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NHL 18

Platform(s): PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Sports
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: Sept. 15, 2017


Xbox One Review - 'NHL 18'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 13, 2017 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

NHL 18 delivers the action of today’s new NHL with new 3-on-3 NHL Threes mode, creative attack Controls, league expansion and more.

Buy NHL 18

For an annual sports franchise, the arrival of a new team is a blessing. The faithful will pick up the title no matter what, and the first batch of fans will be excited to play as their brand-new home team. For casual fans or those who don't pick up sports games year after year, the inclusion of the Vegas Golden Knights in NHL 18 may not be enough to draw them in. EA knows this, and compared to last year's title, there's a concentrated effort to ensure that this title is more than just a few small tweaks and roster updates.

To that end, the gameplay has seen some changes in the controls, and all of it is related to the skill stick. On offense, this means that lots of the deke moves have been reworked, so you'll have to learn different combinations to get the same moves. This can be a pain if you're used to the old methods for things like between-the-leg dekes and some one-handed moves. Lots of these require you to get the perfect situation set up to see them in action. The controls have also been reworked so it's easier to chain them together, and a run at the net can be flashy but effective at tripping up defenders. At the same time, defenders now have skill stick control. Sweeping the stick in front of you is now a thing, as is being able to extend your stick in a certain direction or going for a targeted poke check.

The addition of more defensive stick play is nice, but a tutorial on how to use those defensive maneuvers would've been even better. The new Hockey Canada Training Camp gives players almost every offensive trick to play the game and do well, but the defensive side is severely lacking. Learning to poke and check is nice, but all of the defensive skills have to be learned on your own and in a real game. Considering how big defense is in hockey, this is a major oversight.

Speaking of modes, almost every mode has received at least one significant upgrade. EA Sports Hockey League lets you play three-on-three matches instead of the standard six-on-six, in hopes that it's easier to group people together and get a match going. It still uses the same track, so you don't have to worry about restarting progress or not being able to advance. Franchise mode has two different paths. One allows you to start from the Expansion Draft, so you can either roll off a better roster for the Golden Knights or keep certain people from getting poached. You can also create a new team and enter it as the 32nd team in the NHL, customizing everything from arena effects to a new mascot. Be A Pro gives you the option to put up a trade request, while Hockey Ultimate Team has solo challenges in case you don't feel like earning stuff online.

Even though we only played against fellow reviewers and those partaking in EA Access, the online performance was quite solid. There were no dropped connections, and the only hint of stuttering occurred during replays, leaving the actual gameplay portions of a match as smooth as an offline match. The good news is that more modes are supporting online play and doing so with different combinations in tow. Thus, finding the people needed for a game should become easier since any number of local players can join in.

As good as the title may be, one can't help but notice that the main thing that producers have been touting in this year's iteration simply isn't up to snuff: the AI. On both the offensive and defensive side, the AI doesn't seem to know how to compensate for some of the maneuvers, either old or new. Try a bank pass to a receiver, and the AI will be out of position much of the time. Long-distance passing also becomes an issue; the game sometimes thinks you want to pass behind you when you just want to pass forward. The AI sets up poorly on defense, so you'll see a good number of breakaways, and goalies can get faked out far too often. Start playing in Hockey Ultimate Team, and the issues become worse since lower-ranked players have a higher tendency to set up things for failure. Compared to the AI in last year's game, this feel like a significant regression.

Beyond that, it seems more difficult to get into a fight in this year's iteration, and the fighting mechanics are clunky. Using the right analog stick for UFC or Fight Night may work, but here, it feels like you're flailing around and hoping to sneak in a shot. It's perhaps one of the more unintuitive fight systems in a NHL game, and it actively discourages you from wanting to get into a fight. Also, while the game is good about giving you videos of some techniques to perform during the coaching evaluations, those videos don't come with audio, and the subtitles are placed somewhat awkward, so it's difficult to follow along with what's being taught.

In contrast to EA's other big sports franchises, there's no story mode in NHL 18. Instead, the development team decided to aim for a new mode called Threes. Designed for casual fans, it plays as a much faster and looser form of hockey. Arenas are reduced to roughly 75% of their normal size, and the action is always three-on-three, as the name implies. Every penalty is gone, and face-offs only occur at the beginning of periods. The other times that would normally call for a face-off, like a puck stoppage by the goalie or a score, simply has the opposing team get the puck at the start of the neutral zone instead. Games are either played in the traditional three periods or on a goal system, where you must be the first to score seven goals while still beating your opponent by two. You also have the option to throw in a money puck that appears randomly throughout the game. The puck can either give you more points when scored, take away points from an opponent, or some sort of combination.

The good news is that this mode is absolutely packed, so it'll feel right at home as a cheaper, downloadable stand-alone title. Just about every team in over 10 different leagues is represented here, so no one is left out. There are also some mascot teams that ends up being lots of fun to play with, since the commentary will actually put out specific calls, depending on the mascot. It doesn't make the overall commentary any more bearable, but it's a nice and welcome touch to hear how SJ Sharkey is going in for the kill once he delivers a big hit. Aside from online and quick play, there's also a campaign where you have to take out every team in five different regions using your upstart Fridgerators. Depending on your performance, which is given in three-star rankings, you can unlock new arenas to play in or new players and mascots to add to your team.

Compared to our impressions in the beta a month ago, the mode feels much more enjoyable in the final game. This is mostly due to the tweaked player speeds, so even the lowliest players feel like they move much faster and are more responsive, giving the game a semi-arcade feeling. It would've been nice if the game got rid of periods when going for a point-based game. The shortened periods in a score-based match only slow things down, such as when you throw the money puck into play while trying to reach the goal and beat the opponent by two points. Having periods in place only reminds you how much of a slog the match can be.

Unlike Madden 18, NHL 18 is still on the Ignite engine instead of the latest version of Frostbite. The player models look fine, but that means the arenas lack some of the more refined particle effects, such as fire jutting from scoreboards or ice spraying from someone as they skidded to a stop. Crowds animate decently, but their models aren't as refined as the players themselves, and there's some really bad clipping. At least there are more camera angles to see before each face-off, and there's some good camera shake happening when a goal is scored and the crowd rumbles to life.

Those who have played NHL 17 will feel right at home with this year's audio package. The crowd noise seems rather subdued throughout, but at least it does pick up in volume once you're close to the end of the third period and the home team is winning. The commentary team of Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk in the booth and Ray Ferraro on the ice is great, but the pre-game match commentary can feel generic instead of pointing out any significant advantages or flaws of one team over the other. The commentary also has a tendency to repeat lines and phrases, so you'll tune it out sooner rather than later. Once again, the game doesn't give you a chance to control your soundtrack beyond choosing between EA's songs and the licensed material, but the selection is nice even if you only hear it during menus.

NHL 18 finds itself in a strange spot. On the one hand, there are significant changes to the gameplay modes and basic stick handling. This is especially true of Threes mode, which could've become a stand-alone, downloadable game due to the amount of content it possesses. On the other hand, the AI is flaky and undermines quite a few modes, especially Hockey Ultimate Team. NHL 18 remains a fun title and a good choice for those who are interested in the series but don't want a semi-arcade hockey mode.

Score: 7.5/10

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