EA Sports NHL 18 Review: Greatly Improved and the Future is Bright

With training camp and NHL hockey right around the corner, EA Sports’ annual release of the NHL Series is a perfect way to gear up for the upcoming season. Between the gameplay upgrades, game mode additions, and the brand new NHL Threes series, NHL 18 has plenty of depth to make both the grizzled veterans and newcomers happy.

While the last two iterations of the game have been looked at as “rebound years,” NHL 18 is finally the peak of the mountain as we start to reap the rewards of the rebuild. Longtime NHL fans will be excited to hear that popular modes like Franchise and Hockey Ultimate team have returned with much welcomed upgrades. All new creative attack dekes and the defensive skill stick also give users a freedom that we’ve never seen before.

Courtesy of the wonderful people at EA Sports Vancouver, I was able to get my hands on an advanced copy of the game and dove straight into all of the brand new features.  Let’s take a look at what NHL 18 has to offer.

Gameplay Additions

The core gameplay of NHL 18 compares to its siblings of the past, but this time around, it’s jam packed with new additions that give players the creativity to do just about anything.

The new creative attack dekes are what this franchise was desperately missing and coincides perfectly with the fast-paced style of today’s NHL. The new deking engine includes Peter Forsberg-esque one-handed moves, between-the-legs finishes, back-hand toe-drags, heel drags, and much more.

The best part? You can string together any combination of moves one after another to score the ultimate highlight reel goal. Want to back-hand toe-drag around the defender, fake between-the-legs and finish it off with a cheeky one-handed tap? No problem. As EA Sports dubbed it, the ice is quite literally “your playground” when it comes to creative attack dekes.

One of the other massive gameplay additions that I thoroughly enjoyed was the defensive skill stick. EA Sports did an excellent job of balancing out the gap between forwards and defensemen to help mitigate the damage done at the other end of the rink. The new defensive skill stick gives players full control over their upper and lower-body to help cut down angles and clog up anticipated passing lanes; gone are the days of simply spamming the poke check in hopes of breaking up an opposing rush.

Both defensemen and forwards alike were given plenty of tools to work with this year and it is an extremely encouraging sign moving forward. The more creativity you put into the players’ hands, the better off and more exciting the overall experience will be.

Franchise Expansion

This entire offseason was centered around the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights and impending expansion draft. Sure enough, EA Sports hit the nail on the head with their new Franchise expansion, giving users three different types of options when starting up the mode. You can choose to grind through the standard version of the mode which includes all 31 teams with their current rosters, or you could reshape the entire expansion draft by redoing it on your own terms.

Finally, the last option allows you to generate another expansion team and introduce them as the 32nd team in the NHL. Both of the expansion routes contain authentic player protection lists and allows users to live out the expansion drafts in real time to shape their rosters how they please. Along with that comes new expansion locations that range all across North America and for the first time ever, Europe (Helsinki, Stocholm, Berlin, St. Petersburg, etc).

The new Franchise expansion gives players endless amount of creativity while shaping their own franchises, and heck, you can even throw in your own custom made mascot as well.

NHL Threes & Authentic 3-on-3

The featured game mode for NHL 18 is a newly innovated 3-on-3 arcade style hockey experience called NHL Threes. The motivation behind this game mode was to create an outlet for casual hockey fans who enjoy a fast-paced game with a heavy emphasis on big hits and plenty of goal scoring. It brings back memories of games such as NHL Hitz, where you could just screw around for a few hours and create havoc on the ice.

The good news is that there is plenty of depth to NHL Threes, as it comes with a full campaign mode, online/local team play, and head-to-head. It’s also rich with new arenas, fresh commentary, and plenty of in-game effects to keep your attention for hours on end. If you’re more into the online aspect of gaming, NHL 18 also offers the option of playing authentic 3-on-3 within the EA Sports Hockey League. as well

It is the same as your standard EASHL game, minus two skaters, which opens up a world of possibilities. We’ve all seen how entertaining 3-on-3 overtime games are in real life, but imagine if they were 60 minutes in length?

The open ice gives players an immense amount of space to showcase the brand new attack dekes and also elevates the competition up to an entirely new level. The stakes are much higher and gives players the freedom to pull off game-breaking plays on their way to a division title.

This is definitely a must try if you can get a group of friends together to play some competitive hockey. I guarantee there will be a handful of highlight reel goals that you’ll remember for quite a while.

Multiplayer & Hockey Ultimate Team

A lot of the previous online game modes in NHL 18 stayed relatively the same, along with some minor tweaks. Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) was one of those modes, which now features offline challenges to help build the best team possible. HUT Challenges will be updated with dynamic content throughout the year to keep the challenges fresh and entertaining.

After completing the required goals, players will be given unique rewards that will help improve their team on the fly. This was another sorely missed featured as games like Madden have had it for years and it brought an entirely new element to Ultimate Team. It’s the perfect way to get a quick hockey fix. I’ll be honest, some of those challenges are pretty difficult as you move up into the higher gameplay difficulties – but they leave you feeling extremely satisfied once they are completed, making HUT Challenges a great addition thus far.

NHL 18 also offers 64 different multiplayer combinations, which is more than any sports game to date. These new combinations allow you to play cooperatively across games modes such as Hockey Ultimate Team, Online Versus, and NHL Threes. Friends can team up whether they’re sitting together on the couch, online, or both. This also goes hand-in-hand with the HUT Challenges, which also features some co-op tasks that require a friend to join in on the action.

I was able to try some of the co-op stuff out during my early access and it truly did live up to the expectations. Since I was able to get a head start on my HUT team, I teamed up with a few friends to show off my roster, and they also helped me complete some of the required HUT Challenges. It was an absolute blast and we had a great time playing some virtual hockey over the weekend.

Final Thoughts

Overall, NHL 18 was another step in the right direction for the EA Sports franchise. The gameplay improvements certainly changed the game and opened up endless possibilities. However, I was severely disappointed to find out that there were minimal improvements to Be a Pro mode aside from being able to request a trade. For the most part, the mode has been recycled from year to year, and there just isn’t enough depth to keep players coming back.

With games such as FIFA, Madden, and NBA 2k all incorporating single player story modes into their games, it would have been great to have something similar in NHL 18. There’s nothing like an emotionally driven story mode to capture the brightest moments of your virtual career and making you feel as if you’re actually living out the dream. Hopefully EA is able to take advantage of this next year, because there are endless avenues to explore in that regard.

My final gripe would have to be the bland commentary. Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olczyk were originally introduced back in NHL 15, but have since become extremely repetitive. There is very little interaction between the two, and a lot of the commentary seems forced. You very rarely hear the two diving into stories about teams or players, which is very evident in modes like Franchise. There’s also a vast difference between Doc’s personality compared to his real life commentary. I think the commentary is in a desperate need of a revamp in order to capture the true excitement of an NHL game.

Final Score: 8.5 out of 10