NHL 19 Review: Top of its Class

With NHL 18, the one thing that stood out the most was the fact that it was clearly starting to become a stale experience on the current generation of consoles.

The gameplay felt old, the presentation had become dull, and the modes all felt like too much of the same. It was obvious that something needed to be done or the series could be forgotten about all together.

With NHL 19, EA Sports is giving players a number of new features and upgrades to try and make the game feel fresh again in the latter stages of the generation. With so much that needed addressing coming into this installment, do fans finally have the hockey game they have been clamoring for, or does NHL 19 still come up short?

WELCOME TO THE CHEL

The World of Chel is a mode the lives on the creativity of its users. From the look of players on the outdoor rinks to the way you want to play, it’s all about the what the player wants to experience.

Inside the Chel hub — it’s still a weird word to say — a player’s progression spans across each game within, of which there are four to dive into. There’s the popular EA Sports Hockey League, the returning NHL Threes, and two brand new modes to enjoy.

Before getting into the modes, let’s touch on progression. The game still doesn’t allow attribute allocation for created players, but there is a way to make your player different from the rest of the world in the form of traits. Each player can equip up to three traits per loadout, which you have up to five at your disposal after reaching certain levels. Each trait is unlocked by completing various tasks.

The first, and best, new mode is NHL Ones. A game of 1v1v1, the game is taken outside on ponds and lakes. There are no rules in a three-minute scramble for the most goals on a half-sheet of ice. It’s a pretty simple premise that provides, arguably, the biggest challenge of any mode.

There are absolutely no microtransactions within the World of Chel.

Players vie for the chance to play under the lights for a championship each day as the rankings reset every 24 hours. You will start at the lowest tier, moving up with every win with the goal of reaching Diamond. However, every two losses will see your player drop down a tier.

There’s a new announcer who provides some fun one-liners and lighthearted commentary throughout each game. The one downfall with Ones is the fact it’s online-only, leaving you and your friends out in the cold if you were itching for some couch co-op outdoor action.

The other new mode this year is Pro-Am that lets you take your created skater into games alongside some past and present NHL stars and legends. The offline mode is a nice way to prep yourself for taking it online in either the EASHL or Ones as you can get a feel for the new mechanics while, at the same time, progressing your player. It’s fun to line up with greats to achieve various challenges, but this is the new mode I can see getting the least amount of play time.

The aforementioned Threes comes back relatively unchanged. But when a mode was as enjoyable as Threes was in its debut in NHL 18, it’s hard to criticize not touching it.

There are over 900+ different clothing options for your custom player. With jackets, toques, gloves, pants and more, you have the option to really make your player reflect your personal style on the ice. Even more so, there are a number of new equipment customizations as well as goal celebrations to really let your personality shine. I think the best part of the customizations are that you have to actually earn them via in-game progression rather than simply buy them. There are absolutely no microtransactions within the World of Chel.

A NEW TOP MODE

For a while, the best mode in the NHL series has been Hockey Ultimate Team as it seemed like it was the only one getting real love during development. In NHL 19, it’s safe to say that that’s no longer the case.

On top of the new modes in the World of Chel, Franchise has gotten a massive improvement. Becoming the deepest experience ever in an EA Sports NHL game, Franchise includes a completely overhauled scouting system that makes it feel like it’s brand new.

If you don’t do your due diligence, the player you scout may not be exactly who you think he is.

Players can hire and fire scouts, sending them all over the World to gather intel on both amateur and professional players. Whether you want to know about individual players or a group of players from a specific team, the new scouting mechanics give you the chance to find out whatever you want to know before adding a player to your organization.

In addition to the general scouting, the new “Fog of War” system forces you to do the proper amount of scouting in order to find out the true rating of a player. If you don’t do your due diligence, the player you scout may not be exactly who you think he is.

Features like in-season contract negotiations, player moral, relocation, promotions, and more add to the fun that NHL 19’s Franchise presents.

The mode is still missing a fun trade-deadline experience like it had in the past with multiple cell phones on deadline day. Furthermore, it would be nice to finally see the return of Connected GM, but that doesn’t seem to be in the plans anytime soon.

You can also once again start a franchise as an expansion team, but the game still doesn’t allow in-career expansion. If you don’t choose to expand at the beginning, you can’t do it later on.

The previously mentioned HUT gets some new additions, but remains largely the same thing from year’s past. After reaching a deal with the NHL Alumni Association, players like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemiux are once again included in the game to collect and use. The ability to try out players via a loan is another new wrinkle to the mode, giving everyone an option to “try before you buy”. You still can’t customize your team’s look though, forcing you to wear an already created jersey that you get in a pack. It’s pretty disappointing at this stage.

MORE THAN A FEELING

The on-ice action of NHL 19 plays out better than it ever has.

The Real Player Motion technology that has been utilized in both Madden NFL 19 and NBA Live 19 makes its way to the NHL series, adding a new sense of realism to the game’s skating mechanics.

Larger players like Zdeno Chara skate slower with wider turns while the small, shiftier players like Johnny Gaudreau zip around the ice like you would see in a real game. The transition between skating forward and backward feels smooth, the way players turn with and without the puck feels lifelike, and the stick handling controls appropriately.

The Real Player Motion also improved the game’s hitting mechanics as bigger players will put on accurate hits to smaller guys, and vice-versa.

NHL 19 Ratings
The new Real Player Motion makes the on-ice action the best it’s ever been

From an AI perspective, the players are more adaptive to what’s happening in a given game than in year’s past. If they get the sense you are throwing pucks along to boards to move up ice, expect them to start covering the wall tighter. The same goes for aggressively going for the big hits. Eventually, the AI will adapt and become more aware of the hit attempts coming their way.

The controls in NHL 19 don’t favor one side — offense or defense — over the other. There are enough ways to showcase your skill on both sides to stand out.

On the offensive side of things, the variety of dekes at your disposal gives players the ability to keep defenders guessing at what’s coming next. Even saucer passes, when mastered, provide a great method for getting a prime scoring chance when on a rush. For defense, the defensive skill stick returns with a bit more control than NHL 18. You can still move the stick in any direction by utilizing the right analog, but you can actually feel a difference depending on what you’re trying to do whether it be a chop, poke check, or stick lift.

Now I’ll admit, at first I couldn’t stand how the poke check changes worked. It felt far too easy to trip someone, and way too difficult to actually make a play. After spending more time with it, however, it quickly become apparent that it was all about the angles. More-so than any other year, you can’t just spam the poke and expect results. If you don’t time and place your stick in the right spot at the right time, you’re going to end up sitting in the box feeling all of the guilt.

STILL A WAY TO GO

Disappointingly, Be-A-Pro remains the most tedious mode of any sports game. There’s nothing new here as you still take your player into the CHL or right to the NHL, and work to become the best player possible. With no off-ice entertainment in between games, there’s just still no real reason to ever dive into it unless you absolutely love playing as a locked player with only AI opponents and teammates.

On the presentation side of things, the NBC Sports broadcast package returns with Doc Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro calling the action. If NHL 18’s commentary felt stale and repetitive, well you won’t like NHL 19’s offering.

The Great One is back in NHL 19

Far too often you hear the same lines about teams and players, especially when in franchise. Rarely do you get dialogue about the current season as it’s clear there just aren’t enough lines of dialogue to utilize. Sure, you’ll get something relevant during the pre-game commentary, but there’s nothing about a player on a hot streak or a slumping superstar during the action on the ice or between plays.

It’s about time that EA Sports makes the move to a younger and fresher duo to call the action that can actually provide a large selection of lines as well as have some genuine emotion in their calls.

In addition to the commentary, there are a no real stat overlays within games. While you may have on a given broadcast a look at the top players in the league, standings, or a team’s best players, NHL 19 is missing all of that. You get some stats during the pre-game skate, but, like relevant in-season commentary, there are none once the action on the ice begins.

Player models, while there are more scanned athletes this time around, still don’t look as good as they should this late in the console cycle. When you see the scans of games like NBA Live and NBA 2K, it’s tough to get excited about what NHL 19 shows. What’s worse is that jerseys still aren’t completely accurate. From the font used on the Buffalo Sabres primary sweaters to the way the numbers look distorted on others, the art department needs to spend some more time getting the designs of the main jerseys of every team accurate.

In the stands, the crowd models could stand to get an upgrade. That said, it’s not very high on my list of things I’d address going forward. It’s more like just a personal peeve seeing the same animations for 10 straight fans in the crowd.

VERDICT

NHL 19 succeeds in more ways than a hockey game has in quite some time.

From the diehard fan to the casual gamer, it offers something for every type of player. The World of Chel is great foundation for what is going to turn into a larger community while Franchise has finally seen the improvements to areas that fans have wanted for a long time.

It’s not without its flaws, but NHL 19 is finally a game that any hockey fan would be better off picking up than skipping.


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  • Gameplay
  • Game Modes
  • Presentation
  • Longevity

Summary

It’s not without its flaws, but NHL 19 is finally a game that any hockey fan would be better off picking up than skipping.

Overall
4
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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.