This review of NHL 21 was written by Colorado Hockey Now contributor Reagan Smith. Follow him @RTSmithSports
NHL 21 REVIEW
Release Date: 10/16/20
Platform Reviewed On: Xbox One
Ah, yes, it’s that wonderful time of the year again. Hockey is finally back. And with it, so too, is the return of EA Sports’ NHL series. Well, at least that’s what I would normally be saying had COVID-19 not taken a fat dump on the world. But, while the return of hockey is yet again up in the air, the release of NHL 21 was right on time.
If you’re someone who wants a quick and to the point review, here it is: NHL 21 plays smoother than NHL 20 and feels like (like every year) that it takes the necessary baby steps to set itself up to be a true simulation based hockey game somewhere down the road. However, if we’re saying that a game is taking baby steps year after year to become better; As well as also saying this for an entire console generation, then maybe it’s time we reevaluate the way we look at this franchise and ask “Why?” Why isn’t this game at a better spot than where it is currently? Also, why do we accept these minor improvements so easily year after year? Why?
For me, one of the very first things I had noticed when I started playing in some of the offline modes was that skating felt more fluid. And by that, I mean skating finally felt like not every player was doing the same motions every time they moved their feet. Nathan MacKinnon didn’t look like Ryan Graves while skating up the ice. Much in this same vein, the revamped Be A Pro mode allows you to edit just about every aspect to your player’s skating. From back curve, to arm and stick swing, it’s all fair game. The addition was one that is needed, and is one that just helps the game feel a bit more “alive.”
Sticking with the theme of skating, everyone who has played a recent rendition of the NHL franchise knows just how powerful utilizing the rush is during the breakout. NHL 21 is unfortunately no different. Power skating along the boards and looking for a cross-ice pass to your winger in front of an open net is still a surefire way to generate incredible scoring chances.
With that being said, though, it finally feels like the AI that you’re playing against has something more inside their ones and zeros brains than just rocks. The CPU will generally react pretty well to the user’s offensive rushes and will finally close down lanes that they should in order to limit potential damage in transition.
In order to assist in the breakouts and moving from endboard to endboard, new dekes have been added into the game that really help with puck movement. A welcome change to the flashy dekes that were designed for scoring. In NHL 21, players can utilize slip dekes to squeeze past defenders up against the boards. Similarly, an open-ice deke has been added to where a player can push the puck one way around a defender while your player moves the opposite way around them before reconverging with the puck. This move is especially useful off of the boards on rushes, as it acts as a to yourself pass. Other moves like the Sidney Crosby off-the-net reversal were great for starting breakouts or generating a surprise scoring chance in the offensive zone.
Now, while getting into the zone has been improved upon, I still feel like keeping the puck in the zone and generating true offense seems to be the gameplay’s largest drawback. An issue that has plagued this game for what feels like forever. When playing on the All-Star difficulty, I still feel like I’m being suffocated by CPU defenders that can pickpocket me with the greatest of ease. The flow that you feel breaking into the zone dies instantaneously while trying to set up a play. Your blueliners are swallowed up instantly, and for another year, it feels like your best bet to get a scoring chance is to flip the puck around the boards a few times before finding that one open skater to one-time a shot into the back of the net. I get that executing on the forecheck is a messy business, but the lack of time to set up and uncork a monster shot from the blueline on the harder difficulties is still one of the most disappointing aspects of NHL 21.
NHL 21 brings with it upgrades within game modes rather than the route of adding brand new game modes. Most notably, of course, was the addition of an actual story mode to Be A Pro. And before anyone gets too excited, no, it’s not a storyline like Longshot in Madden or the Alex Hunter saga in FIFA. Instead, NHL 21 takes you down a story that could be compared heavily to MLB The Show’s Road to the Show (The Show will be available on Xbox, so rejoice Xbox fans). It’s an RPG that has an overarching story (win the Calder), but allows you to carve your own personality.
As you create your player, you get one of three avenues to start your career. You can either start in the CHL and compete for the Memorial Cup. Or you can start in Europe in the Champions Hockey League and play in that tournament. And then, you could be lame and just start in the NHL. In between your on-ice sequences, you will have little animated cutscenes that ultimately come to conversations with either your coach, agent or the media. There, your answer choices will affect your teammate likeability, management likeability and your brand presence. These all will have varying effects on your player’s career. If you say, promise to the media you’ll score 3 points next game and don’t, expect your placement on various line situations to be affected, as well as teammate and management’s thoughts about you. During games, your coach may also pull you aside and give you a fluid objective to complete before time expires. Whether that be protecting the lead or cementing your hold on the game by scoring another goal. Just like the off-ice scenarios, if you over-promise and fail, be prepared to face consequences.
The two main conversation choices in the game are either the cocky star response or the middle-of-the-road neutral stance. As you upgrade your player through the returning skill tree, you can unlock other answer options that will affect your player differently. Similarly, you can use your funds to purchase tangible objects, such as houses or instruments that either give permanent or temporary attribute boosts.
These new features in the Be A Pro are great to have as Be A Pro was probably the worst Be A Pro mode in any major sports game out there. With that being said, the conversation system and the lack thereof to do anything else get old, fast. It only took me a quarter of a season to really feel burnt out by the cut-and-dry convos, but considering what we’ve had until now, I won’t harp on it too much.
Franchise mode still isn’t connected like so many have been asking for for years. And to add on, sharing rosters still is not a thing. WHY?? Still, there have been various improvements to add on to the overhaul they pushed on the mode last year. The “Fog of War” system from last year is still prevalent in 21 and continues to make the scouting process a lot of fun. Also, historical stats are in the game. So if you’re a stat buff tracking your star player’s path to the Hall of Fame, you’ll love being able to see how they compare.
This year, they made a spectacle out of the trade deadline. Comparable to FIFA’s transfer deadline, but better, you’re given a front-row seat to watch and participate in the craziness that is the NHL trade deadline. Heading into it, you can choose whether or not you’re wanting to bring in or offboard talent. But the coolest part of this year’s edition is that as players are traded away and money switches hands, the value of players will also fluctuate. So, if there’s some blockbuster trade for a defenseman, you can guarantee that the value of every other defenseman similar to his level is about to drastically go up. This trade deadline mode in Franchise mode may be one of the best features the game has implemented, and is one everyone should try out.
Finally, I’ll focus on the online game modes. As a full disclosure, I rarely play online. Even so, the World of CHEL is a pretty fun hub that tailors well to the arcade feel that the game has. The usual suspects of Ones Eliminator, Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT), etc. are all there and are just as fun as they always are. This year HUT added the new rush mode where the money puck is implemented, and the flashier the goal you score is, the more your level score will increase. Rush will be a good mix, especially for those who like NHL Threes to combine the two modes together.
NHL 21 is a game that improves upon what NHL 20 laid out for it. Be A Pro is finally a playable game mode, while skating feels more refined and in tune to the real world. The trade deadline is hectic and awesome, but the same issues that have been plaguing the game since NHL 15 are still there. Sure, the game is way better than back then, but even now, it feels like you can still see the flashes of the mess that NHL 15 was. The game is fun, and if you’ve been waiting years for a new Be A Pro, then this game is probably a safe buy. However, if we’re looking at how NHL 21 has gotten to this point, the finished product is underwhelming, to say the least.