During the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 generation, EA Sports’ NHL series has been a mixed bag of results. It started the generation as poorly as a AAA sports game could with the abysmal showing of NHL 15 before making progress year over year. But now, with NHL 21, the series is at the end of a generation, and is hoping to leave a big enough mark to get people excited for the series’ future jump to the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5.

Game Modes

NHL 21 is a game with plenty of modes for fans. In fact, you can say that there’s a mode for anyone whether you prefer to play online with others or stick to an offline, single-player experience. So let’s start with Be a Pro.

The game’s career mode has finally been revamped for NHL 21, giving offline players a much more satisfying experience than in year’s past. However, the mode still has clear limitations, and really only scratched the surface of what can be done with Be a Pro.

Be a Pro in NHL 21 reminds me vividly of a MyCareer mode from NBA 2K, but from 2015. Conversations are mostly basic and nonconsequential, and in-game challenges that blossom from those conversations don’t appear to add any drama to the mode. There are cutscenes that cannot be skipped, as it appears EA and other developers refuse to learn from 2K’s mistakes.

Additionally, commentators James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro provide dialogue about your player’s progress while in the menus, which is a refreshing experience. There are more options than ever before in Be a Pro this year, but the range of outcomes is microscopic. The most climactic events – free agency, contract negotiations, interactions with players and coaches, etc. – all lack depth and substance worthy of an extended amount of time spent.

The entire mode is focused on your player’s first year, and the goal is to win the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year). While the rookie year is mostly a detailed and energetic experience, there simply isn’t enough after that. The mode continues for the length of your player’s career, however long or short that is, but the decision models and overall options you have are significantly diminished.

EA clearly is catering to the masses here, as most gamers surely don’t play more than one season of Be a Pro, if they even make it through one season. But for the diehards and the offline players who grind out this mode, Be a Pro in NHL 21 is still disappointing. This year’s installment of Be a Pro is a step in the right direction, but there is more work left to be done if EA truly desires to throw offline players a bone.

most of the improvements and changes to Franchise to NHL 21 could’ve been made in a routine patch during the year.

Franchise is mostly a menu-based mode in almost any video game, and it’s no different in NHL 21. There’s nothing new or wrong about that, but NHL 21’s Franchise does not offer many improvements from previous installments of the game.

More importantly, a game or a game mode that relies mostly on menus should have crisp, responsive menus. Franchise, and NHL 21 as a whole, does not feature that. Menus and screens are laggy and finicky to the point where some users may be deterred from playing the game entirely.

The biggest change is a revamped NHL Trade Deadline that adds more depth to the monde for the armchair GMs. Other adjustments include updated record books and historic stats and minor tweaks to prospects in the NHL Draft.

In large part, most of the improvements and changes to Franchise to NHL 21 could’ve been made in a routine patch during the year. Overall, the mode isn’t terrible, and offline players can surely find enjoyment playing Franchise, even for an extended time. Still, EA must incorporate an online version of Franchise to pique interest.

The World of Chel is still a great hub mode with fun to be had by everyone. The EASHL is still the epitome of online team-based play while Ones and Threes Eliminator provide a nice change of pace from the more stressful games that drop-in and club games present.

My only gripe remains the lack of attribute allocation with your players. I fully get why it was done: to keep players at a more even level. Unfortunately, it just feels like it’s a bit too limiting as to your player makeup. 

What I do like, though, is that the traits will change throughout the year. It’ll add a nice twist to how you build your player, but I just hope more is done in the future to make player builds more unique. 

Moving away from player builds in the World of Chel, EA Sports added a new ranking system that helps give a better look into the teams and players you go up against. It works similarly to the ranking systems in games like Rocket League, and should continue to help the matchmaking algorithm keep things as close as possible. 

Lastly, Ultimate Team is still the collectible card game mode fans expect and detractors hate. There is a nice new addition to it in the form of HUT Rush, which switches the gameplay up a bit with quicker action to unlock rewards towards building your team. Still, HUT is HUT and there’s not much more to look at. 

Gameplay

If you’ve played the NHL series any time over the last four years or so, you pretty much know what to expect from the action on the ice. In NHL 21, nothing really changes. There have been some improvements to AI defensive play as well as goaltending animations and tendencies, but it still feels largely the same from NHL 20, 19 and earlier. 

It’s not 100% the same as AI skaters do find new ways to get open and also attack the puck in newer ways, but it’s just not enough to really make things feel different. There’s also still no discernable difference between players depending on player type on the ice during games. My AI offensive defensive seems to play the same style as a defensive defenseman. Everything just feels repetitive after a few games. 

For those who like to play as goaltenders…you’ll notice that it feels exactly the same.

Puck control adds some new elements with dekes like the lacrosse shot and the Kucherov as well as the ability for chipping the puck. They added some nice new twists to what you can do, but nothing as problematic as some thought it would be like. 

For those who like to play as goaltenders in modes like Be a Pro and the World of Chel, you’ll notice that it feels exactly the same. Response time feels a little slow, but it remains a position where as long as you’re square to the shooter, you’ll find better luck making the saves. In fact, it’s rare that I found myself ever using the right stick for anything as a goaltender. It’s an area that could use a massive control overhaul in the future as it just feels too stale and unreliable.

Now, my biggest problems in terms of gameplay in NHL 21 are that, because of the game engine being the exact same from NHL 15, legacy issues on the ice remain. Players clip through the boards far too often. Sticks have a high tendency to go through each other as well as go through the body of players in close-contact situations. The worst thing, however, is too many instances of the puck still suffering from apparent magnetism. 

There are numerous instances of a player being in a perfect defensive position with a stick on the ice, and you’ll just see the puck force its way through a stick, skate, or other part of the body. 

NHL 21’s gameplay isn’t bad by any means, but it’s just too much of the same and feels too stale to be anything more than average right now. 

Presentation

With NHL 20, I seemed to be in the minority that felt the presentation overhaul was a success. Cybulski brings an emotion and energy to the game’s play by play that hasn’t been seen in years, and it continues in NHL 21

Player models still have received little-to-no updates.

Cybulski and the audio team at EA Vancouver does a great job of conveying the proper calls and inflection at the right time. A big goal late in a game gets a much different call and reaction than the first goal early in the opening period. It’s all about how the calls are made, and EA hits it out of the park with Cybulski and returning color man Ferraro. 

Aside from the commentary, the in-game graphics are the same as NHL 20, which was to be expected. They are only a year old and, although more on the arcade-side of the design spectrum, still look pretty good. With the series likely making the jump to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X next year, though, I’d anticipate seeing a brand new graphics package to usher in the new era. 

The player models still have received little-to-no updates. With the pandemic stopping a lot of scanning opportunities, I do give the team a little bit of leeway. That said, when longtime veterans have the same facial scans as they did nearly a decade ago, I just can’t excuse that. We’re at a point with technology that player scans should be quicker and easier than ever, and each NHL game should have more than just a few new faces to look at.

Lastly, we talked about the menus in franchise mode not being the most smooth and crisp. Well, it unfortunately remains the same throughout the rest of the game. The menu system has been the same the last few years, and it’s no better now than it was when it debuted. The tile system just doesn’t work, and things hang up far too often for my liking. It just leaves you more and more frustrated the longer you spend going through them.

NHL 21 Verdict

In many ways, NHL 21 took nice steps forward to close out the current generation. The overhauled Be a Pro is a good first step to a mode that hopefully doesn’t get the ax in the transition like it did heading to the PS4 and Xbox One era. Franchise mode also continues to see improvements with the aforementioned trade deadline feature. Nevertheless, more can still be done in terms of scouting and player development. 

Unfortunately, though, for as deep as the game is getting off the ice, the on-ice product is what is holding the series back. It’s not bad by any means, but there’s too much still here that disappoints. 

NHL 21 isn’t a Stanley Cup contender just yet, but it’s definitely a game that’s showing contendership potential. With a few key moves in the coming years, we could be talking about the NHL series moving towards the top of the sports gaming landscape, and even overtaking fellow EA Vancouver title FIFA Soccer at the top of the EA Sports quality food chain. It just isn’t there yet.

**A copy of NHL 21 was provided to SGO for the purposes of this review. Review completed by Mike Straw and Brandt Frye**

  • 6/10
    Gameplay - 6/10
  • 6.5/10
    Game Modes - 6.5/10
  • 5.5/10
    Presentation - 5.5/10
  • 6/10
    Longevity - 6/10
Overall
6/10

Summary

NHL 21 isn’t a Stanley Cup contender just yet, but it’s definitely a game that’s showing contendership potential.