NHL 21 Review: The Good, The Bad, And The Bottom Line

Aside from the horrific NHL 15, EA’s NHL series has been one of the most consistent sports video games franchises around. Several versions ago, the developers began loading the game with a variety of ways to play, and that approach has continued. EA isn’t releasing a next-gen version of NHL this year, so despite a delay due to restrictions created by COVID-19, the PS4 and Xbox One X iteration is now available.

THE GOOD
Peak-Level Visuals and Animation
It’s a good thing this is likely the last current-gen version of NHL 21 because I’m not sure the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One X could produce better visuals than we see in NHL 21. There isn’t an enormous leap from NHL 20, but I do find myself pausing replays and zooming in to appreciate the detail in some of the renders and virtual hockey atmosphere overall. This is a nice way for the developers to punctuate their visual product on this generation of consoles.

Smooth Skating
The NHL skate engine is as natural as we’ve ever seen in a hockey title. There is a great balance between bigger players and smaller ones, and also a distinct difference in the way elite skaters move compared to the more lumbering guys. In some previous versions, players seemed more interchangeable. In NHL 21, thanks to many of the signature-style-like gameplay enhancements, the stars stand out more. It feels as though this is something that got started in NHL 19, but this version goes to another level.

Be A Pro Has Some Serious Upgrades
By combining some elements from MLB The Show’s Road to the Show and NBA 2K’s MyCareer, EA might have created the most entertaining single-player career experience. You’re still creating a player and taking them through a professional career, but the presentation delivers tons of layers. There is an announcer who somewhat narrates your experience, and it’s just audio, but it’s hard to quantify how much of an impact it makes. Think Tony Bruno’s old radio show in Madden franchise, and another layer of relevance, and you’ve got it. Be a Pro is powered by the conversation system which sprawls into branching storylines that result in XP and other aspects of your development or regression.

Love the Depth to Franchise Mode
In addition to the returning leagues from multiple regions in the world, there is also a major franchise update related to trades and other roster moves. In franchise mode, there is now a GM clock that steers many of your roster decisions, especially as it relates to the trade deadline. Mix in the scouting improvements and coach scheme concepts that were boosted in NHL 20, and the franchise mode is moving in a direction many Madden fans wish their game was headed.

THE BAD
HUT Subtractions
HUT Rush is one of the biggest push points for Ultimate Team this year, but quite honestly, I didn’t find it more entertaining than the features it replaced. It’s not without enjoyable moments, but it feels as though its presence pulls a little more away from hockey and into some other alternative experience. The Style-Scoring isn’t really my cup of teal, but I acknowledge it may light others lamps.
EA delivered the following message to the NHL community on its website a few weeks ago:
“With NHL 21 introducing HUT Rush, along with HUT Rivals being introduced in NHL 20, we’ve removed Online Seasons and Draft Champions from NHL 21. These decisions were made to streamline the Online experience in HUT and ensure matchmaking pools aren’t too diluted which would result in longer matchmaking times.”
It seems as if this is a philosophical decision, but it’s one that limits creativity, and that’s never a good thing.

Lack of Development to World of CHEL
When the World of CHEL was created, I loved the idea of it, and in some respects, I enjoy it a little more than 2K’s Neighborhood. That’s probably because the environment is a little more controlled. On the flipside, I would like to have seen CHEL grow into something that offers a little more of a living environment. That might sound a little contradictory, but I believe there is a happy medium with that place probably leaning a little more toward the Neighborhood.

Inability to Completely Edit Players
I’m still waiting on EA to allow users to edit existing players. It would make franchise mode so much more customizable. It’s almost a waste to offer player editing when all you can do is adjust their beards and a few other non-descript details.

The Bottom Line
NHL 21 is another strong entry into the series’ history. It delivers a new strand of flavor with Be a Pro, maintains quality on the ice, and makes franchise mode more enjoyable. However, the limitations in customization and the subtractions to HUT keep NHL 21 from being the series’ ultimate edition.