Reviewed on the Xbox One.
Electronic Arts’ NHL franchise has had a bumpy road through the Xbox One generation to say the least. Their first effort on the Xbox One, NHL 15, was a gutted out version of the game that addressed presentation at the expense of experience. Gone was the highly popular EA Sports Hockey League mode, as well as Connected GM. Since then, each iteration has built upon the last, leading up to NHL 21, the final game in the Xbox One generation. Is it enough to the glory days or the Xbox 360 era?
The first half was met with mixed results for the NHL franchise, but the latter half has seen genuine, impactful improvements. NHL 19 and NHL 20 both took significant steps forward. NHL 21 is the culmination of these efforts, delivering a more authentic hockey experience and the best entry to the franchise for this generation.
The Flow of the Game
The speed and adrenaline of hockey has always been effectively captured in video games. The flow of a hockey game, however, has always been a struggle to represent effectively. Mastering dekes and using possession to create scoring chances has always felt more arcadey than authentic. Don’t get me wrong – that’s part of the fun – but it’d be nice to have at lease a little bit more of a balance between the two. NHL 21 has taken large steps toward finding that balance.
You can now slide along the boards to evade a checking defender while on the rush, bank the puck off the net while behind it, or chip the puck past a defender while moving around him on the opposite side to create opportunities. Why are those additions a big deal? Well, spin moves do happen in the NHL, but not several times per game. They do in the video game, though. The moves I outlined above actually happen in hockey games all the time. They both add to the flow of the game and increase the authenticity. A true win-win.
The arcade feel isn’t completely gone, though. NHL 21 introduces the shot known as “The Michigan”. As a Minnesota Gophers hockey fan, it pains me to type those words. “The Michigan” is named after a goal that Mike Legg scored for the University of Michigan against the University of Minnesota in the NCAA Regional Playoffs in 1996. You can now do it in NHL 21. Yay. OK, it is actually kind of cool. For those who don’t know what it is, here you go:
Along with that, you can do between the legs dekes and between the legs shots, as well as the fake deke on the goalie where the puck just keeps sliding forward while they dive the other way. In terms of gameplay, NHL 21 provides enough authenticity for players who want to play traditional hockey, while giving players who want to do crazy fun things a bunch of options too.
The actual gameplay in NHL 21 is the best of the entire generation for the franchise. Two significant elements of video game hockey gameplay are noticeably better this year – not perfect, but better. The first is puck pickups. In years past, your controlled player would often skate right past a loose puck and not make even an effort to pick it up on his stick. Over the past couple of years, that has changed, and in NHL 21 it is significantly better. Granted, significantly better than poor doesn’t mean it’s great, but it is better.
The second element is in the behavior of the AI, particularly on defense. NHL in recent years was maddening in the way that it became a game of trying to set up as many cross-crease passes for the one-timer as possible. While it’s not perfect, AI defensemen in NHL 21 do a significantly better job of protecting against that play. While some players will undoubtedly hate that, I personally loathe games of NHL in either Versus or EASHL devolving into trying to execute and stop the same thing over and over again for three periods. It’s not fun, and it’s not hockey. Thanks for coming to my TED talk. But really, it is much better this year.
Goalies are also much better at controlling rebounds in NHL 21. Another trick that worked in years past was firing a low wrister at the far side, watching the goalie give up the juiciest rebound ever to your skater crashing the net on the back side. It was an easy goal. Three to four times per game. Goalies now control rebounds much better to dramatically limit those types of goals to a more realistic occurrence and not a primary offensive strategy.
Controls in NHL 21 are the same as they have been for years in the NHL franchise. You can choose more simple, button-based controls if you want to. I would probably recommend this to start with if you are new to the franchise, as controls can be a little complex for a complete newcomer. For everyone else, NHL 21 is definitely built to be played using the skill sticks, and the game controls very well.
Using the left stick will control the movements of the selected player. The right stick serves as the hockey stick – use it to shoot, swing the stick when poke checking, deke, and more. The left trigger will make your player skate backwards when held, and make them spin when tapped. The right trigger makes the player pass the puck or call for a pass depending on whether or not they have it. How long you hold RT dictates the strength of the pass. Bumpers control dekes and stick checking, and buttons control various actions like stick lift, tie-ups, or protecting the puck.
As someone who has played the NHL games for over two decades, the controls feel very second-nature to me. They will for other experienced players, too. But I also know whenever I pick up NBA 2K how foreign an intricate control scheme can feel when it’s new. For that reason, new players should opt for simpler controls and ease into full skill stick controls.
Such a Pro Move
Be A Pro gets the biggest upgrade in NHL 21, as the mode is largely revamped for this year’s game. The goal is to make you feel more immersion in the life of a professional hockey player. To achieve this, you are presented with many different interactions with your coach, agent, the media, and more, each giving you an opportunity to shape the type of player you are both on and off the ice. These interactions help you set goals, make commitments, and shape yourself as a team-first player or even the more selfish star player.
You can choose to start your career in Europe, Canadian Juniors, or in the NHL itself. In my playthrough, I chose to start in Canadian Juniors and earn a spot in the NHL draft. After being selected first overall – I’m pretty awesome, I know – I began my career by trying to make the roster of the New York Rangers in training camp. The draft order represented the real draft order in the NHL draft, which was expected but still nice to see.
Some of the off-ice options bring a more comprehensive experience to NHL 21’s Be A Pro mode. In some ways, it’s slightly reminiscent of NFL 2K5. Your agent will offer you sponsorship deals, opportunities to take part in charities, and even ways to support different startups. Take your earnings and invest in the spoils of being a professional athlete – buy a car, a huge house, or many other things to show off your success.
Be A Pro does a lot to address what was a grindy, repetitive experience in past years. Is it perfect? No, definitely not. Is it good? Yes, and I think there is enough there not for both casual hockey fans and diehards to enjoy living the life of an NHL superstar.
All the Favorites Are Back
Franchise and Versus modes are both back in NHL 21. Franchise is mostly the same as years past, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The mode has always been a solid, fun experience. However, there are a few adjustments in NHL 21 that enhance the Franchise Mode experience. First, you can now adjust the quality of the draft class. Avoid that occasional clunker of a draft where there are no real superstars by adjusting the class to have generational talents.
The biggest change to Franchise in NHL 21 is on the trade deadline day. In a somewhat similar fashion to what you see in FIFA on the final day of the transfer window, NHL 21 works to better capture the flurry of action that takes place leading up to the deadline. You will see a bunch of offers, negotiations, and have to keep up with it all in order to capitalize and get the player that will put your team over the top.
Versus is largely the same as in past years, and that’s also not a bad thing. The negatives in Versus are twofold, and neither thing is the fault of the developers. First, the same three to four teams get used over and over in Versus. That makes it a bit stale at times. Second, it can turn into a glitch goal fest, along with constant cross-crease pass attempts. Those are both due to player habits. I have found some players that are legit fun to play against, though. Overall, still a fun experience.
The Ultimate Experience
Ultimate Team returns to NHL 21 again this year, and it remains the bread and butter of the series. I know that’s disappointing to some, but remember that the NHL series sells a fraction of the copies that Madden or FIFA churn out yearly. Hockey Ultimate Team is one of the reasons that it’s definitely worthwhile for EA to develop NHL as a major sports title year after year.
If you’ve ever played Ultimate Team before, it’s the same formula. Acquire player cards to build a dream lineup. Take that lineup and square off against other gamers’ teams. Battle to achieve greatness (and even better player cards). Or, you can also spend a lot of money in the store on card packs if you want.
HUT Rush is the biggest addition to Hockey Ultimate Team in NHL 21. You can play others in 3v3 or 6v6, as well as a variety of other modes. The key to HUT Rush is that it’s all about skill. Scoring using a combination of dekes and trick shots and your multiplier will soar as high as 5x. Doing the standard cross-crease passes for goals won’t get you as good of results. HUT Rush is meant to be a fast-paced, crazy skill fest where only the strongest on the sticks will thrive.
It’s Pronounced CHEL
The real star of the NHL series is the World of CHEL, which includes NHL Ones and 3’s, as well as the EA Sports Hockey League. Both NHL Ones and Threes are still incredibly fun, as they offer a fast, quick experience of pond hockey. Skill is supreme, and games only last a minute or two. Since first being introduced a couple of years ago, these modes have given players so many more ways to play online.
The customization in World of CHEL is once again impressive. Choose from team jerseys, jackets, pants, and more. Or, go with apparel that isn’t NHL branded. Fun, crazy outfits add a lot of individualization to the mode, and players stand out without being eye sores. In that sense, it’s far better than Madden 21’s The Yard.
The EA Sports Hockey League returns once again, having been a staple of the series since NHL 09 (except for the unfortunate occurrence that was NHL 15). Create a club, play with your friends, and work together to take on other clubs and climb the leaderboards. New this year are the club practice option and Club Finals. Club Finals are a much more extended version of the the previous EASHL Playoffs. Teams play games in a window of time, earn rank points, and try to be crowned the best EASHL team in NHL 21.
Those changes are nice and welcome, but the biggest changes in EASHL are felt in the gameplay. New dekes help teams attack in different ways. The AI improvements force teams to change strategies from years past and find new ways to attack and defend. The result is a mode that feels fresh once again. Yes, there will still be some annoying things other teams do – no way around that. EASHL is still a ton of fun in NHL 21.
NHL 21 isn’t a perfect hockey video game, but it’s as close as EA Vancouver has come in the Xbox One generation. New dekes, skill moves, and trick shots introduce even more creativity into the game. AI improvements have a big impact, forcing strategies to change and gameplay to be more authentic. If you’re a fan of hockey, NHL 21 will help you through the wait for a new hockey season to begin – and you’ll have a lot of fun along the way.
Buy NHL 21 for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S here.
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