new city under its wing. That is, the Golden Knights, who now hail from Las Vegas and just so happen to be that transient city’s first professional sports team.
It was back in June when general manager George McPhee picked his Golden Knights using the familiar confines of an entry level draft. Through this, he was able to choose one unprotected player from each of the 30 existing NHL teams, giving him a full roster to tinker and toy with. That he did, too, as some notable players were chosen then flipped for future draft considerations, including Marc Methot who found himself moving from Ottawa to Dallas by way of Vegas.
Thus, it’s fitting that EA Sports and its Burnaby-based EA Canada studios decided to go all in on the Vegas Golden Knights’ expansion draft theme with NHL 18. While previous iterations allowed for fantasy drafts, this year’s outing not only allows you to take the ice with the Knights, but also lets you craft your own version of them through a player-controlled expansion draft. Hell, if you want to make things really interesting (and more difficult by extension), why not bring a 32nd NHL team into the mix and do so by picking what a simulated version of Vegas has passed on?
Although it celebrates the League’s thirty-first team, NHL 18 carries Edmonton Oilers MVP Connor McDavid on its cover, and for good reason. After all, the wonder kid may just be the best player on skates, and is easily one of the sport’s most recognizable faces. That said, hopefully next year will see Leafs superstar in the making, Auston Matthews, on the cover, because after a 40 goal season and a Calder Trophy win, he’s cemented himself as yet another major face, especially when it comes to growing the game in the United States.
Those who are hoping for a huge, monumental upgrade this year may come away disappointed, because while NHL 18 is full of refinements it is not night and day different from NHL 17. In fact, many have complained that this year’s game is too similar to its predecessor, feeling more like a partial upgrade than a brand new release. Given that its bullet points are more mode based, that’s a valid complaint, although the truth of the matter is that there’s still a very good hockey game to be found here.
The gameplay side of things has been tweaked, of course, and the action feels more polished, not to mention more fluid than what we saw last year. What it introduces, by way of implementation, is the new defensive skill stick, which gives players more control of their sticks while in the defensive zone. This means more accurate and true to life shot blocks, pass deflections and the sort, by way of wood or composite.
Introduced alongside the new defensive skill stick is a Hockey Canada-themed skills camp, which acts as a glorified tutorial. Using live video (featuring Craig MacTavish) and vocalized tips from TSN’s Ray Ferraro, it teaches fans how to pull off every one of NHL 18‘s moves. From basic deking and shooting, to backhand toe drags and between the legs shots, everything you need to know is included, and an achievement or trophy is rewarded for completion.
Of course, live video tutorials aren’t anything new, so it’s not like we’re talking about a monumental change in technology here. Still, even if it is a bit gimmicky in nature, the Hockey Canada Skills Camp is an appreciated and welcomed addition. Most of these special moves are tough to pull off, so it’s nice to have even a basic tutorial for them. That said, they’re generally too flashy and difficult to use in game, unless you’re someone who’s spent hundreds or thousands of hours perfecting all of your skills.
The truth of the matter, though, is that many different modes are available for play in NHL 18; so much so that it would take forever to detail them all. There’s the familiar quick play option, playoffs, international tournaments, online/offline shootouts and general online versus. Then, there are the fan favourites EA Sports Hockey League (where multiple players can create and team up as their own team in online play against others), Be a Pro (which lets you assume control of just one player, with most opting to use their own created star-in-the-making), Hockey Ultimate Team (the card based collection mode, wherein you can only ice the players whose cards you possess) and Franchise mode, which lets you assume complete control of your favourite team and its everyday operations.
All of the above are polished, and most are deeper than they’ve ever been before. Be a Pro still feels lacking, however, because it doesn’t offer the same RPG-style options that made Live the Life a more popular mode when it was introduced back in 2013. Going further, Hockey Ultimate Team also continues to be a lightning rod, as it’s a time sink for those who want to play legitimately, while offering those with money an easy way to get ahead through expensive microtransactions. Here, they take the form of unopened card packs, which taunt you with their included rares.
What’s most notable about NHL 18, however, happens to be its influx of new modes. Sure, there’s the expansion draft, and the opportunity to use the team, jersey and arena creation suites to bring your imagined organization to life as the League’s thirty-second organization, but those aren’t the only new opportunities awaiting those who purchase this game.
Above Connor McDavid’s picture, NHL 18‘s cover features a circular ad for an all-new mode called NHL Threes, and it’s that gameplay type which has received the most talk (and buzz) since it was revealed. The reason is simple: It’s a new, more arcadey take on the simulated brand of hockey that this series has come close to perfecting over the years. A different way to play, in which users do battle as a three man group. What’s unique about it is that, instead of being basic, it adopts the NBA Jam mentality of go big or go home, and does so by featuring faster play, bigger hits, playable mascots and an announcer who gives Tim Kitzrow a decent run for his money. This mode also makes use of a money puck, which can be positive or negative (and can be turned off by the team who wins each game’s coin toss and gets to pick its rules as a result.) A positive money puck gives you two goals instead of one, whereas a negative puck takes one away from the opposition while also adding to your own score.
What’s nice about NHL Threes is that it introduces a beatable campaign of sorts. It does this by presenting a circuit, which takes you from the Pacific Division through to the Atlantic and Metropolitan, as you play teams from the CHL, NHL and more. The idea here is that you start off with a team of random bums, whose ratings average 60/100. By winning with them, you’ll then earn new jerseys and players, some of which are locked behind a certain amount of stars. Unsurprisingly, each match’s performance is rated on a three star scale, with every star you earn adding up to allow for progression through the circuit.
Threes is a fun change of pace, and can be quite challenging given how fast its players are. It’s also pretty lengthy, providing a campaign that will take you quite a while to play through. Reason being is that each circuit consists of thirty or more games, and some can be very competitive, with their respective boss games taking the cake.
That said, in just its first year of digital life, Threes is a mode that isn’t all that it could be and there’s definitely room for it to grow. Then again, that’s a given. My hope, though, is that EA Canada will take more inspiration from the now defunct but amazing 3 on 3 NHL Arcade for next year’s version of this mode, because that was one hell of an arcade sports game.
Draft Champions is another notable game type, even if it was introduced last year. Through it, fans can build a dream team through a twelve-round fantasy draft, which is based on a chosen template, like “Best in the East” or “Young Guns.” The cool thing about this is that, so long as you pick something that supports them, past NHL stars will become available for use. Players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Dave Andreychuk, Darryl Sittler, Martin Brodeur, and more.
As a diehard Leafs fan, I appreciated the opportunity to use a team that featured Auston Matthews, Darryl Sittler, Dave Andreychuk, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. Of course, our last captain wasn’t my first choice for such a team. He was just the best available option at the time.
After choosing your team of Draft Stars, you are then thrust into a tournament lasting several games. After one ends, the next one begins, and the stakes get higher. This challenge isn’t without its rewards, either, as your results will always earn you Hockey Ultimate team rewards, even if you lose the first game and get knocked out prematurely.
Needless to say, there’s lots to see and do in NHL 18, with this year’s game being the biggest yet. Its cluttered, grid-like menu advertises this fact well, with many different squares cluttered together on-screen, each offering a different mode and/or experience. In fact, there’s so much clutter there that you’ll likely wonder who thought such a design would be a good idea. The good news, though, is that you won’t always have to look at it, because it’s possible to pin your three favourite modes to a home screen that sits above everything else. Don’t worry about having to place Threes there, either, because it’s already there as a “featured” option.
The on-ice action runs smoothly and plays very well, outside of the odd AI hiccup, and is complemented by visuals that resemble a real-life broadcast. The players skate, move and crash together in lifelike ways, making the action more visceral than it ever has been before. Goalies will also make some pretty incredible reactionary saves out of pure urgency, but can be made to look silly through a perfected special move, like the ones that the Hockey Canada Skills Camp teaches you.
Of course, things are rarely ever perfect in sports games, simply because there are too many variables. NHL 18 is a victim of this, as is every other title in its genre, but it generally performs very well, with only the odd glitch to be seen. I did, however, encounter some lag during online play, though I attribute that to my modem more than anything else.
On the sound front, things continue to be lifelike, thanks to realistic effects and familiar commentary from NBC’s Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, as well as TSN’s Ray Ferraro. As a trio, they do a good job of presenting the action and calling it as it happens, with only the odd hiccup. That said, while the commentary is solid, Ferraro — who’s arguably the best in the business — isn’t heard from enough. The whole NBC thing, as a whole, is also getting a bit stale, making me wish that they’d change it up. Hell, why not just use Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro, who do a great job on TSN’s regional broadcasts?
All of the above combines to create a fantastic hockey game, which further cements EA Sports’ NHL as the best in the interactive sports business. While other series have bigger development teams and larger budgets year in and year out, none are as lifelike or as immersive as what this one has to offer. After all, there’s no comparison between being able to use the right joystick as your stick, versus pressing a button to get a desired action, like you have to do when throwing the pigskin or kicking the ball in games like Madden and FIFA.
At the end of the day, while NHL 18 isn’t a huge change from its predecessor, or the marked step forward that some were hoping for, it’s a high quality and very easy to recommend experience. One that is tough to complain about outside of its somewhat minor gameplay improvements.
**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.**
- Provides another great translation of sport to gaming
- Gameplay tweaks, new defensive skill stick
- Tons of different modes, including Threes and expansion draft-related content
- Some AI inconsistencies, but that happens with sports games
- The NBC commentary is feeling a bit stale these days
- Not as big of a step forward, gameplay wise, as some would've hoped