First off, it still always cracks me up how companies make their old games look terrible in some of these comparison videos. I mean, how bad did they make NHL 20 look in the NHL 20/NHL 21 comparison part of the NHL 21 gameplay trailer?
Furthermore, as many of us have now come to expect, NHL 21 looks and sounds a lot like NHL 20, which looked and sounded a lot like NHL 19, which played a lot like NHL 18, which played like — well I think everyone gets the joke. Unfortunately, until this series makes the jump to next-gen consoles/new engine — PS5 and Xbox Series X — and or the gameplay is drastically overhauled this running joke probably won’t change for some.
Still, this is not about being entirely defeatist or anything, I just think that’s the general spot the series is in overall at the end of a generation (and the series isn’t alone, you can see the malaise/stagnation/frustration with a lot of the reviews coming out for this year’s batch of sports games). Regardless, EA did highlight some new AI improvements and I am at least curious to see more.
What Gives Me Hope
A (Maybe) Focus On AI
Short and sweet, the new teammate support during the breakouts and zone entries has me majorly hopeful that the overhauled AI has actually gotten smarter. I would love to play an NHL 21 game and be able to enter the offensive zone in multiple formations — unlike the same way over and over again like in NHL 20.
What Gives Me Pause
EA has been showing off and hyping up this new deke in all the videos they have released so far. However, this goal — off of the top of my head — has maybe been successfully pulled off 3-5 times in the NHL over the past 20 years? No doubt this is an impressively skillful move, but why make this such a focus for the marketing? How about roster sharing, including the Winter Classic, or including an All-Star Weekend. I’m not saying it’s not cool that it exists, I just worry how often we’ll see it occur — and work — in this year’s game. If it’s happening once every couple games, I don’t think that’s really a good thing (unless we’re out on the pond).
Defenders Chasing Puck Carrier While Skating With Two Hands On Stick
Okay, so this one isn’t all that new and perhaps not even that big of a deal to most. However, to me this is just so unnatural looking and completely stupid to see. Starting at the :17 second mark — where the New York Rangers defender is chasing Sidney Crosby and after when the Philadelphia Flyers defender is doing the same — you just see the goofy unnatural AI sucking the realism out of the game. To see the two defenders defending/chasing the play the exact same way with both hands on their stick, arms not moving, is just a little thing that should be cleaned up.
The Chip Play
This particular play was highlighted quite a bit in this trailer. The ability to just chip the puck past a flat-footed defenseman and burn him on your way to the goal seems great on one level. It keeps the momentum of your player going, and gives you another avenue to attack a backpedaling defender.
However, I can this play also ending up extremely OP. If defensively you are unable to turn and get to the puck, and if you step up to lay a hit a second too late, I can see this either always ending up in either breakaway goals or penalties. It looks indefensible in the trailer, so this comes down to how it’s tuned and how easy it is to pull off once again. We shall see.
That’s really all the big things that I feel must be talked about, but below you can read EA’s official statement on “what’s new” with the NHL 21 gameplay:
- Superstar-Inspired Innovation: Find yourself behind the net and catch the defense sleeping? Scoop up the puck and tuck it under the bar for a jaw-dropping Michigan. Break the goalie’s brain with Kucherov’s no-deke deke. Score from an impossible angle with an insane between-the-legs one-timer just like Matthew Tkachuk. Shake off a pesky defender by banking the puck off the back of the net to create space, just like Sid. Each of these iconic moves created an unforgettable hockey moment; create your own in NHL 21
- Slips, Banks, and Chips: NHL 21 revolutionizes neutral zone play with the addition of slips, banks, and chips. Get small and slippery along the boards as you squeak by a defender’s check. Bank the puck off the boards and around your opponent, or use the back of the net to do the same. Or just chip the puck past a flatfooted defenseman and burn him on your way to the goal.
- Improved AI Hockey IQ: AI has been optimized to make sure that your teammates can break out on their own and hit you with a pass in stride so you can keep driving to the net. In addition, they’ll be better positioned and more open to the net for passes in the O-zone. On the other side of the puck, defensive AI will work harder to slow down the opposing team in the middle of the ice and block passing lanes when defending.
- Gamesaving Goalie Desperation: Great goaltending is born out of calculated athleticism – being in the best position to make the stop, while having the athletic ability to quickly shut the door on an unexpected opportunity. New desperation saves and animations mean that you’re never out of it — there’s always a chance to make a jaw-dropping, acrobatic stop — even against your momentum.
- Improved Goalie Control and Positioning: Goaltending controls have been reworked to use the right stick for more of your movements, making user-controlled goalies more fluid and tactile. AI goalies are smarter when it comes to positioning — they’ll adjust and square up to the shooter’s approach angle to give themselves the best chance of making the stop.
NHL 21 is set to release worldwide on October 13 via the PS4 and Xbox One.
What did everyone notice from the new trailer?