As another season of NHL Hockey approaches, another installment of EA's NHL series arrives to continue what must unequivocally be one of the strangest developer-player dynamics in simulation sports. NHL 19 doesn't reinvent the wheel, because it no longer needs to. Players will encounter some frustrating and head-scratching decisions on the developers' part, but... have come to expect, if not accept that reality.
The good news? While past releases have raised the question posed to all annual sports titles - are the improvements truly deserving of a full-priced gamed? - NHL 19 has made measurable improvements, putting more tools and customization into the players' hands, and included new, surprising game modes apparently designed for one reason: fun. Who said a sports simulation should be taken seriously, anyway?
That isn't to say that the developers at EA Vancouver fail to deliver the same polished, satisfying product out of the package. If anything, they took their simulation of the game of hockey too seriously, too early. Where series like Madden, FIFA, or NBA Live struggled with the fact that console technology couldn't replicate a true experience, the NHL series, perhaps sooner than any other, used the technology on hand to create a quality simulation not by replicating the real physics, but by... well, simulating it. And ever since NHL 15 made the jump to next-gen consoles, with advanced game physics handed over to the EA Ignite Engine, the developers have continued to improve the game on a technical level - as most players would be hard-pressed to identify what, if anything, feels different, let alone improved.
This year, it's the RPM - the Real Player Motion Technology - that is being touted as the next evolutionary step in player skating, bodychecking, and collision physics. But if the RPM has affected any part of the play, we couldn't spot it. Again, that's not an indictment of the developers, merely the side effect of their past success: it's hard to know what part of the game's physics can be improved without fundamentally changing the nature of the simulation. And without an identifiable tech limitation or boundary being bumped against, players don't know what to demand. The NHL team has been serving hamburgers to repeat customers every week for the past decade, so by this point, asking if their customers "notice anything different?" about the recipe is going to get a predictable range of responses.
For some studios, that would be (and has been) taken as permission to lag behind, stall, and cease innovating when none is demanded - with NHL 19 the only simulation hockey title around, they could get away with it more than some. But it's a credit to the developers that they busy themselves, year in, year out, to make some kind of visible improvement, innovation, or unexpected twist. And with NHL 19, that proves most fruitful with the World of Chel, a hub where new, casual, and seasoned players can leave behind the Franchise Modes, Training walkthroughs, and Season-long simulations - all of which have been further expanded for players determined to micro-manage - in the name of weird, wacky fun.
Whether returning to last year's Threes Mode, trying out the new Ones Mode (in which three single players are thrown into a single attacking end, competing for goals on a single goaltender), or sharpening your online skills in the EASHL, the outdoor rinks cement the developers' intention of, quite literally, expanding, if not removing some of the simulation boundaries. Creating a custom player may not be new, but the Hockey Bag of starting goodies leads to a progression system marked by perks, cosmetic items, and challenges pitting players against legends of the NHL. More can be completed without taking on other online players, which may be the most pleasant surprise... aside from the more outrageous clothing and accessories players can use to outfit their avatars.
That being said, it wouldn't be an NHL game without some unexpected, and quite frankly hard-to-explain drawbacks. Some reflect the fact that the game of hockey has changed in recent years more than the game can keep up with. Why give players the ability to hook opponents or poke check, when they almost never work, and almost always result in a penalty? If a real-world game has one, maybe two BIG hits per game, how do you keep obliterating hipchecks from being the most effective way of stopping an opposing player on a rush? If players struggle to notice how the game's systems have improved under the hood, how do you keep friendly and opposing A.I.s from feeling as if they're playing a completely different game?
Others aren't as easy to excuse: Ones, the most surprising addition to this year's release due to its emphasis on fun, frenetic, made-for-couch-co-op lunacy can't be played locally, and is only available through online matchmaking. That remains our most frustrating cause for head-scratching, but for players who devote their time to the Hockey Ultimate Team, the minutia of Franchise Mode or a deeper-than-ever scouting system, it may dwarf the delights or drawbacks encountered by the casual and hardcore alike. Drawbacks that wouldn't even be worth mentioning if the game didn't show enough promise and interest in becoming something more than fans expect.
In the end, the finished game is not unlike this year's cover athlete. A stunning step in an exciting new direction for some. To others, a flashy distraction to keep fans from realizing momentum has begun to fade. It all depends on what you value in a sports simulation video which that, if you're reading this, you're probably going to end up buying anyway.