Meet EA Sports’ latest addition to the world of ice hockey gaming – there’s plenty to talk about.
It’s clear NHL 18 is an attempt to hold onto the core factors of the franchise while simultaneously opening up new facets of the game to entice a new generation of players.
It’s fair to say it succeeded.
Being an Australian, it’s always a tricky transition into American sports in the gaming arena, purely because most of us just aren’t exposed to the sports themselves and have pretty basic knowledge of what’s supposed to be happening.
I, like many, am normally pretty quick to hit the skip button and avoid tutorials in as many games as possible. But not this time.
Having played games in the past where I’m much more eager to learn on the run than sit through the tedium of introductory passages, NHL 18 actually made me want to learn how to play the game properly.
With a tiered system of short, sharp and helpful levels, the tutorials teach you each facet of the game with ease. They weren’t just there to help me figure out the buttons – the levels were actually fun to get through.
There was a sense of achievement in ticking past each skill point… and I hadn’t even hit the homepage yet!
As a fan of FIFA’s Career Mode for years now, I was happy to jump straight into Franchise Mode.
It’s entertaining to pick your way through all the intricacies of not just playing an NHL season, but managing an entire franchise.
From the roster, the draft and the morale of your players through to finances, game days and even upgrading the stadium toilets (which isn’t as bad as it sounds), there’s a mountain of stuff to keep you busy if you want a break before or after hitting the ice.
The expansion of options centred around the arrival of the Vegas Golden Knights creates a whole new realm of customisation to your Franchise settings and experience.
Adding a mountain of time and effort into your pre and postseason isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t say the entire package isn’t there for the die-hards.
While certainly a strong suit of the game as it always has been, Franchise isn’t quite the mode I’ve been spending the most time on.
When I first saw NHL Threes, I wasn’t convinced.
It looked to be a bit of a hit and giggle game mode, just there for the sake of popping up something new.
Well, I was wrong.
The new 3-on-3 mode works perfectly for what it’s designed to be: an arena for the casual player or fan to knock the puck around and score more goals than they would in a normal game, while also being a serious game mode that incorporates single player, multiplayer and online gameplay.
The arcade-style set up of the new mode gives it a real energised feel, with the commentators constantly going ballistic. The fast-paced style of the game is based on entertainment, pace and excitement rather than strategy.
The hits are bigger and the goals come quicker, while the ‘money puck’ system adds further excitement and opportunity to win every single game.
You can even play as the mascots!
This is all well and good for the casual player, but it’s so much more in-depth than that.
It’s not just a one-game thing. There’s an entire season and national series built around it in the game where you can play by yourself or with and against anyone online.
The system of unlocking new teams and challenges, players to strengthen your team and even new jerseys to fit your bill works perfectly. It’s all based on which difficulty you’re playing on and how well you perform in the actual game as measured by a points system.
In terms of the overall gameplay, NHL 18 has introduced a fancy new skill stick that is in line with the skill moves set up in the FIFA franchise.
You can dip, dance and throw your hockey stick around all over the shop in any number of ways with the analog stick, allowing you to create and pull off some crazy new moves to get past the opponents defenders and goalie.
Or you can be like me and just twist the analog stick around feverishly and hope something comes off.
It also comes in handy in defence as well: instead of just trying to lay down bumper hits and checks all the time and miss by a mile, you can use the stick to win the puck in much less embarrassing fashion.
And then there’s the fighting.
The reason most casual players get onto the game (me being one of them about five years ago) is the fact you can pretty much play a boxing game inside an ice hockey game.
Not much has changed in this regard. The fighting is still very much a big part of the game, but it doesn’t overshadow it, which is very good.
You can grab the jersey, duck punches, throw a few different kinds of punches in return. It’s pretty much as good as you’ll get for a non-fighting game with in-game fighting.
The lack of a story-driven career or journey mode, which has been tried with varying levels of success in NBA, FIFA and most recently NFL games, is a bit of a miss – simply because it’s a common and popular feature to include these days.
That said, it’s not enough of a downer to take anything away from the overall game – it’s merely something they should consider in the future, even if now isn’t the time.
Ultimate Team and online play have been the highlights of many recent EA Sports games, and this one is no different.
The depth is insane and there’s no limit on how much you can do in the online arena. It’s almost scary how addicting it can be to continue building your Ultimate Team.
The look, feel, gameplay and variation of modes makes this a winner for me, and while it’s not blindingly different from last year, there are some really, really strong changes that separate it from the past and keep the franchise rolling confidently towards future releases.