Since the debacle that was NHL 15 three years ago, it’s safe to say that the NHL series finally got back on track with NHL 17 last year. But after getting things back into a nice rhythm, the pressure was on EA Sports to deliver another fun experience with NHL 18.

The game doesn’t make the jump to the Frostbite Engine like its EA Canada partner FIFA Soccer did last year, or Madden NFL did this year. Instead, it remains on the Ignite engine for the fourth year in a row.

The player models — at least, the ones scanned into the game — look good, and move well on the ice. With as much time with the engine as the developers have had, you really shouldn’t expect anything less. The game may feel a little slower to some than they would like, but I found it to be a nice balance between chaos and boredom.

NHL 18 features a new defensive skill stick that finally brings purpose to the blue line players. Having control of your stick as opposed to it just moving wherever your player’s body happens to be adds a nice new wrinkle to how you attack forwards in all areas of the ice. Most players may not notice the difference the feature makes, but those who play defense in EASHL will certainly appreciate the added control.

The offensive skill stick has also seen an update with the addition of some new moves like between-the-legs shots and passes. When you pull them off, they can provide some incredible highlight-reel plays. But attempting the moves requires Mortal Kombat-like button combinations than can prove to be too tedious to warrant even attempting during competitive games. One-handed dekes, though? Now those are worth trying to utilize over and over again.

To get the hang of the new skill stick moves, it’s recommended that you utilize the new Training Camp. Hosted by CEO of Hockey Canada Tom Renney, the Training Camp puts you in a variety of situations that will help you become a better player.

NHL 18
NHL Threes is the big new mode in NHL 18

The new gem of NHL 18 is the debuting Threes mode that takes 3-on-3 hockey, and puts it over the top. You can take part in the Circuit mode to unlock new arenas, mascots to play with, and teams; simple games vs. the CPU; or online against or with players around the world.

It’s fast-paced and arcade nature poses a nice change from standard games, and is definitely one of the best aspects of NHL 18.

Getting Creative

For years, A.I.-controlled players have gotten in the way more often than they helped. EA Sports is hoping that the new Creative A.I. changes will alleviate that.

CPU players don’t just skate straight up and down the ice anymore. Instead, they actually will dump the puck around the boards, make bank passes off the boards, and will stay in position more often than not. They do a better job at analyzing the play more rather than just rushing into a common situation.

I’ve even seen them pull off some dekes that you used to only see user-controlled players attempt. It was a nice breath of fresh air.

It’s not a perfect system as the A.I. will still find themselves chasing in areas where they shouldn’t, but it does help make a more realistic experience on the ice.

Speaking of creative, NHL 18 offers an overhauled menu system that finally feels fast and responsive. Players can now create a quick menu by pinning three items to the “main menu” that you first see in game for easy access. The rest of the options can easily be accessed from a nice and quick secondary menu. It doesn’t sound like much, but a responsive menu is a major improvement over what we’ve been given in the past.

EXpanding The Game

With the Vegas Golden Knights entering the fold, expansion was touted throughout the summer as one of the big features of the game. For the first time ever, players can add a new team to the NHL as well as a new AHL team.

When it comes to expanding a league, there are usually things to consider about potential markets: How big is the region? What is the interest like among the people there? What type of an arena can they offer? What’s the potential for a national following?

None of that matters in NHL 18. You choose the market size (no matter the city); you choose how passionate the fan base is; you choose how prestigious your franchise is; and you choose how popular you are nationally. The only saving grace is that the game actually handles realignment quite nicely depending on where you decide to put your team.

It pales in comparison to how relocation works where that information is already generated for you, and you actually have to take those aforementioned details into consideration before deciding where to put a team.

The saving grace for the feature is the detailed expansion draft, and the fact that realignment works out pretty nice depending on where you decide to put a team.

The idea of expansion is great in concept, but it comes up just short in initial practice.

Franchise does finally offer in-season contract extensions, adding another strategy to managing your team. Should you try and keep a pending free agent, or should you see what you can get for him on the trade market after negotiations fall through? Free Agency and drafting logic have also seen tweaks that make it more realistic which should keep players coming back to their franchise for multiple seasons.

NHL 18 also expands the game outside of modes with the reintroduction of true co-op play. Whether it’s you and a friend playing locally against other players online, or you are simply teaming up to play a co-op game online against the CPU, NHL 18 is giving players more ways to enjoy the game with each other.

Of course, it would be nice if Connected GM would return, but fans will have to wait at least another year for that possibility.

Small steps forward

Though the attempt to improve Franchise Mode with expansion may not be the major addition one would have expected to be, it was a nice attempt to add something more to a mode fans seem to feel is often neglected. That’s more than what can be said about some of the other returning modes in the game.

Be-A-Pro continues to be the same pointless grind that we’ve seen since the series came to the Xbox One and PS4. But don’t worry, you can now request a trade. You know, that simple feature that was somehow removed from this mode like every other redeeming quality that it had on last-gen systems.

Ultimate Team remains mostly the same with the exception of a couple new additions like challenges and competitive seasons while Draft Champions comes back virtually untouched.

The EASHL offers a few new unlockables for your club, but it also remains much of the same from a features standpoint except for one major addition. Teams now have the option to play games in a 3-on-3 with an AI goaltender as opposed to the standard 6-on-6 games. It may not sound big, but opening up the space and putting the games more into the hands of the users goes a long way towards making EASHL even more worthy of coming back to day in and day out.

The game continues to feature NBC broadcasting with the returning team of Doc Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Ray Ferraro. There are some updated lines of commentary, but, like most of the modes and gameplay in NHL 18, the presentation feels like too much of the same.

VERDICT

NHL 18 isn’t a bad game by any means. EASHL, Ultimate Team, Franchise, and Threes all provide players with modes worth replaying. The problem is that there’s nothing that really makes it considerably better than last year’s installment. If you’re hoping that the game provides a major step forward for the series, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s still fun to play, but with an old engine, a dry presentation and no major improvements, NHL 18 is teetering on the line of becoming a stale experience.

NHL 18

$59.99
NHL 18
75

Game Modes

8/10

    Graphics/Presentation

    7/10

      Gameplay

      8/10

        Pros

        • New skill stick changes
        • Customizable Menu
        • NHL Threes
        • Improved Franchise A.I. Logic

        Cons

        • Be-A-Pro is a chore
        • Out-dated presentation and commentary
        • No major improvements; feels like much of the same
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        Michael Straw
        Michael Straw is a gamer who just happens to be an experienced journalist. In his near decade-long career, Mike has traveled across the United States to cover some of the biggest events in gaming and sports, including E3, PAX, as well as the NFL and NHL Drafts. His work covering gaming and sports led his content being featured on Fox Sports 1, SI.com and others. He was once the second-ranked player in the world in NHL 09 on Xbox Live, and is a huge pro wrestling junkie.