nhl 23 arena

NHL 23 Review: Gameplay Freshness but Not Quite a New Game

By now, sports video game fans have become fairly accustomed to seeing the slightest of improvements one year to the next from annual titles. While you’re probably hoping to see the kind of unmistakable upgrades that practically leap off the screen, it’s more likely that you’ll end up having to squint real hard to spot any differences from the prior title. This is the case with NHL 23 in many regards, which is destined to have those who invested even a moderate amount of time into NHL 22 experiencing a strong sense of déjà vu a lot of the time. Without any new game modes or massive changes to the existing ones (beyond a notable change for franchise mode), you’re left with the distinct impression that this new release is closer to an update than a brand new game. Fortunately, the subtle but impactful adjustments that have been been made to the on-ice action help to temper my disappointment by making this the most realistic and fun depiction of hockey that the series has produced in at least a decade. With that in mind, let’s get into my NHL 23 review.

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NHL 23 Review

In the absence of a slew of substantial overhauls, let’s do the dirty work by grinding into the corners to better identify what areas of the game are making the kind of strides you would expect from the series and where it’s completely whiffed on its opportunities.

What I Like

Gameplay

The biggest changes to NHL 23 this year can be seen and felt during a game, even if they may not initially grab you when you play a game or two. The addition of some timely animations in key spots help to smooth out the way that players behave and react to the puck and other players around them. There have been further refinements to the game’s physics, just as with the last few years, that translate to less instances of pucks going through players’ sticks and bodies. This doesn’t mean you won’t still see the occasional occurrence of a stick missing a puck that it should probably hit or a player failing to react to a nearby puck, but these are thankfully fewer and farther between now.

When you’re playing defense, you’re liable to notice a big difference when using the defensive skill stick to attempt to knock the puck off an opposing player’s stick. You’ll now suffer a major reduction in skating speed when using the defensive skill stick, meaning if you’re not careful and get stuck holding out your stick when the other team is coming into your zone on a rush, it will be much easier for a forward to breeze right by you on the way to the net. Though the speed penalty for using the defensive skill stick might be slightly too severe, it’s a welcome shift towards realism that you can’t lean on the mechanism as much to bail you out on defense. In general, NHL 23 rewards good positioning and anticipation above all else when on defense, requiring you to keep yourself between attackers and the net and know when to best utilize tactics like the poke check, body check, or stick lift to force a turnover.

You might think that it would be easier to score on offense now that defenders can’t spam the defensive skill stick without fear of repercussions, but that’s not exactly the case. AI defenders and goalies both show a little more awareness than they have in the past and will force you to dig deeper into your bag of tricks if you want to find the back of the net. Defensemen are pretty savvy at ensuring you can’t slide any cross-crease passes to teammates at the side of the net, intercepting them routinely to end scoring chances. Even when you do get those passes through, it’s no longer as much of a guarantee that a one-timer will be able to beat the goalie because they will often react quickly enough to absolutely rob you of a goal. In trying to break down a defense, you might need to cycle the puck more often now and look for small passing windows that can create some space for your players in the slot.

The new last chance animations being introduced in NHL 23 that can have players diving to shoot or pass a loose puck happen rarely enough that it feels pretty satisfying when you are able to pull one off successfully.

Franchise Mode

NHL 23 franchise mode

Franchise mode in NHL 23 isn’t really all that different than the one in NHL 22, and the few updates it has been given are honestly a bit of a mixed bag, but the main reason that the mode is better than last year is that the game’s improved AI creates a better single-player experience versus the CPU. In the past, there was always an issue with how the CPU was too easy to beat on All-Star difficulty and too frustrating on Superstar difficulty thanks to the CPU typically generating its offense with unrealistic ping-pong passing. It creates its scoring opportunities a little more organically in NHL 23, seizing on the mistakes you make and turning them into high-percentage shots at your end, even making use of some of the game’s fancier dekes at times.

The framework for the mode is what remains largely intact, save for the way you can now customize your league by shuffling the divisions or even including 48 teams (which is especially promising considering how you can import rosters created by the community). It’s discouraging though to see that they have removed the ability to alter your team’s strategies at all. The rationale for this is apparently that you’re ostensibly serving as your team’s GM in the mode, and it would be the coach’s responsibility and not yours to tinker with strategies. This only makes sense though until you realize that you’re somehow able to set your team’s lines and repair your arena’s bathrooms, but strategies somehow aren’t allowed to be on your mind at all as a GM.

World Of Chel

In what you might gather is a trend for NHL 23, the World of Chel should look mighty familiar to anyone who played NHL 22, right down to many of the same rewards that you’ll unlock from hockey bags throughout your progress as you ascend levels through playing games. The mode hasn’t yet implemented the cross-platform play that it touted as a feature, which is slated to make its debut via a patch in November.

So why is the mode any good then? For the same reason that it always has been: It gives you the chance to play online with and against friends and strangers, making it the ultimate competitive experience in the game in my opinion — considering hockey is a team sport after all. There have been some nice changes to the way that you can customize the archetypes in NHL 23 too, giving you even more control over the specific skills you would like to emphasize that can help set you apart from everyone else.

For what it’s worth, connection speeds seem to have improved some in NHL 23 as well, with ping speeds reported to be lower than in the past for many players. It’s upsetting to play games that end though without you receiving any XP, causing it to essentially be one big waste of time (this is particularly galling when it’s a game where you tallied a hard-fought win with great personal performance to boot).

What I Don’t Like

NHL 23 presentation

Presentation

The fact that EA went so far as to hype the pregame arena theatrics and intros in NHL 23 by including them in its list of new features only makes it more disheartening to find that many games in modes seem to begin with little to no fanfare at all. The issue is compounded by the bizarre decision to remove an option that previously existed where you could toggle between full and condensed presentation depending on your personal preference. The new arena light shows and national anthems look nice, but they aren’t able to impress if they can’t be seen most of the time. It’s yet another head-scratching example of a worthwhile feature being removed from the game, leaving you with a limited set of visuals prior to the drop of a puck that fails to set the scene as well as games in the same series did half a decade ago on last-gen consoles.

Meanwhile, it was evidently considered a higher priority to show a wider variety of hats being thrown onto the ice by fans when a player on the home team manages to notch a hat trick by scoring three goals in game. To give credit where its due, there has been some effort invested in getting the crowd to behave more realistically by reacting to the ebbs and flows of a game, cheering on the home team when they’re dominating play and letting the boos rain down if they feel their expectations are not being met by the team they support.

Be A Pro & HUT

It’s probably worth grouping these two modes together since they both have been shown roughly the same level of neglect in NHL 23. In Be a Pro, any charm that comes with finding your path in the NHL as a player you’ve created is bound to be lost on someone who has already made that journey in either of the last couple of games in the series. From the grades that will determine your worth during a game to the hollow dialogue interactions with your coach and fellow players, it’s clear how few resources and little attention have been devoted to the mode.

The card-collecting Hockey Ultimate Team mode has suffered a similar fate, entering NHL 23 without the benefit of any new ways to play to bring the kind of jolt that HUT Rush provided when it was introduced a couple of years ago with its bite-sized games. The layout is nearly identical to last year, with the same focus on completing objectives and assembling a team that’s heavy on X-Factors and the right combination of synergies. The addition of female international players adds some much-needed diversity to the mix but is hardly the game-changer the mode needs to draw anyone in who was looking for innovation.

Bottom Line

NHL 23 review

It would be easier to view NHL 23 favorably if it was merely a gameplay update of NHL 22, but as its own standalone release, whether intentionally or not, it serves as a good argument for implementing a subscription model rather than sticking with an annual release cycle that will produce something this similar. Everything that happens on the ice is a little slicker thanks to new animations and better physics, while the game’s improved AI immediately boosts the appeal of playing franchise mode. World of Chel remains one of the best online sports experiences out there, especially if you have some friends to play with on a team together, and they’ve injected some variety into the kinds of players you can create. Delayed or missing features like cross-platform play, franchise strategies, and pregame presentation make for some major letdowns at launch. Integral modes like Be A Pro and Hockey Ultimate Team are prime examples of just how little has changed from NHL 22 to NHL 23.

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Author
Kevin Scott
Kevin Scott is a writer and video producer who's been contributing to Operation Sports since 2016. He's primarily been focused during this time on any and all video games related to football, baseball, basketball, hockey and golf. He lives in Toronto and still believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that someday the Leafs will finally win the Stanley Cup again.