Anyone who knows me knows I love hockey. My team is the New York Rangers, and it’s never a question that whenever a new NHL game releases, I will do my best to take them to multiple Stanley Cup Championships (especially as the real life team’s window to do so seems to be closing fast). But just like there’s a lot changing in the NHL this year—what with an entirely new franchise in Vegas—there’s a lot changing in NHL 18 as well. NHL 18 goes far beyond its real-life counterpart in regard to changes for the better, though, in what is likely the NHL series’ most complete entry in years. And, maybe, this was a great opportunity for me to change some, too.

One of the staples of the NHL series is Franchise mode, where you can control every facet of a team for virtual decades. Since there is a new team (the Las Vegas Golden Knights) being added to the league this year, NHL 18 offers players a chance to re-create the expansion draft—a fantasy style draft where the new franchise picks one unprotected player from every other franchise in the league—and assemble the team from scratch. Of course, the Golden Knights now make the NHL unbalanced with 31 teams, so there’s also an option where you create your own new team from the ground-up and place them almost anywhere in North America. This was the road I would go down.

I decided to go with Seattle, which in hindsight was immediately a mistake. I forgot that the Vegas Knights would go in the Pacific division on the west coast. My Seattle franchise, as deserving as that city is for a hockey team, would be forced into the Central, leading to a lot of long road trips (maybe next year I’ll go to Kansas City instead). But my bed was made and I chose a team moniker: the Sea Dogs, keeping up with the alliteration most of the city’s sports franchises have had with the Seahawks, Sounders, and Sonics, plus the nautical theme that the Mariners also fall into. I named our mascot Snoop C. Dawg, choosing from far too few options in regards to what our mascot actually could look like, and then proceeded to choose the sickliest shade of green and yellow for their uniforms—another Seattle sports tradition.

I could then mold my home arena and my player uniforms from a variety of preset options available to me. I could tweak everything from the goal posts on the ice to what logos would appear on each of our jerseys, making sure to coat everything from top to bottom in the radioactive green and yellow of my Sea Dogs. Much like the handful of head and body types I could choose from for Snoop C. Dawg, the options for team logos felt limited as well, but I settled on a crazed-looking Viking, a sailor’s wheel, and a dog with floppy ears. It was a weird and new sensation after playing under the familiar banners that adorn Madison Square Garden for so many years, but I was loving the fact that I had created my very own team, and felt a piece of ownership with them that I had never experienced as one of the throngs of Rangerstown citizens.

From there, I went into my own expansion draft and had to choose players from each and every team. I had to hit salary cap and position requirements, and took a few chances; it was an exhilarating experience and added a new level of enjoyment to Franchise mode I hadn’t experienced really in years. One caveat, though, was several players had expiring contracts, and even if I chose them, they could decide to leave my team, and this happened in the case of two players—most notably Kevin Shattenkirk.

Shattenkirk was supposed to be one of my top defensemen, and when it came time to negotiate a new contract, I offered him exactly what he was asking for, no questions asked. I was shocked then when Shattenkirk turned it down, asking for more money. It was an interesting turn of logic, as NHL has been trying (and succeeding in many ways this year) to improve its feedback when making deals as a team’s General Manager. When I would go to make trades later on, I’d get specific feedback from teams saying which pieces of the deal they did or did not like (we like Cam Ward, but need more value around him to take on that contract), which really helped the trade process. Here, however, Shattenkirk—and later other free agents who turned down fair offers—failed to offer specifics.

It was great that there was this dialogue here, and I got the sense that if this were real life, Shattenkirk wouldn’t want to go to an expansion franchise either (in reality, he’s a New York Ranger now and we are happy to have him). But if it all came down to a matter of money, how much more did he want? I offered him $200k more than his initial asking price—not enough. I offered $500k more than his initial price—still not enough. I get he wants more money, but there’s no clear barometer of what makes a player happy. It’s a problem common in a lot of EA Sports games, actually, when it comes to the off-the-field part of running your franchise.

Whereas in other sports games, like MLB The Show, when you negotiate in the off-season with players, you can see a happiness meter corresponding to the player’s thoughts on a deal as you put it together in real time. In NHL, you’re stuck going back and forth, never really knowing what to do when a player decides he’s going to hold out like this. That meter might be less realistic, but it helps keep the negotiation process from being a chore. In the end, Shattenkirk signed with the Carolina Hurricanes for two years less than he was asking for from me, and for one million more a year than what he wanted from me. He never even mentioned the years were an issue. Fine—the Sea Dogs don’t need you anyway.

After the entry draft, signing other free agents, and getting through the pre-season, it was time to finally begin playing with my Franchise. For the most part, much of the rest of this stays the same from here on out. You try to win games, and hopefully a Cup, in an attempt to keep your owner happy; you adjust concession and ticket prices to maximize profitability; you make trades and sign free agents and make line adjustments as you see fit; you send scouts around the world in preparation for next year’s draft. And it’s all just as fun as last year.

When your team takes the ice, the presentation continues to be impressive. I made sure to choose a city and mascot Doc Emrick recorded lines for, and so it sounds incredibly natural to hear him talk about the Seattle Sea Dogs with Eddie Olczyk and Ray Ferraro. The arena fills with fans in the disgusting looking green and yellow, but they’re thrilled to be there. Sometimes there’s a few audio misfires, like when Eddie or Doc start talking about team history. Um, the Sea Dogs are officially a month old. What history? Or Doc would talk about a record-setting string of sellouts. Sure, Doc, we’ve had three home games at this point, but I guess it’s a record.

The game’s visual presentation is still the NBC graphics you see on TV, but it’s also funny when the NBC “Wednesday Night Rivalry” package starts. We’re a month old; we don’t have any rivalries yet in the NHL. The UI at least has seen an upgrade, and not just the in-game menus. The main game menu now allows you to pin your favorite modes to the title screen when the game starts up for easy access, or you can turn the page to the dozens of other modes now available in NHL 18 this year.

Another staple of the NHL series is Be a Pro. Here you create a player from scratch and then either have them work their way up as a teen through Canada and, hopefully earning their way to being drafted by an NHL team, or get picked to your favorite team immediately. I personally want nothing more than to play for the New York Rangers, so I made sure that’s where I ended up.

There have been two minor additions to Be a Pro mode that should make fans very happy, the first being that your player can now request a trade. Should you work your way up to being drafted by an NHL team, there’s a really low percentage chance that your favorite team will take you. Requesting a trade means that if all you care about is playing for your hometown boys, this will ensure you get the full experience of working your way up and getting the reward you desperately desire.

The other is that Be a Pro mode does a better job of judging your talent now. The past couple of years, I would have a blistering stat line for the Rangers in the preseason, with multiple points a game and doing everything my coaches asked of me, only to start the season back in the AHL because my overall rating wasn’t high enough. It was so frustrating that often times I’d give up on the mode shortly after, but that wasn’t the case this year. Even though I’d argue my stats were slightly worse than previous years, with only 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in seven preseason games, I was promptly placed on the Rangers’ third-line. In real life, this might not happen—but it’s a video game and I think EA Canada at least recognized here that a little more leniency was warranted (and welcome).

The one thing I think Be a Pro mode lacks is simply more customization options. Actually, I think this carries over to NHL 18 in general, going back to the mascot and team logo choices in Franchise, and the same for EASHL as well. Personalized goalie helmets, increased details and options for existing equipment, and more are necessary across all these modes where you want to put personal touches on everything. As is, it feels like a lot of the options from last year carried over with no real additions on this front.

As great as Franchise and Be a Pro mode are shaping up, before you take the ice in any mode in NHL 18, I recommend even dedicated players take a look at the new tutorial mode that is narrated by Ray Ferraro and Coach Tom Renney of Team Canada. There are a few new tricks EA Canada put into NHL 18 that Tutorial Mode will give in-depth explanations on, and it offers a great place to practice all these new on-ice gameplay additions crammed into NHL 18—including all the new dekes at your disposal.

Stick physics was a huge focus for gameplay this year, and it shows. In the advanced tutorials, you can practice some insane dekes that the most skilled players—like Sidney Crosby, cover athlete Connor McDavid, or Auston Matthews—can make whenever the opportunity arises. Some of the controls are a bit convoluted, making practicing with the tutorial mode telling you what do a welcome addition, and it’s extremely satisfying when you finally score by lifting and bouncing the puck off your stick, dragging the puck wide and sliding it past an out of position goalie, or my personal favorite—the “Marek Malik” as I like to call it—shooting the puck between your own legs. There’s still the on-ice trainer as well, but in the heat of the moment, you’re typically not going to look to that to pull off a toe drag or other fancy move. So, this was a nice touch.

More intuitive stick improvements have also been made on the defensive side of the puck. Tapping the right bumper once again allows players to poke check the puck with their stick; it’s a move that remains a tad overpowered, especially online, as players love just poking their opponents until the puck pops off the stick (only occasionally paying the price with a tripper penalty). To help give a more realistic sense of hockey, though, you can now hold the right bumper after a poke check to control your hockey stick with the right joystick, much like you would while on offense to pull off those crazy dekes I just talked about. Controlling the stick on defense allows your defenders to expand their wingspan, take away more passing lanes, and overall be a gnarlier nuisance on the ice. Be careful, though, as it’s also easier to get the whistle for tripping if you start swinging the stick around like a madman. As someone who appreciates good defense, though, this is a huge addition to the on-ice gameplay.

Once you learn all these crazy new moves in Tutorial, going into Franchise, Be a Pro, or one of the more sim-heavy modes NHL is known for isn’t exactly a place where you can readily test them out against competition. That’s part of what makes the biggest new mode NHL 18 introduces all the more fun. NHL Threes blends the simulation gameplay we typically associate with the NHL franchise with more arcade-driven fare from the past like Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey or NHL Hitz.

NHL Threes takes the excitement of NHL overtime 3-on-3 hockey and completely turns it on its head. The rinks are smaller, the announcer sounds like a brother of the guy from NBA Jam, and nothing is illegal except tripping and slashing. The action does not stop in NHL Threes until the period ends or the game ends. Penalties lead to automatic penalty shots; goals give the puck to the team that was scored on; and major hits are encouraged as you watch pummeled players slide all the way down the ice after massive hits. The extra ice space also lets you get creative with how you try to score on the poor unsuspecting goalie.

Every NHL team is represented in Threes, and you can even play as a cavalcade of NHL mascots if you so choose. It’s extra embarrassing when Stinger, the Columbus Blue Jackets mascot, is the one who dekes you out of your skates and goes top shelf for the score. To add to the arcade nature of the game, there are also different rules. You can set the game for standard three NHL periods. Or, you can set the winning conditions to a certain number of goals, winning by two, or you can turn on the Moneypuck, which are special pucks that inflate/deflate the score depending on their color. Golden Moneypucks are worth two or even three goals; ice blue Moneypucks will reward you team a goal, but also steal one, two, or three goals from your opponent. The game can change in an instant when a Moneypuck is involved.

As fun and as zany as this mode is—especially being such a departure from the typical NHL experience—there’s also a deep circuit mode. You’re tasked with taking the lowly Fridge Raiders, a minor league team with an overall 60 rating, and beating every pro team and their minor league affiliates across four circuits that will take you across every major locale in the North American hockey world. You can set the difficulty to very easy if you so choose, but higher difficulties also give better chances to earn better players to add to the Fridge Raiders, and new arenas and jerseys for online play. NHL Threes could’ve been an entire standalone game in its own right, and here it is as the best new mode to come to the NHL series in a long time.

Speaking of online play, NHL 18’s seems steady in its pre-launch state. I played several online versus, HUT, and EASHL games, and experienced no issues. Of course, there never seemed to be more than a few hundred folks online at a given time—whether it was those who preordered the game or were using EA Access—but our experience combined with the franchise’s online stability historically, I have no reason to believe it won’t be able to handle the load at launch.

And, of course, this leads us into NHL 18’s online suite of modes. The NHL series offers more options to play with your friends than any other sports game out there, allowing a free mixing of local and online players across all their modes. NHL Threes’ online play is great if you and a couple of friends are looking for an arcade experience. Meanwhile, HUT has gone the Madden route and merged with Draft Champions. Unlike Madden, however, Draft Champions is not behind any sort of level wall, and can be accessed right from the start. You can still try to draft the ultimate team of hockey players over 12 rounds and from an assortment of classes to take on the AI, or try to run the gauntlet of one-on-one games against online human players. HUT has also seen a UI shift, partially brought upon by the Draft Champions merge, that I personally feel is now the best of the EA Sports games. It’s clean and gets you right into whatever action you’re looking for as quickly as possible, whether again playing solo or against other players. Even HUT Sets are easier to access and navigate this year it felt like.

Finally, the biggest and most accessible change came on the EASHL front. You and your buddies can still all join a team together and go online to try to bring your team to glory in online seasons similar to those seen in HUT. However, the difficulty of trying to get six people together is now gone. 6-on-6 hockey is still there, of course, but taking some inspiration from NHL Threes, EASHL now has a 3-on-3 mode, too, but with regular hockey rules. This means less people need to make a commitment to keep your respective EASHL team moving forward, but also changes the gameplay drastically with more open ice to make plays, and more pressure on each player not to screw up.

NHL 18 continues to be EA Sports’ most consistently great series. Some minor annoyances from previous years continue to crop up, but new modes, new gameplay, and new features within series staples like Franchise and Be a Pro will have you sharpening your skates long into the winter. Now, all we need to do is talk to Gary Bettman about how we’re going to make the Seattle Sea Dogs a reality.

Publisher: EA Sports • Developer: EA Canada • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.15.17
9.0
NHL 18 is a nice step forward for the NHL series. New modes and options like NHL Threes, 3-on-3 hockey in EASHL, or creating the 32nd franchise in the NHL are fun additions that give the series a serious shot in the arm. Some minor issues from previous games continue to crop up, and I wish the customization options were deeper, but overall NHL 18 is a must have for any hockey fan.
The Good NHL Threes is the arcade mode the franchise has been dying for; expanding the league in Franchise is a ton of fun.
The Bad I’d like more customization options for the creation features, and there still needs to be some work done with the game’s logic.
The Ugly Just look at the screenshot of my Seattle Sea Dogs mascot again.
NHL 18 is available on Xbox One and PS4. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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