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June 2024

NHL 23

Platform(s): PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Sports
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Bucharest (EU), EA Vancouver (US)
Release Date: Oct. 14, 2022

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PS5 Review - 'NHL 23'

by Andreas Salmen on Nov. 3, 2022 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

NHL 23 brings players together with the most socially connected Chel experience ever and adds women's players to the Ultimate Team.

It's sports season for athletes and spectators alike. As the puck drops in the NHL, EA releases NHL 23 with some new features and gameplay changes within a familiar set of game modes. NHL 23 is the same as every year, with minute additions, some gameplay fine-tuning, and the usual online connection frustrations buried under a slew of Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) microtransactions. If you've played recent NHL titles, this year's update is probably worth skipping altogether.

I quite enjoyed NHL 22 when it was released. It played well and was the best version of NHL I had played in years. That wasn't due to any overwhelming changes or additions but rather due to some gameplay tuner adjustments. This usually doesn't matter too much, since the games inevitably change throughout the year after release as new updates and tuner adjustments roll out. That said, NHL 22 was the first release on "next-gen consoles" and added a slew of minor additions — but it still felt rather thin and underwhelming. If you shared that sentiment, NHL 23 will appear even thinner in comparison. Again, it exemplifies why annual sports games aren't worth the upgrade, especially for dedicated fans.

NHL 23 is still a cross-gen product, so don't expect any jumps in the visuals department, but a few things seem improved year-over-year on current-generation consoles. Ice and reflections on it appear more realistic on-screen, and the face scan technology introduced last year is more widely used across player models. It's not nearly as impressive as I've seen it in other sports games, but NHL has always been a few years behind all other sports games in the technology department. The "augmented reality" broadcast features, such as on-ice projected statistics, remain largely unchanged as does most of the commentary, but that isn't necessarily surprising. What did get a new coat of paint are some of the key animations, such as the Stanley Cup celebration, light shows on-ice for certain goal celebrations, and a few other additions to more closely match the arena experience of the corresponding team. It's minor but rounds off a very solid presentation of hockey.

Now, as a player, you may also feel indifferent because it doesn't add much to the actual gameplay experience. Last year's iteration added more accurate stick physics, but this year is all about last-chance puck movements, or the ability to play the puck even when the player is falling or stumbling. A player rattled by a check, for example, would've needed some time to recover in previous games. Similarly, if a player was falling, there was no way to play the puck. In NHL 23, you can now still hit the puck in the direction of a teammate or toward the goal. It's a genuinely nice addition that adds a layer of realism and options to the game, and the animations look rather good. I utilized last-chance puck movements in a few games, and they were the key to narrowly defending an attack or scoring a goal while falling on the ice.

Otherwise, the gameplay feels a tad slower and more unwieldy than last year, and defensive play has gotten more difficult since the introduction of better stick physics in NHL 22. There will be additional adjustments to the overall feel of the gameplay throughout the year, but currently, it doesn't play better or worse than last year, beyond the addition of desperation plays.

What has definitely changed is the overall AI handling of players who you don't control and goaltenders. The latter seems less prone to one-timer goals, and stick-deflections in front of the goal seem to succeed far more often than they did in prior years. Again, this can still change, but like every year, it may take a while to understand which goals are easier to score based on the new goalie AI.

There are no notable game mode additions in NHL 23, which is a tad disappointing. I won't hesitate to point out, as I have every year, that Be a Pro mode needs an urgent and in-depth overhaul. It's still one of my favorite modes to play on my own, even though it has been criminally neglected by EA for years. Even when it did overhaul the mode in NHL 21, the result wasn't great or satisfying.

Outside of HUT, the only adjustments are in franchise mode, where we now have more customization options to set up a league as we wish. Custom salary caps, team, and game counts add a lot more freedom to play your own franchise fantasy league, and although that's appreciated, it doesn't make up for the lack of new additions everywhere else. That is hardly surprising given that the cash cow is in HUT, which hasn't seen any drastic changes except one.

In a move that I like as a whole, EA has added the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) to introduce women into HUT. This enables the creation of mixed teams with all available player cards. That is also mirrored with the first female cover athlete Sarah Nurse alongside Trevor Zegras, which is great in my book. EA should've considered giving Nurse the entire cover following her impressive performance in Beijing. It's great for expanding the visibility of women's hockey into popular NHL media, and I hope EA further introduces women's teams in their titles going forward.

The addition of PHF is isolated to HUT, a game mode that has not otherwise changed. The online rivals mode now offers a rotating roster of game modes that change weekly, with a three-tiered reward system for some variety. Beyond that, it's largely remained the same, so it's still highly geared toward in-game card pack purchases. Nowadays, HUT is nothing but a pay-to-win slog. Unless you enjoy being constantly matched against vastly superior teams, it's not fun. You can grind endlessly for new packs via in-game currency or drop a worrying amount of actual cash into the mode to stay competitive.

That is frustrating enough, but I also had to work through some awful server issues for the entire week after launch. I was regularly booted from games and lost games for no apparent reason. While these issues have receded somewhat since release, I still run into them occasionally. EA did promise to add cross-play support within each generation (PS5 vs. Series X and PS4 vs. Xbox One) to both HUT and CHEL modes, which may improve matchmaking over time. I hope the servers are in better shape by then, too.

That said, NHL 23 isn't a bad sports title. It has lots of modes, a ton of options, and a huge team and player roster, so there's a lot of gameplay for a new player. It's the series veterans who once again get the short end of the stick, with lackluster additions and almost no incentive to buy it at full price or splurge on the deluxe editions. This has been the case for years now, and unless EA properly prioritizes a complete overhaul of the franchise or skips a year here and there, I don't think this is going to change anytime soon. Looking back at the past few years, the upgrade to NHL 23 is only worth it if you've been out of the loop for at least three years.

NHL 23 has a few nice additions, but they quickly wear thin. There's nothing of substance, except perhaps yet another year of the same grind in HUT to eventually get a team together that is worthy of competition by the time the next installment skates around. That doesn't seem appealing to me, and unless you've already skipped several years' worth of NHL entries, NHL 23 isn't worth the full asking price.

Score: 5.9/10

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