When it comes to my relationship with EA’s NHL series, I feel like I’ve been in a holding pattern with the series for multiple years at this point. I’m waiting for something that truly rekindles the joy I had when I originally played in the EASHL all the way back in NHL 09. I coasted on that happiness for years, and I would say in general my enjoyment of the series peaked with the series around NHL 14. At that point, NHL was the most played sports game in my library, but since that time it’s ended up being more of a secondary title for me in my personal rankings. I never generally hate the game or anything like that, but it’s also not something that sticks with me in the same way. I say all this to frame how I came into EA’s first presentation for NHL 23. I got to hear from the devs (no hands-on time as of yet) and see what their general philosophy is for this year, so let’s go through that here with this NHL 23 preview.
NHL 23 Preview
Moving Beyond The One-Timer
To be clear, one-timers are a huge part of real hockey and they’re one of the most effective ways to score goals. The same should be true in EA’s NHL series, and it has been true. Getting the goalie moving side to side is crucial, and no one is saying that it should not be a great way to score. However, it’s come to a point at times where it feels like it’s almost one-timer or bust in the game, and so during this presentation EA spent a lot of time harping on goal variety for NHL 23.
This starts with adding modern power play and penalty kill strategies into the game. I don’t need to tell you that the power play has been awful in NHL for years. There is no creativity, no variety, and the AI just doesn’t even seem to understand how to work around you most of the time. The EA NHL team is attacking this problem by adding new roles, formations, and strategies to these special teams units.
The new formations will be 1-3-1 on the power play, a wedge penalty kill, and then a 3-player penalty kill type. From there, you can set tendencies/roles so you can pick players as distributors, finishers, puck carriers, and being designated as someone who should be in front of the net.
The AI also will have access to these strategies, so my hope is that the AI will also be more creative. I say that because, in general, one of my biggest gripes is how every AI opponent feels the same more or less because they just take the puck and skate to the front of the net. The same holds true on the power play, and so at least the option exists for the AI to try to do more on offense this year if EA figures out a way to make sure these CPU-controlled teams harness the new strategies at their disposal.
Along those same lines, the NHL devs believe adding more X-factors will increase the amount of variety we see during games. The new X-factors touted include Tape to Tape and Send It for passing. Tape to Tape relates to how much a player will go for risky passes, and then Send It relates to breakout passing. As a side note, the devs also went out of their way to say the AI passing was a major focus in general this year.
There is also a new Truculence X-factor that means certain players will go for checks more than others. There is also one called One-tee, which I believe relates to knowing to feed that player for a one-timer. Other X-factors mentioned include Skilled Up and Relentless. Skilled Up means performing lacrosse moves will be easier for that player (tying into Zegras being on the cover — the NHL devs always try to relate something back to the cover athletes), and then Relentless means certain players will be better at performing off-balance shots.
I am hesitant to believe X-factors is the way to make AI opponents feel different without seeing the results for myself, not because I don’t think they can work, but because there is a general track record with EA games where these things don’t quite make the impact it seems they could. FIFA has tried to implement similar mechanics in the past, but the AI players never quite feel as unique as they should, especially when compared to something like a peak PES game. However, if X-factors are just one piece of the puzzle that the devs will be using to strengthen the AI, then it could work out in everyone’s favor.
Speaking of the Relentless X-factor, off-balance shots are a new thing this year as well. Off-balance shots and passes are user-controlled and they’re being framed as ways to create new situations on the ice. You can use them to dive into plays, clear the puck, and other things like that. EA said there are over 500 animations for this new gameplay mechanic, and we did get to see how it works in practice on offense and defense. I think this is something we’ll see more often than the lacrosse plays and such (because it is a more common thing in normal hockey), but I’m mostly in a wait-and-see mindset with the mechanic until getting to use it myself.
Returning to some more general improvements, EA also touted 50 new desperation save groups, along with hundreds of new goalie animations. We get a similar line about goalies just about every year, but the goalies did improve last year, so I’m hopeful this investment will continue that upward trend. There are some new AI fixes for “ragging” as well, so hopefully that mechanic won’t be as dominant at times (especially online). We were also shown some varied “lancing” with the poke check to show how it has more force behind it. I’m not sure this is exactly what people want in terms of strengthening the poke check as a mechanic on defense, but I think the idea here is that the poke check can now be better utilized as way to start counter-rushes, so I’ll keep an open mind on this one as well.
Lastly, shooting was called out as something they also re-tuned to try and increase goal variety. This means they tried to focus in on blasts through traffic from the point leading to more goal opportunities, and then also increasing the deadliness of snipe shots from the slot. This tuning was done to try and raise the fear levels for defenses so defenders feel like they have to better defend more shot types.
Custom Franchise Mode Settings
The biggest offline change this year will be the addition of custom league settings for your franchise mode. You will be able to set your league up with 6-48 teams, and then you can designate who is in each conference/division, control salary cap min/max, and have a dynamic schedule where you choose the length of the season and the opponent layout.
In terms of how the regular season plays out, you can also control how the standings are designed (set points assignments), how the playoff structure will work (league/conference/division), the number of teams that can qualify for the playoffs (2-32), and also have tie-breakers for the standings like wins, +/-, or goals.
With the playoffs, there will be a wild card and option for a wild card round, playoff reseeding, a way to structure the home/away games, and you can pick how many games should be in a series (or even have an aggregate option decide how teams advance).
The “normal” franchise mode and expansion draft option still exist as well, but this seems like NHL‘s way to give people the option to re-live eras or just create their own world. In addition, you can use custom rosters so the roster share will be nice to have here. That said, you can’t import rosters from last year’s game, so NHL is making the same mistake some other sports games make (like NBA 2K) by forcing people to start from scratch with their created rosters with each new version of the game.
Overall, I am hopeful the community comes up with some great custom rosters because I would be happy to play through a franchise from a different era.
Back on the ice, the crowd and arena atmosphere were the things EA touted the most on the presentation front. With the crowd, they spent a lot of time adding more context and awareness to crowd reactions so that score, momentum shifts, and time remaining play a role in how intensely the crowd reacts to things like hits, goals, and calls by the officials. They also recorded new crowds and put together a new mixing system strategy, so the hope is the crowds will feel more alive than ever before. We got to hear some samples during the presentation but, again, this is one of those things you need to experience in your own home over a period of time to really judge.
EA is also trying to make the crowds feel smarter, so they’ve added more detailed responses to other areas of the game. There will be relief or disappointment during the power play or penalty kill after a clear or during a period of sustained pressure in the zone. There is also that level of anxiety that will build up as the home team watches their team work the puck around the zone on a power play (SHOOT!). The crowd will also be more anticipatory during those breakaway or odd-man rush situations, and big goals should have even bigger reactions than in the past (and the goal horns were also reworked). Finally, things like booing will be more pronounced during poor power plays, and there will even be some Bronx cheers down the stretch if the home team has played a brutal game.
On the visual side of things, EA showed off the custom props for the crowd (they are available in EASHL), the new light shows/on-ice projections for intros, and that they’re blowing out the hat trick moment by having, well, a lot of hats thrown on the ice. There will even be some hats thrown out there if an away player gets a hat trick. In general, the extended cutscene for hat tricks ties into other areas here as well because there will be bigger celebrations for OT winners, shootout winners, and general “big” goals.
Limited Cross-Platform Implementation Coming In November
The big thing coming in November will be limited cross-platform play. I call it limited because the functionality seems to vary by mode to some degree, and there will still be some limits on things. For example, you will be able to take your HUT team from PS4 to PS5 but not PS4 to Xbox Series X. I also believe you’ll be able to matchmake and play PS5 vs. Xbox Series X, but you won’t be able to do Xbox Series X vs. PS4. There will be no mixed clubs matchmaking or the ability to create/join mixed clubs for things like EASHL, so those will still be tied to singular platforms for now.
Sarah Nurse being the other cover athlete ties in here as well because now women will be able to play alongside men in HUT. The functionality will work the same (just no fighting between men and women), so basically the NHL team is blowing out the national teams from last year to better incorporate them into HUT. In addition, the HUT Rivals playlist is getting overhauled. This means more variety (10 rotating game styles), and better and more immediate rewards.
Without having hands-on time, I’m always going to come out of these sorts of presentations more focused on giving you what I felt like the general vibe was coming from the team, and where the focus seems to be for the year. I only saw brief clips of gameplay and without seeing or playing the game for an extended period, I’m not going to be too high or low on NHL 23. With that in mind, I do get the sense this is a team that is looking to try and shake things up moving forward. I don’t think Year 2 on new-gen consoles is going to be the “true” breakthrough moment for this franchise, but I do get the feeling there is some movement happening here behind the scenes. We were introduced to some new developers, and the focus did seem to be on trying to find their footing again as they navigate ways to work with the Frostbite engine on these new platforms. They will continue to blow out the HUT/World of Chel experiences, but I also think they realize everyone ends up ahead if the “normal” NHL experience also hits some new highs for the crowd just looking to play a fun and realistic game of NHL hockey.