In our NHL 18 review from last year, we mentioned that the series needs a return to basics and address some core hockey fundamentals. In short, we were referring to the actual on-ice hockey experience about how skaters move and how the puck is handled by players. With NHL 19 EA Canada addressed some of those issues and then proceeded to throw in a whole bunch of new features. For better or worse, NHL 19 is the series’ most complete set of hockey ever made.
“We Heard You”
I’ve had the chance to talk to the NHL 19 team several times this year, and one of the messages that were repeated continually is that they heard the complaints about how skating, player movement, and puck-handling was lacking in the series. With that in mind, they introduced new RPM – Real Player Motion – technology designed to improve how your players react to your control inputs. In practice, this means that players are more easily maneuvered around the ice, in a way that makes the player feel more in control. Puck pickup and hitting mechanics have been improved with the addition of a new collision system that detects body contact more accurately.
These new additions certainly have a positive impact on the hockey experience in NHL 19 as frustrations of overskating a puck or not being able to make seemingly easy turns a reality have all but disappeared. I will give EA full marks for listening to the criticisms leveled against the series’ mechanics and finally taking noticeable steps to improve those areas. What’s impressive is that while these improvements were made, EA still managed to add new features to NHL 19.
A Bit More of That, Please
The NHL series has seen its feature list expand over the past few years and boasts more game modes and variations than ever before. Some core game modes received a little bit of love this year. The Be a Pro and Franchise modes received additional features that, while small in scale, do have a noticeable impact on your experience in those particular modes.
The Be a Pro mode still lets you create your skater from scratch, decide at what level of play you want to begin, either in the CHL, Memorial Cup, or straight in the NHL, and experience life as a hockey player the best way I can think of in a video game. What’s new this year is the addition of a Trait and Specialties system. As your rookie player earns experience by following coaches’ advice and putting in good performances, you get to unlock different areas of this skill tree system to mold your player the way you want. You’re no longer limited to increasing your pro’s attributes solely by performing well in certain areas but can now specialize in precisely the kind of areas you want to. This adds another level of depth to a game mode that already allows you to pretend to be a real hockey player, complete with watching the play from the bench or penalty box and listening to your coach criticize you.
NHL 19‘s Franchise mode allows you to take control of your favorite team or enter the league as a new expansion team. If that’s not enough for you, you can also reshuffle the entire NHL now by moving teams around and creating custom conferences and divisions. In an effort to add depth to scouting, a new fog of war system was added which forces you to scout NHL and AHL players to stay up-to-date on their skills. This means that the longer you manage your franchise, the more effort you have to put in to see if Connor McDavid is still a superstar eight years from now. The fog of war feature is optional and for some reason doesn’t extend past the NHL and AHL level. I would have liked this feature to be available for junior and international leagues so that I can try my luck at actual scouting of upcoming talents.
Even the NHL Three’s mode that was added to the series last year has received an additional variant in the form of a circuit mode that lets you take on AI-controlled teams as you seek to dominate the continent.
Aside from expanding the content in these game mode, NHL 19 is teeming with configuration options and sliders. Think that the AI goalie is a little too good? You can dial down their ability to make poke checks. The possibilities are expansive, and it’s wonderful that so much can be tweaked. I just wish that the default settings were better. It takes me way too much time to dial things in so that any use of my skill stick doesn’t result in constant tripping calls, and my attempts to play the body don’t get me convicted of assault on a regular basis. Settings sliders are great to have, but they should only need to be used to finetune things to your liking, whereas it seems that in NHL 19, it’s a necessity to spend a few hours testing and tweaking before genuinely investing yourself in any of the significant game modes.
Hockey Ultimate Team and Legends
The HUT mode is relatively untouched from last year and for the most part, it still favors gamers who are either willing to spend large amounts of money on card packs or have endless hours to grind. Oh, and there are also those market watchers that look for accidentally priced cards to snipe. Players can spend hours and hours in this game mode alone, and while it’s not my cup of tea, for the same reason as other online issues I will point out shortly, the act of collecting cards is still incredibly appealing.
HUT always had some Legends cards, but EA has doubled down on that this year by adding over 200 legendary players from a wide variety of eras. Wayne Gretzky is without a doubt the star of the legends, but for those looking to go back in time, you’ll enjoy the extremely realistically modeled and captured legends. For the first time, those players are available across other game modes as well, so if you want to build yourself a team of the top 20 players of all time and take on the league, you can do that.
World of CHEL
I’ve saved the best, and arguably worst, for last in this NHL 19 review. With the ever-expanding online game mode offerings in the series, EA saw it fit to create a central hub from which you not only launch into these different modes but also manage your custom player. The World of CHEL hub consists of the new Pro-Am mode, NHL Three’s, the new ONEs mode, and the EASHL mode. NHL Three’s and EASHL are more or less the same as in previous years, but ONEs and Pro-Am are new to the series.
The best part of World of CHEL is that your customized player, a skater and a goalie, are consistent across all four of those game modes, and you earn shared experience via any of the four game modes mentioned above. The progress goes towards unlocking Hockey Bags that are randomized loot bags filled with everything from casual gear to hockey equipment, goal celebrations, and player traits and specialties. The entire system is microtransaction-free, and all items are earned only by playing the game. Cosmetic items have a rarity level, and the better players perform, the better their chances at getting some legendary skates are.
The Pro-Am mode is an offline version where players take on a variety of lineups designed around a particular NHL star or group of stars. It’s a great way to earn experience and hockey bags without having to venture online. There are many reasons for wanting to stay offline, not the least of it being connectivity issues. So far, however, the online modes have been quite stable for me, and EA has added a nice network analysis feature that appears after each online game, allowing you to see your network performance throughout. This may put a damper on those “I lost because of lag” excuses.
The customization options for players this year extend beyond hockey gear and add a casual option that is used in most of the World of CHEL modes. If you want to wear a bright pink jacket, blue jeans, and your favorite team’s toque, you can do that. The aim is to allow players to express their creativity and it’s a great system. Traits and specialties allow players to create loadouts which can be configured for any specific scenario. Full marks for the addition of these new customization options.
I Feel So Lonely in ONEs
The new ONEs mode is a king of the hill style game mode where three players duke it out on casual outdoor rink surfaces to determine a daily champion. Throughout four tiers, players get promoted with a single win, and relegated with two losses, until one person sits at the top at the end of the day and receives a rare hockey bag reward. There are no rules in this mode, and as exciting as the concept is, in practice, it can be downright frustrating. ONEs is best suited to players who excel in individual skill, or who know how to take advantage of the many cheese goals in NHL 19. If that sounds like you, then you may love this mode. For me, it was a potentially great idea that falls flat in its execution.
The NHL series has always suffered from cheese goals, the types of shots that are guaranteed to beat the goalie. EA has tried to remove as many of those as possible, but it appears that they’re falling quite short of that endeavor. As much as it seems that one of last year’s most notorious cheese goals has been toned down a bit, it didn’t take more than a few rounds of ONEs to realize that players have already found several new ways to score at will. Unfortunately, that means that the ONEs mode becomes devoid of fun unless you’re one of those people that can pull off those cheese goals and also doesn’t mind stooping to that level. It’s a shame really, because ONEs has potential, but so much of the online scene in the NHL series just doesn’t appeal to me, and a large part of that isn’t a fault of the developers, but rather the fact that specific game mechanics make for a miserable experience when exploited by a vast portion of the player base.
NHL 19 is Worth it This Year
It’s not a surprise that there is only one hockey game on the market and the NHL series has been that sole option for many years. NHL 19 packs so much content into this package that I’m surprised EA Canada manages to come up with new features year after year. NHL 19 combines a surprising amount of core game mechanics adjustments with new game modes and valuable additions to existing content. That’s rare for a series with yearly releases, and if you’ve been holding off on upgrading from your current version of the NHL series, this one may be the year to take that step.