Early next month, the National Hockey League will drop the puck on its next season, and will do so with lots of excitement in its biggest market. As per usual, Electronic Arts has gotten a head start on things with the latest iteration of its long-running simulation series, that being NHL 19. A game that features former Montreal Canadiens star, and now current Nashville Predators stud defenceman, P.K. Subban, on its cover.
With a box promoting new ways to play online, as well as lots of returning legends, this year’s game markets itself to anyone with interest in the sport. This is done to not only please longtime fans, but to also attract newcomers to both the NHL and hockey itself.
Last season, EA’s Canadian studio introduced new features that made things less structured and more accessible in some respects. This was done through a brand spanking new Threes mode, which simplified things by taking two players off of each team and eliminating almost all types of penalties. The result was a mode that was fast, fluid and heavy hitting, with a loud and boisterous announcer that did his best take on hockey-meets-NBA Jam. Needless to say, it was a more accessible way to play, which was also fun to pick up whenever the mood struck.
Of course, we’re also talking about a season that included a major change in the form of the League’s thirty-first franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights. As such, a brand new team was available for use, as were modes that highlighted this. Fans could draft their own Golden Knights through the expansion draft, or even go so far as to create a 32nd team of their own choosing. That obviously made things more difficult, given that the pickings were slimmer for those who did.
NHL 19 brings those things back, but also adds some stuff of its own. These additions take the form of more realistic skating mechanics and an overhauled online suite that now incorporates more arcade-based settings. The result is a game that is for anyone with an interest in the sport, and one that does a really good job of representing the professional league that it is named after.
On the (core) gameplay side of things, there’s a lot of familiarity to be found amid the aforementioned changes. As such, those who’ve been playing these games for some time (like yours truly, whose first hockey game was Blades of Steel on the NES) will know what they’re getting into. The new skating mechanics are quite nice, and do impact things positively. They make controlling the players feel more realistic than ever before, with more lifelike stops and starts, not to mention some good weight, speed and momentum.
The defensive skill stick is also a part of things, after being introduced last fall. It’s a nice and helpful way to break up plays, and gives you more control of both your stick and your defensive posture. What it provides is an easier and more realistic way to both block and deflect shots out of the field of play, though it’s not always perfect, which is to be expected.
NHL 19 is always action-packed, though, and allows you to customize many facets of its play. This means adjusting sliders to fit the type of experience you want, be it more arcade or more realistic, reducing the strictness of certain rules, and things like that. Through this, it can be tuned to one’s liking, and supports newcomers while never alienating the longtime fans who buy it every year.
Despite the above, it’s the new and altered modes that have been given the most advertising, and for good reason. The game’s online suite has been given a drastic overhaul, with many of its offerings now being contained within what is called World of CHEL (say NHL out loud and you’ll notice where the name comes from). Traditional online versus is still the same, but thanks to this change lots of the connected action now takes place on outdoor rinks.
Upon selecting World of CHEL, you’ll be given the opportunity to create your own player avatar using the game’s create-a-player suite. This skater will represent you, as you head outdoors and onto ponds set in gorgeously sunny, and often mountainous locations. Sometimes you’ll only play on half a rink, too, because not all of the modes require a full one.
World of CHEL now incorporates the ever popular EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL), which allows players to join up with friends (or randoms) to form teams, all of which they can customize and outfit to their liking. This is where many of the regulars spend tens, hundreds and even thousands of hours playing each year, and it’s arguably the most popular part of the series. Never before, though, has it been set outdoors, in bright and picturesque locations.
Alongside EASHL, CHEL also introduces something called Ones, which is a one-on-one-on-one scenario wherein three players all attempt to get the highest goal total against a computer controlled goalie. Ones is fast, arcade and very competitive, and even though it’s only played on a half rink there’s still more than enough room. That said, it can be hard to get away and get a good shot on net, because people are ruthless and will knock you down at any chance they get. It is a lot of fun overall, however, and is easily one of the standouts here, especially since it includes a progression system that pushes you towards tougher divisions as you win.
Also featured here are challenges against teams made up of real-life NHLers, all of whom are wearing clothing befitting pond hockey. They’re fun, and lack the structure of the pro sport’s rules, allowing people to jump in and have fun without worrying about offsides and interference penalties. It helps that stuff like this is three-on-three, as well.
Sometimes it can take a bit of time to find other players online, but that isn’t always the case and it’s sure to all improve once NHL 19 has been out for a bit. This is the only real downside to World of CHEL right now, though some may argue that EASHL should’ve been left indoors. I, for one, appreciate the effort that went into taking things out of arenas, because it gives the series more personality and allows for some good drop in and drop out gameplay. It’s also nice to be able to earn experience and rewards for your created star, including numerous coats and toques, some of which bear NHL teams’ colours and wording. You can also unlock jerseys, though, which allows one to represent their favourite team.
Of course, fan favourite modes like Hockey Ultimate Team (which involves collecting and purchasing player cards to flesh out one’s roster), Be a Pro (the mode in which you attempt to rise from greatness as a CHL graduate or a recent NHL draftee), and shootout are all still there. The same is true of Threes, which I mentioned above and prefer this time around because it’s not as overwhelming. Last year, it took forever to make any real progress in the mode because the developers made it so that you had to complete something like 31 games just to finish off one division. With four total divisions, that took a ton of time, and made the whole thing eventually become too much for me.
The NHL 19 version of Threes is more simplified, meaning that it’s not as long, or as overwhelming as before. You get two regions to face off against, and those are the Eastern and Western conferences. In what I’ve played, thus far, I’ve yet to come across a non-NHL team. This is unlike last time, where there were tons of AHL and junior teams, which became a real slog. Outside of this change, however, things are much the same and that’s okay, though I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t prefer a new 3-on-3 NHL Arcade game over Threes as it is.
Franchise mode has also received a partial makeover, and now allows you to specifically hire and assign scouts. What this means is that, instead of telling someone to go to a blanket region or league, you can ask them to target specific players on specific teams. Thus, the cloud of war (or fog, if you prefer) lessens as you learn more about the players on other teams and those who are fighting for first round draft slots. This will aid people who like to go really in-depth, but it’s more for the diehards than anyone else.
Lastly, it’s important to talk about the legends, many of whom have been incorporated into some of NHL 19‘s modes, thus making it possible to partner Connor McDavid with The Great One himself. Wayne Gretzky is, of course, the poster boy, and also happens to be included on the cover of the game’s more prestigious (read: more expensive) versions, but he’s not alone. In fact, there are a lot of familiar faces from the League’s past, including Leafs great Mats Sundin, Kings great Luc Robitaille, Canucks great Trevor Linden and Penguins icon Mario Lemieux. These are just a few of the approximately 200 different legends, all of whom have made a major impact on the game.
Legends can be drafted onto one’s team in Draft Champions, and are also available in other offline modes. Draft Champions, itself, has been neutered, however. What I mean by this is that, instead of being able to draft really great teams, your opportunities to get high level players are less than before. Some rounds will allow for a superstar or a legend to be chosen, while quite a few will only allow for solid to good players to be selected. Players whose rankings fall into the 78-82 tier. Thus, Draft Champions is now more difficult than it was before.
Playing as legends of the game is certainly fun, and it can bring back memories for those of us who’ve been watching this League for decades. I grew up with Mats Sundin, Wendell Clark and, somewhat, Doug Gilmour as well, so it was nice to see that they were included. Then again, I’m a diehard Leafs fan and bleed blue through and through. This is so true that I’ve been pining for the new season to start since June, and can’t wait to see John Tavares take the ice as a Toronto Maple Leaf for the first time.
NHL 19 isn’t perfect, however, and is unfortunately a bit buggy. That can often be the case during the EA Access trials, and at launch, but it’s still disappointing. For example, the first time I played Hockey Ultimate Team, I lost sound every time I scored. The audio would cut out completely after each goal, and would not return for about 20, maybe 30 seconds. This happened after every goal I scored, too, and forced me to quit to the dashboard and restart the game.
The aforementioned issues are mostly small and only happen occasionally, making them more like one off glitches than anything else. Like when I ran into a player, saw the puck fly straight up into the air and then watched as it sailed over top of us and out into the crowd. It was kind of comical, but got me an undeserved delay of game penalty. Outside of that, the only other really notable problem is that there’s slight lag during online versus play; something that I noticed in NHL 18 as well. It’s possible that it is my rural connection, but I haven’t had problems with other games and my Internet has been okay.
That said, I should also bemoan the amount of tripping penalties in NHL 19, which has been a problem for some time now. It’s so easy to get them, and they end up adding up to ridiculous numbers in some games. The developers really need to find a way to reduce them, and decide on a system that won’t award one every time an opposing player skates into, then trips over, a defenceman of mine who’s gone down to block a shot.
For the most part these nuisances aren’t common, so please don’t get that idea based on what I said. Any sports game is going to have the odd glitch here and there, given how many variables there are, but I hope that EA can quickly patch out the sound bug I mentioned above. That, as well as the lag. I also hope that they’ll do a better job of updating the online rosters in NHL 19 than they did in NHL 18, because I didn’t like that I couldn’t play as the up-to-date Leafs this summer. I stopped playing NHL 18 just three or four weeks ago to avoid burnout, and it was easily my most played game of the year. However, I noticed that the online rosters hadn’t been updated since around the playoffs, meaning that I was stuck playing as Tomas Plekanec and Roman Polak instead of John Tavares.
Now, presentation-wise, this is also pretty much more of the same. The major differences come in the form of the updated skating animations and, of course, the outdoor ponds with their bright sunlight and mountain-heavy scenery. All of that looks really nice, as does the game as a whole, but I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t still quite reminiscent of those that came before it. Things do feel a bit samey and somewhat stale, and this series could really benefit from a new engine. I know that’s a lot to ask, especially given that EA Burnaby has a smaller team than those behind Madden and FIFA (at least from what I’ve heard), but this current engine is showing some age.
The NBC contract, and its television-style presentation, have also continued into NHL 19, meaning that those who buy it will be listening to Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk do play-by-play and colour, with TSN’s Ray Ferraro acting as the third member of the announcing party. They continue to do a pretty good job here, with better editing and more lines than ever before, but you’ll still hear occasional oddities (like me hearing about winning the Stanley Cup instead of discussion about the Memorial Cup that I had just won). Ray is one of the best in the business, if not the best, but sometimes the other two NBC commentators can get kind of grating. Rumour is that they’ll be out in NHL 2020, though, so here’s hoping for Ray Ferraro and Chris Cuthbert, or Ray and Gord Miller.
With all that having been said, I must say that I find it easy to recommend NHL 19. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s one hell of a good sports game and is certainly a step up from last year’s outing. There will always be room for improvement, but if you like hockey and enjoy playing it in digitally interactive ways then you can’t go wrong here. Just don’t expect a massive, monumental change from what came before it.
**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game. We were provided with a digital review code, and used our review Xbox One X.**
- Fast, fluid and realistic
- New World of CHEL online suite introduces fun and addictive modes
- Legends have returned
- Occasional glitches
- Some won't like that EASHL has gone outdoors
- Too many tripping penalties