As someone who has been a dedicated player of anything NHL for the better part of the last 18 years — NHL ’99 was the first “new” game purchased — it’s always an exciting time whenever the opportunity comes to get hands on the latest release.
Recently, the chances come sooner thanks to the release of game betas during the summer. It’s a nice palate pleaser while waiting for the game’s full release in the fall.
Though NHL 17 is still a heavy part of my daily gaming, there was just no reason to pass up the chance to load up the NHL 18 Beta and play some familiar and new modes with friends while also seeing how the gameplay differs.
The beta offers standard Online Versus matchups, EA Sports Hockey League games (and drop-ins), and the brand new NHL Threes mode. It’s a nice mix-up of offerings as opposed to just giving players one mode with limited options to try.
Unfortunately, after just a couple periods of standard play, I found myself falling slowly into a feeling of redundancy. Aside from some pretty cool touches — more on that later –, everything just felt too familiar.
Despite the gameplay being slowed down, it still felt a bit to easy to quickly get by AI defenders without the slightest thought of attempting a deke. Even with the new skill moves at your disposal, there just wasn’t a need to use them. And if that wasn’t enough, the AI still move out of position far too often to play the same spot as a teammate rather than staying in their lane. It doesn’t make sense how oblivious they can be on the ice during a given play.
This is a problem that’s been around since NHL 15, at least, and is still rearing its ugly head four iterations later with NHL 18. It seems more like a logic problem that can be tuned than anything else, and hopefully the team at EA Vancouver can address it before the game’s launch in September.
After moving away from standard online versus games into the EASHL, that’s when the game started to stand out in regards to gameplay changes and the new mechanics.
The beta gives players the ability to try out the overhauled skill sticks on both offense and defense. The offensive skill stick doesn’t feel too revolutionary, but it is pretty nice to pull off the between the legs passes for a scoring chance. Of course, I was only able to pull it off a couple of times because of the defensive skill stick.
The defensive skill stick is a welcomed addition to NHL 18, offering a variety of ways to break up odd-man rushes, passes and get in front of shots. Being able to keep your stick on the ice one way while turning your player’s body another makes playing defense more fun than it ever has, especially when jumping to the EASHL. That being said, the defensive skill stick felt a bit too overpowered.
Poke check success rate was far too high without a penalty being called
Poke check success rate was far too high without a penalty being called, and I seemed to be able to get in the way of anything I wanted to. The best players in the World shouldn’t be able to do that, let alone one who considers himself a good, but not great, player.
When it came to the goaltending, the AI netminders still get abused on the same plays over and over again. However, I did notice they come up with some big saves at key moment. The goaltending play still needs work, but it’s a step up from NHL 17 despite games still ending 7-5/6-5 a bit too much for my liking.
One thing that was a breath of fresh air, mostly when playing Drop-In games with random players, was seeing defensemen spend more time in position than trying to jump up every play to be a star. The defensive skill stick, as overpowered as it is right now, gives purpose to those that like to play the blue line. It made EASHL more fun than ever before when playing with a full team.
The star of the NHL 18 Beta was NHL Threes. This mode takes elements from the great NHL 3-on-3 Arcade title, and brings the arcade-style gameplay to the 21st century.
Fast gameplay, big hits, different ways to win all make Threes one of the more fun game modes introduced to the franchise. Whether it was playing against the CPU or online against friends or random players, Threes was so much fun that it was tough to put down. In fact, it was, without question, the most played mode for me during the beta.
It’s definitely something that you can jump into if you just want a quick fix, or if you want to play some hockey with a few friends that are over without getting too serious about the game. It’s a versatile mode that adds to the games replay value.
Adding three-vs-three to the EASHL was a great move by the developers. Whether it was with a club or random drop-in players, EASHL Threes added a whole new way to play the popular mode while not taking away what made the mode enjoyable in the first place.
At the end of the day, the NHL 18 Beta leaves a taste of a half-release as opposed to a full game follow up. While the new mechanics are nice, there just aren’t enough changes on the ice and inside the arena to make this feel like a new game instead of an NHL 17.5 or something like that. Even the commentary, scenes and just overall presentation make this feel more like a major content update to NHL 17 than a new game.
It’s not to say the beta wasn’t a nice look at what is shaping up to be a solid game, and things are sure to change in some fashion before the full game is out, but the beta gives enough examples of NHL 18 seeming more like a transition and fine-tuning year as opposed to anything else.
Be sure to stick around to Sports Gamers Online for the full review of NHL 18 when it launches on September 15 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Those who preorder the game’s deluxe edition will gain access to the game three days earlier on September 12.
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