Games Review: NHL 18 (PS4, 2017) is a solid sim that is content to rest on its laurels

NHL 18 wants to be a mirror to this year’s Stanley Cup — no bells, no whistles, no brawls or bullshit, just great skillful hockey. That’s what it wants, and it’s a noble goal, but sadly the puck never quite finds the back of the net.

One of the core changes to NHL 18 over NHL 17 is the way the skill stick has been updated. The skill stick mechanic, a way of manipulating your player’s hockey stick for offensive and defensive play, was a work of a genius from the moment it was implemented a decade ago. Your right stick allows you to move the hockey stick just as real world players do. It’s augmented for defensive play, as an example, by holding down R1 or RB and moving the right stick, creating sweeping movements to block or rebuke an incoming player. It’s by far the best thing the NHL series has going for it and developer EA Canada has every right to be proud of it.

In terms of authenticity, there’s been a game in the EA Sports stable that comes close to the NHL series. Madden knows football fans are fickle and keeps its head down. FIFA walks the line between hard sim and arcade fun and NBA Live has been trying to find its rhythm for years now. In this regard, NHL is always authentic. For hockey fans, when the game is at its best, it’s art in motion. But there’s a problem. Beyond the introduction of the skill stick, NHL hasn’t really changed. In years. You can’t even apply the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage because NHL has any number of problems that need addressing and have needed addressing over multiple instalments. This lack of innovation and willingness to smooth out the rougher edges is starting to take a toll. We’re at the point where the changes that have been made and fixes that have been implemented (largely under the hood) are almost undetectable.

Even browsing the What’s New menu made me wonder why they’d bothered to include it at all. The only notable inclusion on that screen is a training mode produced by Team Canada featuring full-motion video cutscenes that feel as though they were plucked straight out of the mid-90’s.

Like I said, when NHL 18 works, it’s genuinely great. Juking between incoming defensive players’ legs and added pop-offs during goal scoring make playing offense feel as good as it ever has. Working the skill stick requires a deft touch. Finesse is not something typically associated with hockey, a game considered by most to be just this side of a full-blown blood sport, but you’ll need it if you plan to succeed. Just like in IRL hockey, you plan to go out there and showboat on offense, you will be put on your arse by the AI in short order, a testament to how dedicated to being a genuine sim NHL 18 really is. You have to read the rink — how is the defense positioned? Knowing that, what will be the best way to set up your shot in the offensive zone? To actually land a goal off a trick play is to receive the kind of dopamine jolt usually reserved for felling a boss in Dark Souls.

For those who aren’t as wild about the hard simulation of the main game, one of NHL 18‘s few new additions is a new 3v3 arcade-lite mode called NHL Threes. It’s the hockey version of street ball — big hits, big plays, no penalties, a smaller rink, more clear space and (for a bit of extra theatricality) fireworks that shoot out of the goals on a score. The stick controls that work so well in the simulation don’t really hang as well when draped over the arcade heart of Threes, but here’s the good news: you can switch to the same two-button control scheme from NHL ’94 to keep things simple (you can actually select this control scheme in any other mode, not just Threes. I merely found it to be more of use here).

Threes is exactly the injection of life this series needs, despite the way it breaks ranks with the traditional simulation. It’s fast, it’s fun, mascots jump in to play from time to time, it’s loaded with unlockables and it even screeches NBA Jam-esque catchphrases at you. Threes is a party — it has its own identity, its own energy, it communicates the big hits in a way that Madden isn’t brave enough to do. It’s just what the doctor ordered.

Players could be forgiven, after all of Threes’ noise and tshirt cannons, to look for something less entrenched in NHL 18‘s near-perfect replication of broadcast hockey. If that sounds like you, you want Be A Pro, the game’s single player career mode. There’s no commentary, no bombastic music and no goal explosions, only the sound of skates on ice and the dull thwack of the stick hitting the puck. Where Be A Pro suffers is in how little it has changed from previous iterations. With Madden introducing its Longshot storyline this year, a revision of FIFA‘s ongoing The Journey single player arc, Be A Pro feels rather flat by comparison. Hopefully NHL 19 can do something with this mode, be it a campaign of their own or a new approach, because as it stands it feels as though it is drifting further and further from relevance.

Franchise mode also seems untouched on last year’s iteration, which is interesting given that 2017 has been a year where the league saw some expansion in the form of the Vegas Golden Knights. While the interface has been given a fresh coat of paint, the systems that govern Franchise mode haven’t been altered a jot from NHL 17 as far as I can tell.

Ultimate Team is also left as is, which makes it hard to view it as anything beyond an overt grab for cash by the publisher. It’s exactly as you remember it from last year, a combination of card collecting with fantasy sports that allows a chain of unlocked players to build their skill set, rack up wins and unlock better NHL players.

The early game grind in Ultimate Team remains extremely real. You begin with a squad of absolute gronks and accrue a pitiful amount of XP, eventually obtaining card packs which you tear open in the hope of getting a better player you can slot into the roster. You can either slug it out for XP or you can spend real world money (which is what EA would like you to do very much please) to purchase packs right away. You can’t bring your carefully curated team from NHL 17 over to NHL 18 either — you wouldn’t want to spend any money then. It is absolutely possible to make headway in Ultimate Mode without dropping a significant chunk of change on packs but your progress will be maddeningly slow, which is (again) entirely the point. Taking your team into online matches, where your opponent has almost certainly dropped coin on their squad to get an edge, only leads to further frustration.

EA Canada’s plan to revitalise the NHL series feels like it’s stalled a little bit. Threes adds some much-needed energy and freshness to the proceedings, but it’s the only noteworthy addition to a game that feels otherwise unchanged from last year. When your What’s New menu only has three things in it and one of them is a tutorial, maybe it’s time to start thinking bigger. Understand, I am in no way trying to say that NHL 18 is a bad game because it isn’t. It simulates its chosen sport with an understanding of the game and an feel for control that most other sports titles, even ones from the same stable, can only dream of. But, for the first time in a while, it feels like you can probably skip this one and wait to see what next year brings.

Score: 6.5 out 10
Highlights: Skill stick still rules; Threes is a damned good time
Lowlights: Content to rest on its laurels in almost every other respect
DeveloperEA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Available: Now

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.