|System: PS4, Xbox One|
|Dev: EA Vancouver|
|Release: September 15, 2017|
|Players: 1-2 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Not yet assigned a final ESRB rating.|
by Lucas White
EA’s NHL 18 is coming in September, but we had a chance to get our hands on it a bit early. After spending some time in the tutorial to get the hang of the new control schemes (yes, there are multiple), I spent most of my time in Threes, a mode new to the NHL series that turns the hockey simulator into something more closely resembling an NBA Jam-style experience. After a few hours bumbling around with mascots and throwing down with other players, it’s safe to say that Threes will easily be a highlight out of the gate.
First, I should note that there’s an interesting thematic line with NHL 18. The game was presented as a representation of a “new NHL.” Basically, the development team looked to what’s happening in hockey in real life. What’s happening now is a generational shift; many of the top players are younger, stronger, and faster than years past, and that’s what NHL 18 is all about. The game focuses on three key points: Speed, Skill and Action. This sets the flow of the game and determines the controls.
There are three control schemes in NHL 18. First, the default makes the right analog stick analogous to the hockey stick, able to shift in position and shoot the puck with motion rather than button presses. The player is able to maneuver offensively using the stick, pulling it back to set up slap shots and passing to set up sneakier shots thanks to the useful (and formidable) AI. Alternatively, the stick actions can be set to face buttons, making the game feel more “game-y,” rather than a simulator. Finally, an “NHL ‘94” control option can be selected, for maximum retro appeal.
Threes takes that concept of new blood and runs with it, in a mode meant to be one of the most casual-friendly offerings from EA Sports right now. In Threes, the rink is smaller, the arenas are more colorful, and there are pyrotechnics and wrestling-style entrances. Also, there are mascots. So many mascots. This is a sillier mode, meant to inject some arcade-style fire into what’s normally a more dry and serious sports simulator. The core mechanics are the same, but the experience, flow, and structure are meant to make picking up and playing the game a friendlier proposition.
Before the game starts, you can even set the win condition. You can go by periods or a set number of goals, for example. In the latter, the game even runs until there’s a clear winner. With the goalie AI being particularly hard-nosed, these matches can take a while if you aren’t careful, even despite the sillier aesthetic front. Luckily, other functions such as the MoneyPuck are in place to keep things quick and silly.
The MoneyPuck, which will activate at times if turned on for a game, will drastically alter the rules of scoring. It sometimes gives a winning shot extra points or penalizes the other team by taking points away. It’s a huge momentum-shifter, game finisher, and attempt at an equalizer all at once. It’s especially handy in the Threes campaign as the opposing teams quickly shoot up in OVR ratings.
Yes, Threes is a full mode with its own suite of options, running from solo to co-op, offline and online, and so on. But the best part of Threes, the part that really sets it aside from the normal sections of the game and more casual or non-sports gamer friendly, is the mascots. These goofy dorks can and will make random entrances in the middle of a game, taking over a slot in a team and even unlocking for later play if they come into yours. They’re larger than the human players and have super unstable physics. Not only do they wobble and wiggle in a hilarious fashion, like you’d expect mascots to, they also lose balance and fall over way more easily than their human counterparts. Seeing a mascot interrupt a game, swagger down the entrance ramp, and take over a team spot, only to contribute to a game in convincing fashion, is a treat.
Not only can that happen, but matches in Threes can also be set to full teams of mascots squaring off against each other. This is where things get really fun. Six mascots bumbling and tripping over each other on the ice is a spectacle in and of itself. EA also stressed that a create a mascot function will be in NHL 18, so I expect Threes online to be a real hoot once it’s populated by everyone’s bizarre, jiggly animal creations.
NHL 18 seems like a loaded game, and even a few hours wasn’t enough to explore all it had to offer. This is especially the case when a new mode like Threes takes center stage and takes over a whole room’s mindshare. Threes is a breakout mode for sure, that should add easy, casual appeal to a game that may have otherwise turned outsiders away from the experience. That’s likely calculated move on EA’s part, and I imagine the hope and the dream is to achieve some NBA Jam-like reach to more mainstream audiences. It might still be a bit too insular for it to really take off, but if the right people see the mascot matches, there’s definitely a chance.