EA’s NHL franchise has been one of my favourites for years. Whilst I’m not an avid watcher of the NHL anymore, I watch my local team. the Nottingham Panthers, and as far as sports go it’s definitely one of the most exciting. As we approach the end of the PS4 and Xbox One’s life cycle, NHL 21 ends on a higher note than the likes of Madden 21 and NBA 2K21, but it’s still another example of developers looking to the future instead of drastically improving on the present.
On the ice, NHL 21 feels amazing. The first match I played ended in a thrilling conclusion and instantly showed where the gameplay had been improved. As the Toronto Maple Leafs, I barely squeezed in a victory against current Stanley Cup holders, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The final score was 6-5, but the three quarters were filled with plenty of action, fights, and near misses on both ends of the ice. AI has improved all-round. My teammates were making smart moves up the passing lanes, and the general flow and positioning was more flexible than last year’s. Making cross-ice passes are always the most important kind. My teammates would find space which allowed me to pass into them in good positions, giving me comfort to know I didn’t have to do everything myself.
Some of the new dekes are fantastic, and once you master them the options when one-on-one with a defender have opened up. The open-ice deke is probably my favourite new move, allowing you to knock the puck past a player whilst you can move in the opposite direction and reclaim it just before an attempt at goal.
The defence has also been improved, especially when trying to score against the opposition. Poke checks were precise, causing me to lose the puck just as I was about to shoot, and player intelligence seemed much better. One problem I did have was how almost every offensive break the opposing team made was faultless. No missed passes, always in perfect positions, and rarely failed to break past my AI-controlled players. Goalies on both sides are more daring than in NHL 20, making scoring more of a challenge. They tend to be braver, meaning the need to master dekes and shot types is vital.
Whilst there are no new modes in NHL 21, there have been some decent additions to the likes of Be A Pro. You now have a personality for your created player and a story path to follow. It isn’t anything monumental, but it makes you feel more involved. There are no friends with heart problems or family issues in need of resolution, but it does add more to the mode. There’s are cutscenes with dialogue choices, and you can shape the way your path to glory is made. Do you become an upstanding member of your franchise, or hunt for your own glory? The choices are yours, and by fulfilling objectives your standing as a player improves.
The Franchise mode is fairly similar to last year’s, but the inclusion of a transfer deadline day adds some spice to the game. Whilst it is similar to the transfer deadline in the FIFA series, there is more at stake, and the way player values fluctuate as the deadline approaches feels dynamic. There are plenty of options to help you craft how you approach the deadline, making it one of the coolest new features to NHL 21. You can also keep tabs on your career through the History Books, so if your a fan of statistics, this addition will be right up your street.
NHL’s online game feels rather similar to NHL 20, but the new HUT Rush mode is a lot of fun. It rewards you for playing skilfully, using your ability to pull off different dekes whilst scoring to gain multipliers. World of CHEL is still awesome, and you can now adjust your player’s traits to make them standout from the rest, such as slap shot accuracy, puck control, and stick checking.
NHL 21 looks great, but there seems to be seldom changes to the presentation and commentary. Player animations are good, but some still feel a little wooden. The attention to detail of the arenas and the kit designs are impressive, but they have been for the last few entries. This is pretty much the way it is for the entire game. Whilst there are some new additions to the two big modes, the game feels far too similar to last year. Gameplay has seen definite improvement in the AI, and the new dekes are great, but like most sports games of 2020, NHL 21 feels more like an update than a brand new game.
Be A Pro has improved
Gameplay tweaks are noticeable
Transfer deadline in Franchise mode is welcomed
No new modes
HUT Rush is fun