The latest and (potentially) greatest addition to the NHL series has arrived from EA Sports and we at Chirpin’ DMV were important enough to receive it a little early to review. Isn’t that cool of us? This year’s game is blessed with Washington Capitals’ captain, Alex Ovechkin, on the cover, as he makes his second appearance on the front of an NHL game since being on NHL 07. This newest game arrives following the massive success that was NHL 20. Last year’s rendition of NHL was so popular amongst YouTubers, streamers and even the NHL players themselves that EA Sports knew they needed to make the 21st interpretation of the series even better than the last. Did they deliver? Let’s find out.
If you’ve liked the presentation of the game since NHL 18, you’re in luck because they haven’t really changed much in terms of presentation. The menu screen is the same as usual where you can pick three game-mode blocks to pin to your home screen. I have truthfully never been a fan of these menus and wish they would go back to something similar to what they had in NHL 17. At least those menu screens were more aesthetically pleasing. It also made choosing your favourite team mean something as it changed the look of the different game-mode blocks. Having Alex Ovechkin on the “Be a Pro” game-mode block is nice to see, though.
While you’re navigating the menus, your ears will be treated with a soundtrack that sounds like it could belong to any NHL game from the past few years. All songs have that sort of alternative and indie vibe. The best songs, in my opinion, are “Hellogoodbye” by HOKO and “Years in the Making” by The Arkells. They’re good, but they don’t have those standout tracks like they used to that players can nostalgically associate with each individual release. You know the ones I’m talking about. “Red Flag” by Billy Talent from NHL 06, “Misery Business” by Paramore in NHL 08, or, as Stat Guy Blake pointed out on Twitter:
But hey, at least that God-awful song from last year isn’t in it. You know the one…
When it comes to in-game presentation, it is more or less the same as last year with James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro calling the action of every single team that plays, regardless of what continent you’re on. The scoreboard is still on the bottom of the screen as well. To those who hate it, I understand. To those who love it, I also understand. It’s a pretty divisive thing when we should really all just be happy that Snoop Dogg seems to have kept his paws off of this game *wink at the camera*.
However, when you fire up Be a Pro and that trailer video plays showing Alex Ovechkin and his legacy, you just feel electric. That is an unreal video so kudos to EA Sports for that one because I would never skip that video even if it played every time you opened the mode (which it doesn’t, by the way).
In all honesty, the overall presentation doesn’t matter too much. Would it be nice to see a new-look NHL game? Of course, but you aren’t paying your hard-earned money to scroll through the menus or for a new scoreboard. You’re paying for the meat of the game, which is the actual gameplay. So, how is the gameplay?
If you’re familiar with how NHL 20 plays and you enjoyed the gameplay, you should be quite happy with NHL 21. The game is very similar to last year, however there are a few noticeable differences that I feel make the game more difficult and more realistic. I mean both as compliments.
One major improvement I noticed while playing was the improvement of the computer AI. This year they are much more aggressive than in years prior. They will chase you down in your own zone with such determination and resiliency that you would think they were starving, and the puck had a warm meal inside of it. Their puck pursuits usually result in success due to their improved stick-checking capabilities. Seriously, if you are within range of an opposing player and are not overly focused on protecting the puck, they will poke it off your stick and have possession so fast. Trying to break out of your own zone or enter the offensive zone can be a nightmare at times, but it is a good nightmare because it makes you earn every inch of the ice.
When they inevitably get the puck from you, they are much smarter than before. They can stop up and break your ankles before throwing a cross-ice pass to enter the zone. It’s also almost a guarantee that they will get a clean zone-exit when they have possession in their own end.
Speaking of stick work, they seem to have altered the poke-checking and stick-lifting. Whether it’s for better or for worse, I haven’t decided. In last year’s game, you had to master the timing of a poke check, otherwise you’d take a devastating amount of tripping penalties. This forced players to improve their stick-lifting abilities in order to obtain a puck. In NHL 21, the stick-lift function doesn’t work nearly as easily as it did in NHL 20. You need to be in the perfect position if you want to be lifting sticks.
Referring back to the AI, you can trust your AI teammates this year like never before when they have the puck. Even in Be a Pro, where you usually would prefer to carry the puck yourself. If you give the puck to them in a good area, they are capable of finding the back of the net, or the right pass to assist in putting the puck in the back of the net.
An area of improvement that might receive the most praise is goaltending. This is the first year where I can confidently say that a cross-crease pass does NOT automatically result in a goal. Goalies are actually capable of seeing a play develop and anticipating the pass. However, if you’re on or around the goal line and pass cross-crease, it will more than likely get through with no interference so that kind of takes the wind out of those sails a bit. Still a major improvement. The only area they’re lacking now is rebound control. I have seen some weak shots let go by the goalie in my few days with the game.
The biggest and most-advertised changes to the gameplay come in the forms of new dekes and moves that players can pull off. Well, maybe they can pull them off. The newest dekes introduced are the bank and flip passes players can make to themselves, the Kucherov No-Deke, and the Michigan (yeah, no chance I am calling that move the Svechnikov. Kick rocks, Svech). These are pleasant additions to the game, but the fact that they are actually difficult to pull off is the real MVP here. If some guy online was pulling a Michigan on me every other shift, I’d probably throw my controller through a window.
The gameplay, overall, has become more difficult but in the best way possible. The improvements made have made the game more realistic. As a result, I rarely find myself blaming the game when I get scored on, but rather I recognize that I made mistakes and the other team capitalized.
In addition to the gameplay enhancements, EA Sports made some much-needed game-mode enhancements. None bigger than the mode they left untouched for five years and then spent all of their time and efforts on, Be a Pro.
Be a Pro
As I said, Be a Pro mode has been nothing short of a joke since NHL 14’s Live the Life mode. After that, it was just bland and redundant gameplay where you play out your entry-level contract only to have contract offers from the same team you were already on and one other team for less than you’re worth.
In NHL 21’s Be A Pro mode, they have made some major improvements. Beginning with customization, there is way more of it to be had with your player. You can alter things from your spine angle when you skate to your hustle arm swing motion (insane name). There is also a helpful feature where you pick your secondary position, so you can be moved around the lineup more effectively. Not to mention, you can actually get the number you choose as your preferred number. I haven’t been able to wear #19 for probably the last three seasons and I’m stuck with some random number like 24 because it’s the next closest number available.
There is also now somewhat of a story line that follows you, the “hot, young prospect,” as he or she carves their path to the NHL. You can start out in either the NHL and select a team to play for (lame), or you can build your draft status in either the CHL, or over in Europe. This newer version of the mode comes with cut scenes that your player has with either the media, the coach, the GM or other players. Each cut scene revolves around text-based dialogue where you primarily either select a “Team” response, a “Neutral” response, or a “Star” response. Depending on what you choose, you will see rises in either your teammate likeability, your management likeability, or your brand. Plus, you can answer these questions in front of exciting backdrops, such as this.
It is interesting how the decisions can impact your story, however. For example, I find it cool that I was projected to be the #1 overall pick, but slid to #2 because I had a poor draft interview with the New York Rangers. I like how that conversation actually made a large impact.
Although they are neat at first, the conversations do leave some more to be desired. Some cut scenes become monotonous when you’re just trying to play the game. Other times, they are just wrong and unnecessary.
After a game which we won in overtime on a goal by yours truly, I was talking to the media in the visiting team’s locker room (which somehow looks the exact same as the CHL rinks I played in during the Memorial Cup). They proceeded to ask me about how I felt “despite the result.” Well, reporter, the result was pretty damn great, so I don’t know why you are asking me how I felt despite it. Then, during another game, we scored right off of a faceoff. Afterwards, the coach called me over and told me how if it weren’t for that faceoff win, that goal couldn’t have happened. I couldn’t respond, so it seemed pretty unneeded.
Still, the head coaches deserve some praise. The fact that they are completely mute and coaching at such a high level is nothing short of a miracle and an amazing accomplishment.
My final complaint with the conversations is the teammate conversations. I was drafted to the Los Angeles Kings and 15 games into my career I have only had conversations with Carl Grundstrom. This guy comes up every practice asking me to promise I’ll score a goal. Uhh hey, leave me alone, man. Also, does Anze Kopitar even know I’m here? He’s my captain and he hasn’t said a damn word. My guy must be pretty lonely. I mean, he is always just at the rink in his full gear, aside from a helmet. There never seems to be anyone else there until they come up to start a conversation. Pretty weird guy.
While your player is sitting there alone, looking like he is trying to figure out how to cover up the murder he just acted out prior to sitting in the locker-room menu hub, you can hear James Cybulski’s radio show that plays over the menu hub screen. It is surprisingly a nice touch and feels very natural. He discusses your performance after each game and is usually joined by a guest with Ray Ferraro being the most frequent guest of the show.
It is nice to see the coaches have received some improvements, as far as I’m concerned. For example, they moved me to the wing because they had too many established centremen and it helped to balance the lineup. Also, I was left on the ice with less than a minute remaining, even though I was tired, because we were down by a goal and we needed to score. These are things that didn’t happen in NHL 20’s Be a Pro mode.
In addition, there are new salary perks that your player can purchase with the money you accumulate. This can be anything from a bicycle to an island, if you happen to make 100 million sheets in your career. Each item you purchase impacts specific on-ice stats for a certain number of games. It’s nothing crazy, but it is a nice touch to help make the mode feel more authentic.
I am curious to see how all of these additions factor into later years of your player’s career. Cybulski’s entire show is based around calling you “the rookie,” and they even actually show you getting drafted this year unlike in previous years. I am curious if there is this much story put into, for example, when you enter a contract season, or if the mode is primarily built around being a rookie.
Although it isn’t close to other similar game modes found in 2K’s NBA, or even EA Sports’ Madden and FIFA series, Be a Pro has taken the right steps forward toward becoming a must-play game mode. They have made the experience more authentic than ever, allowing users to truly feel like a young player getting his or her shot in the NHL. That’s a lot more than can be said about previous executions of the game mode.
Other Game Modes
I won’t go into too much depth because I just wrote over 2000 words about the gameplay and Be a Pro. I feel like everybody wants to know about gameplay in a new NHL release, and Be a Pro received the biggest overhaul of any game mode, so it was justified. Now, let’s speed-run through the other game modes.
EA describes this mode by saying, “you’ll compete in seasons with all different kinds of games — 3v3, 5v5, timed games, goal limit games — to earn rewards and progress through the rankings.” In this mode, the way you score impacts how many points you earn. So, in this instance, style matters.
There aren’t many changes made to franchise mode in NHL 21, but the ones that were made are neat enhancements. The main additions come at the NHL Trade Deadline. Before the deadline, you decide whether your team is a buyer, conservative buyer, seller, or conservative seller. When you arrive on deadline day, you are given a certain amount of time to make your moves to improve your team. While you are trying to get your deals done, other deals around the league are getting done and some top-tier talent is being taken off the trade board. It becomes imperative to know what your needs are before you enter the deadline so you can get your moves done nice and early.
World of Chel
Again, no major changes in this mode, but the ones that are made are nice. Club practices allow for you and your EASHL club to get together and work on the systems that will help you until you lag out of all your online games. A scrimmage mode allows for you and your teammates to practice in a game situation, and free skate allows for you to try out your new custom loadout all alone with just you and the goalie. They also added EASHL Club Finals, which take place at the end of each ranked season. These small additions all add up to make an overall greater game mode.
To wrap up this short novel and to put a bow on the thoughts I have presented you with, NHL 21 is a legitimate improvement over the previous games. I would go as far as to say that this one has the potential to be the best game since NHL 14, which is a fan favourite. Enhancements to gameplay and AI have made this the most realistic game yet, and made each goal feel like the result of hard work paying off. The major overhaul of Be a Pro took their most lacking game mode and shoved it very far in the right direction. EA Sports receives a lot of flack for their NHL series, and rightfully so, but I think this one is a great sign of what’s to come (even though there won’t be a new version on new consoles, which is just classic EA).