Although I played and enjoyed a number of sports during my childhood and into my teen years, hockey is the only one that I still follow closely and regularly watch. My interest in baseball, soccer, lacrosse and others have all waned, but my love for the National Hockey League and its ice-based sport remains, despite the horrible emotional rollercoaster that is being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Following my favourite team and caring as much as I do cannot be healthy, but I can’t help it. It’s in my blood, and has been since I was a child, when my mom’s father introduced me to them. Granted, I never played, myself, outside of some unorganized shinny on a pond and some organized street hockey, but really wish I had. At least I can live out my dreams in interactive space, thanks to EA Sports and its long-running NHL franchise.
My first introduction to video game hockey was through Blades of Steel, which I played and fell in love with while using my cousins’ Nintendo Entertainment System. It wasn’t until I got my own console — a Super Nintendo — and a used copy of NHLPA 93 (the first game in this series) that I was finally able to play it at home. I haven’t missed a release since, even though I bought 2K’s games instead of EA’s on two different occasions; both of which I seriously regretted. Hell, two of my most played games still remain NHL 96 and NHL 07. I kept my Super Nintendo hooked up so that I could play NHL 96, even after I’d upgraded to an N64.
Well, it’s fall again, and that means we’re witnessing the beginning of another National Hockey League season, and one that has already done its best to make me miserable. That means we also have a new game from EA to play, with that being NHL 23. It marks the series’ second appearance on ‘next-gen’ consoles, and continues along with the new Frostbite Engine mechanics that were introduced last year. The question is: Is it a big enough upgrade to justify spending another $89.99 (or whatever it costs in your local currency)?
The first thing you’ll notice when you look at or start to play NHL 23 is that it has two cover athletes for the first time in series history, given that Patrick Kane was removed from a cover he was set to share with Jonathan Toews after his assault accusation years ago. Instead of Toronto Maple Leafs superstar and generational talent, Auston Matthews, who appeared on the last couple covers, we now have Anaheim Ducks sensation, Trevor Zegras, and Canadian National Women’s Hockey Team star, Sarah Nurse. Both players have also received their own X-Factors, which you can unlock and use. Zegras’ ability lets you pull off his viral flip pass, while Sarah Nurse’s improves the player’s skill at playing the puck (passing or shooting) when stumbling or off-kilter.
When you step on the ice, you’ll start to notice the game’s biggest update, which comes in the form of something called ‘last chance puck movement.’ Now, instead of stopping when they’re knocked off-balance or begin to stumble, players will be able to continue handling the puck and can also pass or shoot while doing so. Furthermore, it’s also possible to dive and make a last ditch swipe at the puck, which could end up resulting in a goal. This certainly makes things feel more organic and a whole lot more realistic.
Coaches will also suggest things to you as you play, through a small pop-up that appears in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen during some modes. They’ll suggest things like lock-down defence or pulling the goalie, and you can either choose to accept or decline these ideas by pressing up or down on the d-pad. Until you become accustomed to looking for them it’s likely that you’ll miss some, because the pop-up is so small and it’s hidden in the corner. Then again, it’s generally not a big deal.
Moving on, it’s important to note that Be a Pro — one of the series’ most popular modes, year in and year out — now allows for co-ed teams. Yes, it’s possible to collect and play as Women’s National Team members, who can skate alongside male players from the NHL and the various other leagues included herein. I’m all for this, although I don’t really play much HUT, being that I’m more of a Be a Pro kind of guy. I’m happy that they introduced female players last year, and think that’s a great thing. Seeing female referees — to of which I believe I’ve seen two so far — in NHL games was kind of odd, but it’s not something that bothers me. The only downside is that it’s not all that realistic. Women have refereed NHL games in the past, but it’s not that common and I’m not sure if any are currently employed by the League at this moment. Hopefully that will change though.
What else is new? Well, you can now customize your Stanley Cup, hat trick and other celebrations. The crowd is also louder than ever before, and will boo a player who’s injured one of theirs any time he or she touches the puck. It really adds to the atmosphere and realism found within the game, and only makes things better. The improved celebrations do as well, although goal celebrations are slightly glitchy right now. I’ve seen two or three players go airborne as they floated from the front of my net — where they’d just scored a goal — to the blueline, in order to celebrate with the rest of their teammates.
The on-ice presentation is also better than it ever has been, thanks to the inclusion of projected visuals. Things like an animation that plays (sometimes) before the Leafs take the ice, text saying ‘Go Avs Go!’, as well as projected Canadian and American flags that cover the ice during brief orchestral anthems. Fire and smoke also shot out of the Calgary Flames’ jumbotron when they scored against me. Granted, these things are short and not all that common, and don’t seem to apply to all teams, making them a bit of a middling addition at this moment. It’s a step forward, though, and proof that the developers are trying to improve this facet of the experience.
Cross-platform matchmaking is also coming to NHL 23, although it’s not slated to do so until sometime next month. This will allow Xbox One and PlayStation 4 players to play against each other online, and for the same to be true of those playing on Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5. There will not be any cross-generation matchmaking, so be warned about that.
The crossplay isn’t a big deal to me, even though I used to play a lot of online versus. I slowed down and actually stopped doing so, because I started to get dismayed by the amount of lag and stuttering that was in recent games; especially NHL 22. I originally thought it was my Internet, but friends told me that they were also experiencing the same thing despite living in a major city. Plus, I upgraded my Internet before the release of last year’s game. Thankfully, my time spent playing online in NHL 23 has been smooth thus far, including both online versus and NHL Ones. Here’s hoping it’ll remain that way, because I’d like to play a lot more. Knock on wood.
For the most part, the rest of NHL 23 is pretty similar to what came before it, including the opening to Be a Pro mode which features your agent speaking to James Cybulski as you play shinny on a mountaintop pond. Most of the conversations between your player and his agent, teammates, coach, fans and general manager also remain the same, using the familiar dialogue system that lets you choose whether to answer as a good teammate, a selfish star or using persuasion tactics, all in an effort to build your character the way you would in real life. While I kind of like these things, I find the amount of conversations to be disrupting and somewhat annoying, and am kind of getting sick of hearing the same things from James Cybulski during his radio show held between games. With all that being said, Be a Pro is still my favourite mode, and it’ll be the one I’ll be spending lots of time with this year. I still really like it, and am happy that they’ve made some changes, like letting you see how you’re faring when it comes to moving up and down the line-up, and showing how close you are to unlocking new X-Factors.
I first started as a Toronto Maple Leaf, but didn’t like how things went during the first game so I deleted that save and started a new one from the Champions Hockey League, where I won the playoffs. After that, I was drafted by the New Jersey Devils, which is an organization I don’t dislike and find tolerable even if their jerseys are kind of mediocre. We’re doing well so far and I’m enjoying playing for them, but I was dismayed to note that — despite downloading the latest online rosters — my Be a Pro rosters are similar to the ones that teams ended last season with. Retired (or severely injured) players like Keith Yandle and Carey Price are still playing for their respective teams, Petr Mrazek is the starting goalie for the Leafs, Matthew Tkachuk is still with the Flames, Kadri signed with the Hurricanes and more. I’ve played so much that I don’t want to start over but, while it’s not a big deal, it is disappointing and makes things feel a tad inauthentic. I wonder if starting in the Champions Hockey League caused this glitch?
Outside of the anthems and presentations I mentioned above, the presentation remains mostly the same herein. That is, outside of stats overlays that appear before faceoffs and show how players are doing either League wide or on their own individual teams. It often shows me that my Be a Pro is leading in goals, penalty minutes and hits, and shows him moving up each board. Mitch Marner is having a hell of a season so far, because he and I are constantly battling for the League lead in points despite me already having 30 in not too many games. The one-on-one player comparison boards remain glitched again this year, though, because they show that other players have nearly identical stats to me in the same number of games played when they definitely do not.
Things are definitely less noticeably glitchy this time around, which is nice. I haven’t had to quit out of any Be a Pro games due to the camera pointing at the boards and staying there like it did a number of times when I played NHL 22. I did notice those players floating up to goal celebrations, and also noticed that Kadri’s mustache popped in moments after his beard, but other than that things have been good.
James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro return to do play-by-play and colour commentary, and both continue to do a good job. While James isn’t my favourite, and can be a bit grating at times, I have liked him since he first joined TSN. Ray is also the best in the business, and I’m disappointed that he’s leaving TSN. He’s the best part about the commentary in NHL 23, as well, but that’s not a surprise. Furthermore, you’ll be happy to hear that there isn’t as much from Carrlyn Bayne, who only pipes in occasionally now. I have nothing against her, but she did get annoying last year. There was far too much talk about the same X-Factors, over and over again.
Lastly, the soundtrack is perhaps the best it’s ever been, thanks to songs by Ghost, koRn, Shinedown and Muse, among a number of others. It’s heavier, and that makes it better in my books. The only downside is that a new song starts whenever you select something and the menu changes, meaning that you’ll often only hear a snippet of each song before the next one starts. I wish they would change this.
With all that having been said, whether NHL 23 is worth buying still remains subjective, on a person-by-person basis. It’s an improvement from last year’s installment for sure, but not a big one by any means. The changes are noticeable if you play a lot of hockey, but unless it’s you’re most played game (or close to it) you may not feel the need to upgrade. NHL 22 was a really good game, and this one is quite similar still in a number of ways. I know that I’ll be playing it a lot, though, and look forward to upgrading each year.
This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game, which we were provided with.
- Last chance puck movements increase realism and make things better
- Improved presentation, although the new elements don't appear enough
- Crossplay matchmaking, when it comes to the game
- Not a huge improvement from last year's game
- Still somewhat glitchy
- Be a Pro can get repetitive and cumbersome