NHL 21 Review: The Hockey You Know, For Better or Worse
If it seems like the Tampa Bay Lightning were lifting the Stanley Cup for the second time in franchise history just the other week, that's because it was just the other week. While most years the latest editions of EA's NHL series drop in the run-up to a new campaign, when fans are champing at the bit for the season to start, this is 2020, and nothing in 2020 is normal.
At least, nothing in the real world of 2020 is normal.
While sports have had to undergo massive changes to business as usual, including delays, pauses, and fanless bubbles, sports gamers know that franchises have an almost supernatural ability to make much ado about comparative nothing when it comes to changes and innovations.
Unfortunately, though NHL 21 arrives with all the standard pomp and circumstance of a new year's release, it feels like a lot more of the same. That includes all the excellent highs the series has to offer and, sadly, some of the same frustrating lows.
NHL 21 Review: The Hockey You Know, For Better or Worse
While it's not entirely without its flaws ... it is perhaps the most satisfying of all the sports simulations available.
Full disclosure: I have spent a lot of time playing NHL 20 and FIFA 20 over this summer of self-isolation. As a result, it can be hard to view the newest experience through the eyes of a new player, or someone who hasn't played an NHL game in a few years. While I will look at some of the pros and cons of the changes in this year's game, I want to first assess what players without any prior expectations can find when they boot up NHL 21.
The good news is that if you're considering making the jump into digital hockey, be it for the first time ever or the first time in a while, NHL 21 is an excellent game in that vacuum. While it's not entirely without its flaws, which grow only more frustrating when you've seen them year after year, on the balance, it is perhaps the most satisfying of all the sports simulations available.
Controls in NHL are extremely fluid. Using one stick to skate and the other to control your stick opens up a world of stick handling and dekes. Although some of the moves can be extremely challenging, and will likely remain well outside of the comfort zone of most casual players, the game provides a lovely training mode that quickly walks you through the basics of play and gets you comfortable enough to head out for a proper game in short order.
NHL 21 also features a range of modes to provide variety. There's the sporting-game standard Ultimate Team mode, where you slowly build a team of players by completing online games and challenges to open new packs of cards with new, hopefully-better, players. Pond hockey modes, including one-on-one and three-on-three games are also back, as well.
All told, it's a strong offering that is a worthwhile addition to any gaming collection with a hockey-shaped hole.
What's New: Lot's of Sizzle, Minimal Steak
If you're not an every-year buyer of NHL games and have a recent addition, NHL 21 becomes a harder sell. While I advocated for NHL 20 doing just about enough to justify its purchase last year, the same can't be said of the latest edition. While there are new tweaks and features, they don't add up to $60 of new content if you aren't a fan of the HUT mode or feel the need to stay up to date on it.
Some of the lack of updates isn't entirely on developers. With the NHL's entire schedule thrown off by COVID-19 and a start date for next season currently existing only in the form of targets, not concrete answers, it's understandable that roster situations are fluid.
The draft just happened last week and free agency is still underway. However, when the biggest dig thrown at new sports games is that you pay full price for a roster update when even that isn't properly in place, it is a big dent in appeal.
There is also an upsettingly minimal amount of development put into the pond hockey modes. The two single-player circuits still send you on a tour of each conference that culminates in Las Vegas and Washington, respectively, champion representatives that are now two seasons out of date. When jumping into one-on-one modes, the starting pros unlocked are the same ones you'll find in NHL 20.
The Be a Pro mode is more of a mixed bag. On the positive side, NHL 21 represents a major improvement in representation as developers have finally solved the complex puzzle of how to incorporate women players as an option. If you want to play as a woman, you can choose to do so, with the game otherwise playing exactly the same.
[Be a Pro's] approach to balancing traits, skills, and experience is the best blend of player development in any of the major franchises for my money.
The other big addition, the use of interviews and interactions, is more hit and miss. While it is a concept I enjoy seeing added to the game, and it helps to further distinguish the mode from standard play, the novelty runs off fast.
It is understandable that pouring resources into writing may not have been a priority, but it's still frustrating to be given the choice of three responses only for, time and time again, all three to make you sound like a bit of a dork, even when the game is describing one as the Star or Charm option.
Overall, Be a Pro remains a strong mode, and its approach to balancing traits, skills, and experience is the best blend of player development in any of the major franchises for my money. That said, this year's tweaks feel more like waxing your used car than buying a new one off the lot.
The final big addition, at least until NHL 94 Rewind drops at the end of the month, is the new HUT Rush mode. Featuring speedier games that reward players for skills and tricks, it offers a change of pace for online play. However, it also comes at the expense of Online Seasons and draft modes, meaning some players will actually find the change to be a net loss.
NHL 21 Review — The Bottom Line
- The engine plays extremely smoothly and feels as fast and fluid as a real NHL game
- The various pond hockey modes provide a fun change of pace from traditional games
- Franchise mode offers a deep array of immersion options, with the ability to turn them off for a less-intensive approach, as well
- Lack of change and innovation makes it hard to justify an upgrade for owners of NHL 20
- Stickwork on defense still provides significantly more risk than reward, with tripping penalties so common you're often better off leaning into a body-heavy approach
- Teammate AI is less effective in set-piece offenses when established in the offensive zone, making effective play on breaks overly important
The biggest condemnation I can offer for NHL 21 is that I could largely have just copied and pasted my closing for last year's game into this spot and spent a minute making some tweaks to the cons, and it would still work.
For players who haven't bought a hockey game in recent years, my recommendation is full-throated. While there are still some gameplay elements that aren't quite right that skew the way you play, in general, it provides a strong and entertaining simulation of fast-paced hockey.
If you've already got a copy of NHL 20 and are enjoying it, and you aren't a HUT addict who doesn't want to be left behind, there's little here to make me recommend picking this year's edition up.
At least until real-world rosters finalize, the differences between last year's version and this year's version are minimal and hardly justify the expense. In that case, you're probably better off getting another year out of what you've already bought and seeing how things change for NHL 22.
If you do decide to take to the ice, you'll find a good game here, but it's just more of the same.
[Note: A copy of NHL 21 was provided by Electronic Arts for the purpose of this review.]