As someone who had bought every EA NHL game from 2005 to 2016, I had had enough. 10 years of the skill stick, franchise mode, and Be-A-Pro (I realize the mode was introduced in 2009) was enough for me. I skipped NHL 17 and was planning on skipping this years edition too until one day, it appeared in my inbox. I booted it up and felt right at home. Play Now, EASHL, HUT, and all of the other regular modes were still there. I was also greeted with a Draft Champions mode and Threes, but I'll get to those later.
Let's get straight into the meat, here. As a seasoned veteran to the NHL franchise, the gameplay felt very familiar to me. It felt mostly the same as 15 and 16, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The hockey feels good. Ripping a shot from the top of the hash marks top cheese over the goalie's glove still feels great. Adrenaline pumps when a defenseman lands an open-ice banger on an opposing forward. For the most part, there are no complaints here. The game mostly looks great. Star players look like their real-life counterparts. As for everyone else, well...
There are issues with the user controlled player over-skating the puck when trying to pick it up from open ice, as well as a strange issue with slapshots where the player just completely whiffs sometimes. Other than those small setbacks, though, the gameplay has been as good or better than in previous iterations with the introduction of the reworked Defensive Skill Stick.
Defensive Skill Stick
The reworked Defensive Skill Stick is one of the most net positive additions to the series in a very long time. It allows the player to sweep their stick in front of them while skating backward, aim poke checks, and block passing lanes. It really makes you feel in control on defense and the tools are finally there to add that little bit of realism that was lacking in previous games. The addition of this, though, means that some controls are wonky now and hard to find. For instance, instead of pressing R1 and moving the right stick either left or right for a puck chop, it is now done by pressing in the right stick and moving either left or right. Same with the hip check. Instead of simply clicking in the right stick before making contact with another player, the user must click in the right stick and press L1. It took me a while to figure this out though. I wish these changes, among others, were more clearly communicated. You, too, will be hip-checking like Andrei Mironov in no time.
Most of this year's marketing was geared towards the brand new Threes mode. Imagine NBA Jam, but hockey. That is what this mode is. There are no power-ups like in 3 on 3 NHL Arcade or NBA Jam, but there are 3 players on each team plus a goalie, no neutral zone, big hits, snipes, and tons of fun. Pick your favorite NHL team then rock and roll. You can choose to have classic scoring, most goals after 3 periods wins or first to 3, 4, or 5 goals, win by two, and more.
There is a 'circuit' mode which has you traveling the continent, playing junior, AHL, and NHL teams to unlock players, jerseys, and logos. You make your way from north-west to south-east, playing just about every team under the sun. And also, all 27 NHL Mascots are playable characters. If that does not sell you on this mode, I'm not sure what will.
My opinion on Threes is almost universally positive, except for the PA announcer. He is great and pretty funny for the first few games, but he gets really grating, really fast. By the 5th game, you have heard his jokes 5 times over and it is just annoying, honestly.
This mode will sell copies. It's that good. But if you're going to play it for any extended amount of time, maybe listen to a podcast or toss on some music instead.
When you first start the game, you are greeted with a live-action tutorial system that is interwoven with player controlled gameplay. It does a great job introducing new players to all of the different systems and controls. It was a bit long-winded for someone familiar with the series, though. I found myself wanting to skip through most of it. During games is when this new system really shines. It provides actually useful information to put to use depending on the situation. Following this advice actually, makes you better at the game. I have mostly ignored the in-game coaching since it was introduced in, probably 2008(?), since it was useless garbage most of the time. This addition should prove to be useful for veterans and newbies alike.
Franchise mode has a few new toys to play with. The new expansion mode lets you either take control of the Vegas Golden Knights and run through the expansion draft with the picks you want or you can add a brand new 32nd NHL team, complete with an arena, a mascot, jerseys, and logos of your choosing. And that team should be the Seattle Metropolitans. Do not argue this fact. Aside from relocations, expansions, and expansion drafts, the only significant season-to-season change is mid-season contract extensions, which have been notably absent from the mode since its inception.
Player ratings have been given a makeover. Overalls have been lowered pretty much across the board. The best players in the game, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid both sit at a seemingly humble 93 overall whereas last year, Crosby was coasting on an unmatched 95 overall. In previous iterations, third and fourth line forwards, as well as bottom pairing defensemen, would sit anywhere around 82 to 72 overall. According to this years game, third liners sit around 81 to 78 while fourth liners sit around 75 and below. Same with 5th and 6th defenders. In previous iterations, I was able to slot in my 77 overall 4th line goon with some amount of success after one of my 3rd liners was put out of action. That no longer works this year as it is still necessary to deal with injuries (unless you're smart and turn them off) but your record will definitely take a hit.
For the most part, Be-A-Pro is the same. Changes to the way you earn XP allow you to start contributing to the team who drafted you quicker than ever before. You can now set training schedules that reward you passive XP, as well as earning it as you use specific skills during games. For instance, shooting well-aimed wrist shots will contribute to your wrist shot accuracy stat. Nikita Zadorov-ing Mark Scheifele will make your body checks better. Getting back early on the backcheck will cause your defensive awareness to increase. You get the point. Requesting trades to either a division rival or Stanley Cup favorites and creating no-trade lists are also two new quality of life improvements. These changes created a generally more positive experience with one of the staple modes of the series.
Ultimate Team, Draft Champions, and EASHL remain largely unchanged, besides being able to matchmake into 3v3 hockey for EASHL.
Ultimately, NHL 18 is an improvement over 17. In rare form, I think EA has made enough improvements in every facet of the game to justify a purchase to someone who owns the previous version. This is not just a roster update. The feel of the gameplay has been largely unchanged, besides new dekes and the defensive skill stick, but that is not a bad thing. Echoing what I said earlier, the hockey is fun to play. Threes, expansion teams, and Oblivion-style leveling up for Be-A-Pro all work towards making NHL 18 a neat, tidy package.