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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?

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