We are at that part of the year once more when EA Sports release the latest versions of their sports series. With Fifa 18, NBA Live and Madden NFL out on the market. I was pleased to have the opportunity to play EA’s NHL 18 to see how it had been improved from last years offering, and also to let me do my bit to raise awareness for a sport that over in the UK isn’t really well followed.
In the sporting charts you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Fifa 17 on the PS4 sold 1,250,586 (VGChartz) within the first few months of its release in 2016 making it most likely to adorn the shelves of gamers up and down the country. Lets face it, football is massive over here. Ice hockey on the other hand is not so popular, and in contrast the UK sales for NHL 17 were a mere 3745 (VGChartz) copies in the first few months with 1946 copies bought at launch week. GTA V even managed to achieve more sales in its 96th week. Personally I find the lack of interest in the sport a shame and blame it on lack of local ice hockey rinks and sports marketing, there is an Elite Ice Hockey League in the UK however nobody is probably aware that it exists!
Ice Hockey games have been aplenty on consoles and computers for many years, with my earliest childhood memories being that of top down simulation Wayne Gretzky Hockey on the Atari 520, Slap Shot on the Sega Master System and EA’s NHL Hockey on the Sega Genesis. The idea of sprinting and sliding around on the ice trying to shoot a well timed puck into a net that is being guarded by a giant of a goalkeeper really appealed to me as did the satisfaction of barging your mate into the barriers and the inevitable throw down of the helmets when commencing a punch up!
So what is in NHL 18 that could entice you to purchase it? Well, a new “Hockey Canada Training Camp” is a brilliant way to learn the sport from its very basics. The tutorial is interjected with full screen videos of real-life players showing you the moves that you are shortly to perform and this helps give an understanding as to why they use the particular move and when to use it. It does not take long to go from basic shots to intricate plays that feign which way you are really going to place that puck. As the tutorial progresses so does the complexity of the moves however to be built up from scratch with regards to how to use the controller makes them a lot easier to remember and successfully pull off.
In hockey games it has usually been a trait that the hockey stick is governed by the direction that you are moving your player however EA have now allowed the stick to be separately controlled via the right stick of the controller. This is actually quite a major advance as the ability to create offensive deke moves such as back-handed toe drags, heel drags, puck flips and one handed moves allows you to react with greater precision as you plan your next play. Equally the performance of the stick control when defending has also been enriched by the new ability that allows you to target your poke checks, sweep your stick back and forth over a zone and also extend your stick to disrupt play. Having control over the upper and lower body is brilliant and a well timed barge at the right angle can be enough to put off your opponent and steal the puck. Of course if this isn’t how you want to play then you can revert back to classic controls.
With the innovative stick controls, don’t think that it is only you that wields these all-impressive powers. The AI also have the same tools as you making the gameplay as a whole a lot more rewarding. Having team mates looking for breakout opportunities via off-the-boards passing and better positioning gives you a whole host of possible plays at any given moment.
One key feature that makes NHL18 refreshing is the new game mode “NHL Threes”. Like it sounds, the fast and thrilling competitive mode allows you to play 3 on 3 full matches on a slightly smaller ice hockey arena. With so much ice to play around on it quickly becomes an exhilarating end to end battle. NHL Threes is nothing short of nuts to play and here is where the skill stick mode comes into its own as one trick can either be the start of a fantastic attack or a fatal defensive mistake. NHL Threes is available to play as a campaign, online team play, local team play and head to head. Campaign sees you compete against different teams and leagues in a circuit style journey; online and local team play offers games with upto 5 of your friends while head to head is either online or local whereby you face off controlling the whole team.
NHL Threes allows you to decide how to win the game with either a goal limit or the more traditional timer with periods and clocks. The all new “money puck” option is a twist on the classic game whereby a “fire” puck becomes worth 3 points should you score and an “ice” puck gives you one point while reducing your opponent points on the board. The money pucks appear randomly during the match and can really swing the match as I found out!
The Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) has had a new challenge mode included that gives you a chance to earn unique rewards that will help build up your team. The reward scheme is not just there for solo play but also features co-op challenges so that you can team up with a friend and both earn together.
There is a huge franchise mode on NHL 18 which is definitely worth a mention. The new “expansion draft” feature allows you to reshape the entire NHL and create a 32nd team, selecting players that you want from a roster and then protecting them so that they stay in the team. You can customise your ice hockey arena, select what global city they are based in, design your own custom mascot and even create your own NHL affiliate. If you don’t want to create your own team you can play as one of the existing teams and even manage them from an owner perspective, looking after player morale, the arena and its facilities, budgets and new to NHL 18 the ability to extend player contracts mid-season. There is certainly enough to be keeping you on your toes during the season!
As with each EA release, both the scenery and the sporting characters get a little refined every year. You may not notice much of a difference if you already have NHL 17 but to new comers it isn’t too bad. If I was being critical then I would point out that compared with other sporting sims such as Fifa, the graphics are no way near as stunning. The crowd around the arena do not look very detailed or dynamic in their movements and players do not seem to have smooth transitions when going from scoring to celebrating.
Sound effects out on the ice are clean and crisp with the swooshes and smacks of the sticks and pucks sliding across the frozen floor. The NHL 18 soundtrack features thumping tracks from the likes of Calvin Harris, Panic! At The Disco and Daft Punk just to name a few.
When playing the threes mode the commentator is ramped up a notch leaving the typical play by play announcements and instead opting for a more crowd rallying cry based on what is happening out on the ice. If you enjoy the way that WWE wrestling is commentated on then you will be at home here!
There is certainly a lot of ways to play both alone and with friends on NHL 18 with jam packed online and offline modes. Although there is not a single player story campaign as seen in the recent Fifa and NBA games, EA is trying to appeal to new players by offering a new training system to enable them to learn the skills to enjoy the game.
If you have followed the NHL series of games for a while you maybe a little disappointed in the latest offering as it will feel a little samey however the NHL Threes mode is exciting and different enough to possibly tempt you into a purchase. One thing is for sure, EA need to refresh their NHL franchise for next year if they want to keep their players interested as this years “what’s new” is certainly light on the ground.
I award NHL 18 a Thumb Culture Silver award with 7/10.
Disclaimer. We received a physical copy of NHL 18 to review this game and was not repeatedly poked with a hockey stick in an attempt to make us say nice things.
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