Connect with us

NHL 21 Review - Off the Crossbar

nhl 21 review

NHL 21

NHL 21 Review - Off the Crossbar

Coming into this, I did not think NHL 21 would make a big impression on me or take major strides forward. Now, after playing NHL 21 for a little over a week, I am convinced that strides have been taken and an impression has been left. However, the final impression left on me is still somewhat minimal so my NHL 21 review might come off as a bit confusing, or maybe more fairly put, be a mixed bag of pucks.

First, before we skate into some of the specific areas I want to highlight, allow me to briefly explain what I mean. Typically, with the NHL series — and sports games in a general sense — a common belief is from year to year games are literally copy and pasted with minimal changeover. We always hear about new features, improved this and enhanced that, but commonly we know it’s just their way of marketing the new game. However, from time to time these games do noticeably improve and, while far from prefect, so far during my time with NHL 21 I can say certain areas have gotten much better.

How much better? Well, like an Ovechkin body check let’s jump right into it.

This review was done using my own set of custom sliders to “try” and replicate authentic NHL hockey. Listed below are a few key settings changes of note.

  • Difficulty: Superstar
  • Period Length: 7 Minutes
  • Attribute Effects: 10/10 
  • Game Speed: 0/6
  • Skating Speed: 40
  • Skating Agility: 90
  • Player Acceleration 40 

NHL 21 Review – What I Like

Improved Areas Of AI

If you have spent the past weekend playing NHL 21 and are already hating on it, give me a second here to explain.

Like most players of the NHL series, I myself constantly bash the state of the in-game AI. In NHL 21, AI defenders are much more human-like in their decision making. They back off less and step up more, cutting off zone entries and generally giving the player less time to think. Offensively, I’m finding my teammates are getting open for outlet passes or seeking openings in the offensive zone.

Goalie controls don’t appear to have changed all that much, but the AI and animations seem to be improved. This is primarily noticeable in net-front scrambles where improved animations allow goalies to react faster and snatch up loose pucks in their crease.

nhl 21 review

Let me be clear, the AI is not great but it is definitely better than in the past in specific areas. There are still much needed improvements to be made, but overall the gameplay experience in NHL 21 is better than it was in NHL 20, even if that isn’t saying much.

Be A Pro

Admittedly, the Be A Pro mode isn’t a mode that I usually spend a whole lot of time on. However, with NHL 21 heavily touting an updated Be A Pro mode I did invest my time trying it out this year.

Right off the bat, cinematics show your agent doing an interview on your behalf, talking about your potential and the upcoming draft. Throughout a career, you’ll frequently meet with teammates, coaches, the GM, media and your agent as you build relationships and develop a reputation with the fans (your brand), management and your teammates. Every conversation can impact your reputation and increasing it in one of the categories can lead to opportunities you may not have otherwise been offered, like teammates passing the puck more because you went bowling — look, I didn’t say some of this stuff wasn’t sort of dumb.

nhl 21 review

You also have the ability to earn Specialty and Trait Points to customize your pro, and earn cash to buy cosmetics, like a sports car. I suppose that’s fine in theory, but I’m unsure why this has an impact on attributes. That’s also where this all got a bit gimmicky for me. Before and during games, you will be challenged by your coach and teammates to complete tasks. In these situations, you can choose to play it safe or promise them big results, like a goal. Success will improve your reputation, but failure will see it take a knock.

It is nice to finally see the NHL game getting a upgrade in the Be A Pro department. Yes, I would rather see focus elsewhere, but in 2020 this should most definitely be a standard in-depth feature in sports games, so I get why EA went this route.

Franchise Mode/Trade Deadline

The newest changes in franchise mode have been made to areas like trade value and draft class customization. In franchise mode, there is now a GM clock that steers many of your roster decisions, especially as it relates to the trade deadline. Additionally, added on top the scouting improvements and coach scheme concepts that have been added in the prior years, and the franchise mode is moving in the right direction in those respects.

trade deadline

Approaching the trade deadline in franchise mode actually feels different now. In the past, trade deadline day would come and go without a single mention of it — and sometimes pass without even a trade. However, In NHL 21, deadline day feels exciting. Whether you are looking for depth at defense or a scoring forward, you have to work for your guy.

In NHL 21, you will find yourself having to race against the clock as you weigh giving up draft picks and prospects to win the Stanley Cup. The entire deadline was exhilarating and expertly put together. There was a sense of urgency about the entire process. It is a true breath of fresh air.

Yes, Franchise Mode is far from perfect and yes it still needs a lot of work done to it but it is definitely a stride above last years. In my opinion, Franchise Mode in NHL 21 is playing much more of a north south game then an east west game of years past.

NHL 21 Review – What I Don’t Like

Legacy AI Issues

In NHL 21, the special teams gameplay is anything but special. The above video has my user-controlled Toronto Maple Leafs on the power play and working out of the umbrella system. The execution and setup is kind of bizarre, which is why I just left the video here for all to see. What are my two high forwards doing? They should be around the top of the circles waiting for one timers, not trying to look deep into my point man’s eyes. Now, this could just be an opportune time to make a Maple Leafs joke, but I don’t even think the Leafs would do this.

Additionally, I haven’t even touched on the Philadelphia Flyers penalty kill system — or lack thereof. Why would three players be attacking the puck at the blue line like that? I am 100 percent sure I have never ever seen that style deployed in a professional hockey game. Actually, I have never even seen that in some of the worst beer leagues I have participated in.

Simply put, these are just a few of the long-standing issues that have existed in the NHL series during the whole tenure on the PS4 and Xbox One, and EA must fix this come next generation. If the development team for NHL wants to add new dekes and more gimmicky things for World of Chel, by all means go ahead, but not at the expense of neglecting some of the most basic AI issues that have existed for far too long.

Now, here again player separation is an issue as elite offensive defensemen and stay-at-home defensemen are no different than the identical fan sitting in row one and the fan sitting in row seven. Furthermore, defensemen in general are relatively useless when it comes to jumping into the play as shown by the video above. Why continue to skate with the play creating a two on zero? Unfortunately, I too often see my defenseman join the rush only to hit the offensive blue line and stop dead in his tracks. It’s almost like an invisible force field is in place and the defenseman is afraid of running into it.

Inexcusable Roster Issues

Playing the NHL series all these years and still seeing these glaring roster problems is a major issue. Maybe the most common shade thrown EA’s way is that the yearly releases of its sports titles are not much more than a $60 roster update. So, if the game isn’t changing much and the rosters are still glaringly bad, is it even a $60 yearly roster update?

I won’t waste the time listing every mistake, but players like Kyle Okposo being rated an 80 overall — which isn’t horrible in and of itself — but getting the elite status as his potential is just plain bad. After all, not to pick on Okposo, but he has only managed to record a total of 48 points over the past two seasons combined. Nothing really in his career says he should have “elite” potential, especially at this point in it.

player traits

Beyond that, you constantly see players who have been in the NHL for years and never score more than 8-12 goals be listed as snipers. Similarly, you will often find established fourth-line players who have “top 6” or “top 9” as their potential team role. I mean we all saw EA’s widely mocked “top 10” lists they released prior to launch, so on some level this stuff should not surprise me, but it’s still baffling.

A roster sharing feature would obviously help to make a huge difference here. What makes the roster sharing feature exclusion all that more puzzling is the fact that the development team for the NHL series is one of the smallest over at EA. If EA would just include this feature, it would be one less thing on that team’s plate. It also goes without saying that the rosters that they do release seem to lack any major attention and are generally delayed. Still, enough is enough EA, let the fans help you out here by lessening the load.

No Real Graphical Improvements

In fairness, this was to be expected as NHL 21 is going to be the last release on current-gen consoles before making the jump to the PS5 and Xbox Series X. However, I am still going to call EA out for constantly neglecting these much needed areas of improvements.

Many folks have been asking for better/more player likenesses for years now. The player likenesses have minimally improved the last couple of years, but they could still be so much better. It seems as if EA intentionally only focuses on adding a few players every year so the company can highlight the continued improvement.

I have said it before, but It would be one thing — and something I feel most of us could look past — if the lack of player likenesses related mainly to rookies or players on their entry-level contracts. However, established NHL players and legitimate stars are still missing in action when it comes to having their likenesses scanned into the game.

Furthermore, a long-time veteran like Joe Thornton still seems to have a scan from when he was much younger still in use — giving new meaning to ageless wonder. There is no big beard for “Jumbo Joe” either — and this is just one example. I don’t know how this is allowed to happen because I figure NHL players would very much be open to being face scanned and placed in the game. Yes, perhaps the current pandemic has played a role in limiting new scans for this season, but this area has been bad for years.

Be A Pro

Yes, I did praise the new Be A Pro mode. However, there are definitely plenty of negatives to talk about here as well. Repetition is the main source of what I didn’t like with the new Be A Pro mode.

The first time you play through your Be A Pro campaign, I think most everyone will at least enjoy it to some extent. Nevertheless, It doesn’t seem like there’s going be a ton of super unique cutscenes or interactions based on the specific team you get drafted by. It would have worked better in my opinion to have different experiences when you’re drafted by a Stanley Cup contending team versus a team that’s rebuilding and looking to you to be the main piece they build around for the next decade. After all, the cover athlete is Alexander Ovechkin so it would make sense to have your drafted pro be a savior to a struggling franchise much like Ovechkin was to the Washington Capitals when he got drafted first overall.

conversation system

Additionally, the story-driven narrative dialogue probably won’t make a huge impression on you, and it seems like a lot of the dialogue, prompts and player objectives can be very surface-level and repetitive. Most of the in-game dynamic goals also seem to follow the same conversation format: either you can promise to be a team player and help your team get back into the game or protect a lead, or you can promise to be the hero and score a goal yourself. Finally, it seems like the mode’s playthrough experience is going to be largely the same regardless of where you go — at least straight out of the gate.

Bottom Line

NHL 21 has taken strides forward in some areas that lagged in the past. Be A Pro received much-needed changes and is the first innovative offline mode in the series since the implementation of the expansion draft. It may still end up feeling repetitive, but it feels fresh and could rejuvenate that aspect of the game. Franchise mode’s new coaching options are a good update, but they’re only a superficial change. However, the new interactions on trade deadline day are enough to satisfy me.

The NHL series can no doubt benefit the most from a next-gen overhaul, which I am hopeful for next year. With that in mind, NHL 21 is a tough sell at the end of current-generation consoles for some folks. That being said, there’s enough here for yearly NHL players or those who have skipped a couple years.

I’d love to hear how everyone is feeling after their first few days of gameplay. What are you liking? What are you down on so far?

16 Comments

Leave a Reply

Discussion
  1. Good review Ryan. The legacy issues need to be fixed. Player faces are hideous. Look at the screenshot attached in this article as an example. The same “ping-pong” passing we’ve all grown used to in this series also still exists. It's end to end hockey with no real organization. Sometimes I question the people working on this game and whether they know what they're doing.
    I haven't seen any real improvements over the years to warrant another purchase. This generation of hockey games from EA has been a HUGE disappointment. Let's hope EA brings it for next gen which is just around the corner.
    Roster sharing definitely needs to be added. Not having it completely ruins franchise mode. I'm literally unwilling to buy another NHL game until it's added. It's ridiculous that we still don't have it given how terrible the rosters are. By far the worst of any sports games.
    As stated, roster sharing would add so much to this game, especially rosters from previous years. The AI is almost unstoppable when inside the blue line unless you adjust sliders to a ridiculous level while on the other hand, the user can hardly control the puck unless again, you adjust your sliders to an almost cheating level.
    dandeb
    As stated, roster sharing would add so much to this game, especially rosters from previous years. The AI is almost unstoppable when inside the blue line unless you adjust sliders to a ridiculous level while on the other hand, the user can hardly control the puck unless again, you adjust your sliders to an almost cheating level.

    I’m having great results with sliders. 1-0-1 first two games of the season, both Overtime. Including being down 2-0 with under 10 minutes to go in the 3rd against the Pens to win in OT
    Sent from my iPhone using Operation Sports
    well.. I was going to cave in and get NHL21 because I waited since 17. But after seeing the videos kf team mates AI, I just cant, thats just bad. Oh well, I will keep playing NHL98 for Sega genesis on my mobile phone I guess.
    Joe Thornton has a beard.  He shaved it so they got rid of it.  You can edit the facial hair in the edit player to give him the big bushy beard.  That’s how he’s had it the last few seasons in the game.
    I knew I would relate to the review when I noticed that he had tweaked sliders and reduced speed to 0.
    Even at 0, it is way too fast (I play in True Broadcast) and I will never understand why EA perseveres with this ridiculous speed - every year.*
    Yes, the gameplay is improved , but it is still a largely recycled experience. I agree with the reviewer on lack of graphical improvements and I will add lack of new camera angles and lack of excitement.*
    I played this straight after playing NBA 2k21 and it is night and day (or should I say day and night) in terms of graphics, depth and general enjoyment. Even after purchasing NHL 2k21 just 2 days ago I am struggling to keep my interest for more than a single match.*
    This series is dead and buried and has been for at least 2 years now. Next gen can't come soon enough*
    My biggest problem with this game is the incessant need EA has to make this game NHL Hitz. Any piece of incidental contact sends players flying all over the ice concusses. Last night I had a game (6 minutes, al star difficulty) where there was whopping six 4 on 4 power plays. I have seen way to many overall as well. The issue causing this to happens is when two players barely bump into each other it turns in to a bone shattering hit, causing one of my opponents or my own AI players to “seek revenge”. It really is getting a little ridiculous. It’s leading to very wide open hockey games against the AI that routinely finish anywhere from 10-17 goals combined every game.
    EA’s never going to include roster sharing. Put that in and there’s no longer a reason for even mindless fans to pay $60 for the poorly done roster update. This franchise is such a joke year after year with so many player likeness missing still. I’m still looking at the issue at EA. Increase the budget and give the devs a chance to give us a worthy nhl game, or scrap the series entirely and let some other company bring some fresh ideas to an nhl game.
    Therebelyell626
    My biggest problem with this game is the incessant need EA has to make this game NHL Hitz. Any piece of incidental contact sends players flying all over the ice concusses. Last night I had a game (6 minutes, al star difficulty) where there was whopping six 4 on 4 power plays. I have seen way to many overall as well. The issue causing this to happens is when two players barely bump into each other it turns in to a bone shattering hit, causing one of my opponents or my own AI players to “seek revenge”. It really is getting a little ridiculous. It’s leading to very wide open hockey games against the AI that routinely finish anywhere from 10-17 goals combined every game.

    Sliders are your friend...
    Sent from my iPhone using Operation Sports
    michi510
    EA’s never going to include roster sharing. Put that in and there’s no longer a reason for even mindless fans to pay $60 for the poorly done roster update. This franchise is such a joke year after year with so many player likeness missing still. I’m still looking at the issue at EA. Increase the budget and give the devs a chance to give us a worthy nhl game, or scrap the series entirely and let some other company bring some fresh ideas to an nhl game.

    The problem with ea thinking that with roster sharing no one would ever buy the next game is that it isn't really true.
    if you think about it the guys who made all the changes manually to fix the roster every year, like myself, spend a heck of a lot of time to make all the changes and get the players to where they think they should really be rated. It probably takes me 30 hours or more to make all the changes that I feel need to be made, and when it's done it feels like a completely new game that plays alot more realistic and more difficult to win. In my opinion the rosters are possible one of the biggest reasons this game sucks every year. But that being said it is one of the reasons i hesitate buying the next game when it is released because i don't want to have to make the changes all over again. So the newest game hast to have something really improved in order for me to buy the next game. Even then i still wait until the trade deadline to buy the new game because it then has the latest roster for me to use to modify ALL OVER AGAIN, every single year. I'm at the point where i am getting tired of making all the changes every year so I am even more selective on whether to buy nhl 21 or not.
    So if they included roster sharing in the game then i would probably buy it every year cause there are a few roster makers on this site that enjoy making the rosters in the game and sharing them. And i am sure there are alot of people that feel the same as i do and don't buy the newest game every year cause of all the work editing rosters.
    If you have never played the game with a fully edited roster you are missing out. The player separation makes a huge deal when you have McDavid rated 97 and he's out against the other teams 4th liners and they are rated in the low 70's and everyone doesn't have skating speed in the 80's and every players ratings don't average in the low 80's . no wonder goalies aren't good when everyone has 80 something for accuracy.
    So maybe someone should point this out to EA as to why roster sharing might actually improve their sales every year.
    Well - that about wraps up this console generation.
    To me the entire run of PS4/XB1 generation NHL games were an overall disappointment.
    I really hope there's a complete overhaul for next gen consoles about to drop
    Totally with this poster....
    Simple but annoying things---such as NOT being able to EDIT player attributes DURING the season (to reflect rookies prominence on teams in real life) as your playing....
    Not being able to at least correct EAs terrible job on recognizing not just correct hair colours, but SKIN colours at times (this used to be possible 10 years ago)
    And when you score....and the players celebrate in front of the goal, ir with opposing players "stuck" in the celebration......it looks TERRIBLE,
    babaracus88
    The problem with ea thinking that with roster sharing no one would ever buy the next game is that it isn't really true.
    if you think about it the guys who made all the changes manually to fix the roster every year, like myself, spend a heck of a lot of time to make all the changes and get the players to where they think they should really be rated. It probably takes me 30 hours or more to make all the changes that I feel need to be made, and when it's done it feels like a completely new game that plays alot more realistic and more difficult to win. In my opinion the rosters are possible one of the biggest reasons this game sucks every year. But that being said it is one of the reasons i hesitate buying the next game when it is released because i don't want to have to make the changes all over again. So the newest game hast to have something really improved in order for me to buy the next game. Even then i still wait until the trade deadline to buy the new game because it then has the latest roster for me to use to modify ALL OVER AGAIN, every single year. I'm at the point where i am getting tired of making all the changes every year so I am even more selective on whether to buy nhl 21 or not.
    So if they included roster sharing in the game then i would probably buy it every year cause there are a few roster makers on this site that enjoy making the rosters in the game and sharing them. And i am sure there are alot of people that feel the same as i do and don't buy the newest game every year cause of all the work editing rosters.
    If you have never played the game with a fully edited roster you are missing out. The player separation makes a huge deal when you have McDavid rated 97 and he's out against the other teams 4th liners and they are rated in the low 70's and everyone doesn't have skating speed in the 80's and every players ratings don't average in the low 80's . no wonder goalies aren't good when everyone has 80 something for accuracy.
    So maybe someone should point this out to EA as to why roster sharing might actually improve their sales every year.

More in NHL 21

Poll

Recent Forum Threads


Top Esports News

Related

To Top