|System: PS4, Xbox One|
|Dev: EA Vancouver|
|Pub: EA Sports|
|Release: September 14, 2018|
|Players: 1-6 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Mild Violence|
by Benjamin Maltbie
Evoking Walt Whitman to describe NHL 19 should probably feel odd, but the first thing I want to say about this game is that it contains multitudes. So much so, that it was almost hard to nail down exactly what game I was reviewing. There is a degree to which NHL 19 is a suite of tools for creating an ideal hockey experience. In order to speak to the core game, I have to first decide what that core is. It’s subjective, though--with so many options, modes, customizations, control schemes, and what-have-you, gamers are going to carve out their own version of the game from the meticulously crafted monument to the NHL.
When a series has yearly iterations, cynicism might lead you to suspect that some of these entries are little but a cash-in on fan passion. That criticism might be fairly leveraged against last year’s NHL 18, which did little in terms of moving the franchise forward. But it did have its merits, and all of its upsides are folded into NHL 19. It’s a good time to come back to the series. Or, if you’ve never played a hockey game before, it’s a good place to start.
If you are in that latter group of beginners, I would like to stress that you give the tutorials a try. You want to be clear about what is available in NHL 19. They’re a result of a collaboration with Hockey Canada, they’re quick to get through, and they do a good job of communicating exactly what moves are in a player’s arsenal. What’s more, they help you to understand the purpose of these moves.
You can, however, elect to neglect the more complicated controls in NHL 19. You can play this as an arcade-style hockey game that will harken back to the dorm days of yesteryear by using the NHL 94 control scheme. This is a nice returning option and represents a good starting point for newcomers.
It’s worth noting that the more complicated controls are one facet that separates this series from other sports titles. There’s an element of finesse to it all. Almost every part of NHL 19 can be controlled by the player, and mastery of the minutiae is going to open the game up further for you. That said, it’s a lot to take in all at once. In a traditional game type, wherein you control all of the players, it might feel overwhelming. Personally, I found it taking up a lot of mental real estate, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your personality. After a certain point, it probably becomes second nature, but I never reached that echelon in most of the modes.
A lot of the techniques are executed by using the right analog stick. There are times where player input errors become inevitable, simply because there is just so much going on and twirling both sticks around isn’t always so easy. Deking, which is a way to move the puck individually from the character, is particularly tricky. Aiming your shot while deking, passing, and moving can also be a challenge. For the most part, these controls feel right and mistakes feel fair; it’s hard to blame the game when you’re given so much control.
What can feel unfair is poke checking. Poke checking is when a player shoves their stick into the path of another player. It’s how you steal the puck and it only requires the press of a single button. The thing is that it is way too effective, and I could endlessly lunge at other players without paying much mind to opening myself up to any form of punishment. Something like that wouldn’t be okay in a fighting game, and I don’t see why it should be okay here. It’s a considerable advantage, given the inept nature of computer controlled defenders. Against humans, it’s fair, but annoying and spamming the poke check button seems to be pretty common behavior online.
Where the controls really shine are in modes like the returning NHL Threes or the Pro-Am mode. In these modes, players choose a position and play that, while computers or other players comprise the rest of your team. When I only had to control a single character, I was grateful for my options. Playing this way felt closer to playing an actual sport and presents an opportunity to specialize and, ideally, shine for your team mates. That’s the particular fantasy fulfillment I was looking for, and I suspect that visceral feeling accompanying the responsibility of playing a particular position will be welcome to some players. Hockey and NHL 19 have undeniably big moments and, for me, these moments feel bigger in this mode.
NHL 19 is also about legends, and to properly serve fans, the developers have included Pro-Am mode within the World of CHEL hub. Pro-Am is a list of challenges players can undertake using their own customized avatar to unlock rewards. With each challenge, a bombastic, but enjoyable, announcer details the challenge and gives some background information about the legendary player you’ll be facing off against.
Regarding the announcer or, really, the soundtrack in general, players can expect a mixed bag. Depending on the mode, the quality of the announcer ranges from grating and repetitive to excitingly cheesy. In franchise mode, I heard the term “power play” what felt like every couple seconds. Panic at the Disco also comes up on the soundtrack fairly regularly which I suppose is fitting, considering their performance at the Stanley Cup Finals. It may not be the most original concept, either, but it’s worth noting that during games, the soundtrack plays as though it’s coming from within the game, rather than being laid over it. It’s a nice touch and lends to this feeling of presence.
A wholly different style of play is contained within NHL 19’s Franchise Mode, which should appeal to fans of fantasy sports. This mode can be daunting, and the game doesn’t do an awful lot to help players learn how to play. At the very least, it doesn’t do a good job of preparing players to hit the ground running; it requires patience and perseverance. The mode tasks players with operating a hockey franchise, which means more than just creating a good team. It is essentially a simulation game within a sports game. Within that simulation, you can play hockey or you can have the computer simulate matches. You can then watch these matches or just have it generate the results. It’s further evidence that NHL 19 empowers players to cultivate their ultimate hockey fantasy. For me, Franchise Mode isn’t the main draw. It does have a steep learning curve, and it’s one that I was never fully able to overcome. I was surprised, though, that it managed to be fun despite my relative ignorance when it comes to things like statistics.
I do not know if the Detroit Red Wings are a good team, for example. I remember people used to like them a lot when I was a kid. It’s not much, but it was the only piece of knowledge governing my decision to select the Red Wings when I entered NHL 19’s franchise mode. Selecting a team was nothing in comparison to the subsequent menus which were full of stats, budgets, and salary rules, though. There are even statistics and mechanics involving “scouting accuracy” and “owner happiness.”
I commend the “owner happiness” for the framework it lends to the mode. For the uninitiated, this metric and the accompanying menus of owner goals and expectations provide a framework for how to navigate the mode. My owner’s primary goal at the start of the season was to have “27 sellouts this year to help establish our home ice.” He also expected me to win some games, I guess. But, most importantly, I needed to get butts into seats and perhaps even upgrade the parking lot.
My first move in Franchise Mode was to grab a 41 years old right wing free agent, because I felt like he really deserved a shot at glory with my team. I figured, at this age, he only had so many good years left in him. A Google search then told me that Jarome Iginla is actually a real person, a retired Hockey player, and a three time Olympian. His digital likeness decided to come out of retirement on my behalf. Thanks, Jarome! I know other players are more likely to recognize you by name and are more deserving of your presence on their roster. They are also less likely to disappoint their team’s owner.
Undoubtedly, World of CHEL will be where a lot of people invest their time. That is where players can build a character and customize it with unlockables. As far as customization options go, there is quite a bit of freedom on display. It is even possible to make a female character, although there are significantly fewer “head shapes” available for female characters. The options for hometown are also impressive. The list contains some surprisingly small towns, as well as regions like the Adirondacks. In the end, there’s a good chance you’ll find a location you relate to.
Players can also join clubs within World of CHEL, which are attached to a separate progression system. As clubs improve, different rewards will be unlocked for its members. If you aren’t down to join someone’s club, you can always create your own. This means coming up with a name for your club. As a sidenote, perusing the current listing of clubs will reveal that “your mom” jokes, misspelled naughty words, and the numbers 69 and 420 are still trendy. Personally, I was drawn to a club called Apuckalypse, but it was unfortunately private.
Rewards for clubs or for individuals come in the form of hockey bags. These hockey bags look and feel remarkably like the loot crates in Overwatch; you hold a button and the bag shimmers and unzips before a bunch of goodies of different rarity levels spill out. The bags are tied to in-game progression and don’t press players to purchase some form of currency. NHL 19 also has loadouts for avatars which, admittedly, is an odd term to find in a hockey game, but it’s a concept that works. The rewards and loadouts are well integrated RPG mechanics that help players define their characters. I initially expected predatory microtransaction practices when I heard about them.
NHL 19 isn’t without microtransactions, though. Hockey Ultimate Team, or HUT, allows players to buy packs of cards with an in-game currency so that they can create a fantasy hockey team. Purchasing the currency with real life money is, beyond a doubt, the fastest way to improve this team. Otherwise, it’s a grind. That said, it is a grind some people may enjoy. The mode is easy enough to ignore and is only there for people who want it.
The same can be said about most aspects of this game, and that is its greatest strength. NHL 19 can be shaped into the hockey game you want it to be, which is lucky, because EA’s hockey games don’t have any real competition. If you were put off by NHL 18, which felt lazy, then NHL 19 is the apology you deserve. If you skipped NHL 18, then this game will be an even bigger leap forward for you. If you’ve never played a hockey game before, you can feel assured that the ponds and stadiums of this game will be accommodating. EA’s NHL 19 is a sports simulation, a fantasy league, a social hub, and a comforting arcade game all at once, and that is quite a thing to accomplish.