A Home Run!
Up to this point in my life, I have not been a hockey fan. I watch about 2 hockey games every four years; when the U.S. team is playing during the Olympics. An annual sports game by the name of NHL 18 couldn’t singlehandedly turn me into a hockey fan, right? Well, it just might.
Platforms: XB1 (reviewed), PS4
Price I’d Pay: $59.99
The Learning Process
Fortunately, for newcomers like myself, hockey turns out to be extremely accessible. I felt like I had a good handle on what to do – for the most part – after just a few games. Penalties are the big thing that must be learned quickly, especially in this sport, when some of them will force the team to be down a man for minutes at a time. I learned a lot of little things about the game, but most of it came swiftly, with minimal effort.
Since the rules can be quickly learned, the next step is to feel comfortable with the controls. This exercise takes longer. The number of buttons to learn in each phase of the game is daunting early on, but after extensive use, becomes less so. In fact, the area I had the most trouble getting down, the shooting, became what I would call the most natural and intuitive facet of the controls. It just takes time to sink in.
Jumping into the Game
Going into NHL 18, It was my impression that the series had maintained a high-quality standard over the years. It didn’t take long for my opinion to align with those pre-conceived notions. The games overall presentation during games jumps out as being impressive. The detailed stitching on the uniforms, reflections and shadows on the ice, a dynamic and entirely convincing crowd – all contribute to an atmosphere that is already heralded as one of the best in sports.
Surprises in the game simulation happen too. Sticks break. Helmets fly off. Even a well-placed puck will dislodge the goalie’s water bottle. The announcers are far from perfect, but when they realistically comment on a player breaking their stick on a slap shot, I come away impressed.
Scoring goals obviously brings great joy, especially when you have to earn them, but a nice body check approaches that in the satisfaction department. The players have great collision physics, but there were two occasions that I did see the puck go straight through players as it entered the net. This had to have happened more than the two times I noticed it.
After completing the tutorial and messing around in a few exhibition games, I entered into the create-a-player mode that comes with every sports game. “Be a Pro”, as it is called in this game, was invaluable at improving my skills and teaching me the finer points of hockey.
Becoming a Pro
Comparing it to other sports games, “Be a Pro”, could appear to some as being barebones. Other than having my player train in certain aspects to boost stats every week, the only thing I did was play games. Despite this, I had a blast, because it constantly let me know if I was helping my team or not, and I saw myself consistently grow.
Making positive plays will have a green message appear above the player – negative ones will show red. The pause menu also logs those messages for review. These observations by the coach contribute to a letter grade for how well you are performing on offense, defense, and in team play (penalties, shift length, etc.). Those grades over several games end up determining if you are moving up in the organization or down.
It doesn’t stop there though. Many actions during a game will have direct stat repercussions. Taking high percentage shots will increase power and accuracy stats for the player; failing to cover the area or man on defense will have the ‘defensive awareness’ stat take a hit. These stat additions and subtractions double during crunch time too, which really makes one lean forward and pay attention. The real-time feedback and evaluation system seamlessly taught me how to play the game properly.
Despite its limited scope, “Be a Pro” was the most realistic career-simulation experience I’ve had. Every game mattered and every move in that game mattered. When I was new to the game I couldn’t perform well enough to make an NHL roster. Once I got more comfortable with controls and learned more about hockey, I made the roster, became a starter eventually, and led my team to the playoffs as one of the league’s best offensive players. I earned all of that, but this mode can be commended for helping me get there.
The Other Modes
“Be a Pro” is where I spent the majority of my time, but the other standard sports modes are there and completely serviceable. Almost all have online competitive and cooperative opportunities.
Players can run their team of choice or create an expansion team with tremendous control over the finances and direction of the team. People who are already hockey fans – who know much more about what hockey contracts should look like – would be far less intimidated than I was while trying to get into this mode.
NHL Threes is apparently a new mode, which hosts fast-paced 3v3 gameplay in a smaller rink. Arcade-y aspects like a rowdy announcer, flames, mascot substitutions and other general wackiness offer a unique experience compared to standard hockey.
“NHL Ultimate Team” offers players the opportunity to create a team with current players and legends who can be slowly earned, or purchased with real money. This mode does some cool things like how games have secondary objectives that award more currency; but my initial reaction to this mode is that it doesn’t fit as well with hockey as much as it does with other sports. With my limited knowledge of positions and no attachment or knowledge of any of the players, it didn’t pull me in, but someday might.
NHL 18 has intuitive controls, a stellar presentation, and a keen eye for the details. It also checks all the boxes for what should be included in an annual sports game. Playing as a single player in “Be a Pro” was a highlight because it did such a great job at teaching game mechanics and the sport’s fundamentals. The mode also fits hockey perfectly because – no matter what position you play – you’re always involved in the game when you’re on the ice.
NHL 18 will satisfy hockey fans; that goes without saying. Its real achievement though is in its design, which will seamlessly teach and assist a player who knows nothing about hockey. They’re likely to stick around too, because as it turns out, hockey is a blast in videogame form.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.