We’re now nearing the end of the NHL 18 beta, but as I touched on in our roundtable, there has been a lot of excitement around the beta and hunting down codes. As it relates to the game itself, the devs on the EA Sports team seem to really want to make sure NHL 18 plays a clean, smooth game of hockey. They’ve managed to accomplish this and, so far, have delivered a nice experience albeit a familiar looking one. I’m going to touch on the things I’ve enjoyed as well as things I think need some work before launch. Let’s jump in.
Out the gate, NHL 18 has actually impressed me quite a bit. I’ll quickly breakdown what I think is definitely a good look so far.
One of my big gripes last year was loading times…good grief. Thinking about them as I write this almost gives me a slight headache. Moving from screen to screen took much longer than it really needed to (think GM mode going from say the team management menu to the trades menu). Amazingly, in the beta the loading times are very quick. Whether loading into an offline or online game or switching from screen to screen, load times were speedy. One thing to keep in mind is that the beta was a download so it’s directly on your system and not reading off of a disc (if that’s how you prefer to play your games); I’m not sure if that contributes to the difference in speed. If the loading times we’re seeing in the beta translate over to the full version of the game in all facets, we’ll be doing a lot more playing, and a lot less waiting and complaining.
If you’ve ever played NHL Hitz back in 2001-02 and enjoyed that, the NHL Threes will be right up your alley. Living in its spirit, Threes is flat out fun. I’ve played about 20 games myself and am yet to be bored of it. The beta gives you the ability to play either online or offline; you can play with friends, against friends, against other players online, against the CPU — you’ve got options. That’s one of the big things that the NHL dev team has been pushing this year; the ability to play in a ton of different ways. There’s a Threes Campaign, but we won’t see that until full release. Playing 3v3 hockey arcade style with no rules in a smaller rink has given lots of “WOW” moments so far, with dangles and monstrous hits galore. If you’ve got all your buddies together for a game night, this is the mode you’re most likely going to play for hours. NHL Threes is a smash hit.
As the beta has been playing out, there’s obviously been a wide spectrum of opinions about it from the community. One thing that is being mentioned as both a positive and negative is the AI of the game. I can’t really say anything too negative about the AI from what I’ve seen thus far. On defense, your players cover their areas much better than they did in NHL 17; no more getting stuck behind the net or other glitchy things that would rear their ugly heads. When getting pressured your defensemen will look to move the puck up the boards to get the transition game going, or will play it off the boards and out the zone. This actually caught me off guard as it’s a very core part of the real NHL, and to see it play out in the game was fresh. In the offensive zone, puck movement is fluid and the AI will usually make the right decision. Long story short, AI has definitely improved a good deal over last year; it’ll take a couple games before you really start to notice it, but when you do you’ll appreciate the changes.
Creative Attack Dekes/Defensive Skill Stick
One of the announced features that had me most curious was the creative attack dekes and the defensive skill stick. In line with the fluidity of the beta, both of these features work well and without a hitch. The creative attack dekes, when done correctly and at the right time, are satisfying and demoralizing for a defender if they are controlled by a human. There’s nothing more upsetting than getting undressed before the attacker sets up or scores a goal. The more important of the two features in my opinion is the defensive skill stick, and it’s a fantastic addition to the game. It really changes the dynamic of how players on offense have to play, as they can’t do things at will the same way they did before. Being able to cut down or completely close off passing lanes and forcing an attacker to make the right decision is refreshing. I personally enjoy playing defense, and doing so in the beta and knowing that I had better control of the ice around me is a welcome sight.
What Needs Some Work
Part of the reason the NHL 18 dev team released this beta was not only to give us all a taste of what the full title would be like come release day, but to see what the kinks are that need to be worked out before launch. I can’t say that there was actually a lot of really negative things to call out, but there is definitely some things that need to be looked at and potentially changed for either this year or next year’s title.
One of the biggest things that I feel is important to any sports gaming title, and ties in along with everything else, is presentation. From overlay packages, commentary, menus and cutscenes, presentation is key to giving a complete package for a sports game. When trying to give a true-to-life product, it is a necessity. Unfortunately NHL 18 looks nearly identical to last year’s iteration of the game. The beta does have a different layout in its menus; I’m not sure if it will translate over to the full version of the game, but I really hope that it does. Besides the front menu, there are some minor changes to the team selection screen in online versus mode, and some new camera angles, but everything else looks more or less the same as last year. The commentary sounds like it was recycled from last year. Things that we see in today’s NHL are not seen in this title. I’d like to see all five players gather up and celebrate together when a goal is scored, or a more intense celebration when a crucial goal is scored (like a game winner, or game-tying goal). There are some much needed improvements to the presentation package that need to happen to align with the improvements of the overall game.
One thing I’ve seen mentioned several times in comments from the community and from my fellow colleague Fraser Gilbert in our roundtable, is that the game has an “NHL 17.5” feel. Along with the previously mentioned presentation elements, besides the back-of-the-box additions to the game the beta does bare similar resemblance to NHL 17. I don’t particularly consider this to be a bad thing only because the subtle improvements under the hood with the AI and other changes mentioned above lead to an improved gameplay experience. If the NHL dev team can manage to keep the game in line in terms of improvements through this year and have hopefully improved some of the other modes we won’t see till launch (*cough* GM mode *cough*) this will turn out to be a positive more than anything.
This one is straight forward. In the games I’ve played to this point in the beta, almost all the goals that were scored involved actual smart plays on offense. Of course there were the few dirty dangles that lead to goals. There were also a few fluke goals that reminded me of NHL versions past. One that I saw about three times involved the goalie not being able to pick up the puck in the crease and it either being pushed in by his pad or a defender trying to pick it up. I also saw a couple goals where there was blatant goalie interference from one of the wingers running into the goalie before the puck was buried into the net. It seems like the usual go-to goals that plagued the game are mostly gone, but there are still the odd fluke goals that happen. Messy goals do happen in the real NHL from time to time, but I can’t say I remember the last time I saw a goalie push the puck into his own net knowing where it was before that happened. Not as much work as before, but it still needs to be cleaned up as much as possible to get this out of the game.
EASHL Player Customization Options
NHL 17 introduced a powerful customization suite for arenas to fans and was well received. Player creation also received some additional features (goal celebrations to name one). Creating my beta player to jump into EASHL is the exact same as last year. I think that this needs to be changed and updated to give us more freedom in truly creating our player to be unique for EASHL. One thing that I always felt has barely changed would be the head/face options. Despite the fact that hockey players throw on a helmet for protection, you can still see their face. We need to have more customization for this. The dev team could/should even consider a face scan option, borrowing the surprisingly successful app from NBA Live 16 and adapting it to NHL. I know that this is more cosmetic and doesn’t impact gameplay or anything, but when I make my player for EASHL I’d be over the moon if he could have my likeness.
All in all, I’m finding the NHL 18 beta to be a load of fun. As the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The subtle changes to improve gameplay will definitely go a long way in ensuring ’18 is a solid outing and improvement from ’17. I don’t mind that the dev team looked to improve core gameplay and its mechanics instead of making the game look pretty…that’s something, to me, that they can include next year to give us a fresh product again. Once we know what the full game will offer, it looks to me like NHL 18 will still be worth the asking price despite the “minor” changes made.
How do you feel about the beta? Chime in with a comment, and leave suggestions to what you think looks great and what you think could be improved.