Like every sport, ice hockey is in a strange place right now, but NHL 21 arrives to try and plug the hole. It has a tough job in proving that it's a worthy swan song to hockey on PS4 and Xbox One, but there's nonetheless plenty contained within whether you're an annual veteran, returning fan, or brand-new player. Other sports veterans such as FIFA 21 and NBA 2K21 have had down years in 2020. Can NHL 21 break that cycle? Well… no. But it's not all disappointing news.
Release date: 16 October 2020
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Developer: EA Canada
The hockey play is, on the whole, great fun. Skating is smoother than ever, the animations and movements are more refined, and scoring almost any goal is incredibly satisfying. However, the gameplay also demonstrates the annual-isms of sports games. NHL 21 does have the best hockey gameplay going (by virtue of being the series' newest offering) but also lacks innovation and real progress.
For example, there is still a big emphasis on an arcade-centric, basketball flow of play: one team goes up the attacking end, then the other team goes up the attacking end, repeat. There's little finesse when a game gets into this pattern and, as a general way-of-play, it can get a bit monotonous. Still: when it sings, there's nothing more exciting and satisfying than using a well-timed bodycheck to get possession, stringing some smart passes together, and then hammering home a one-timer with a ping off the pipes.
The AI is better, too, which increases the tension of opposition teams racing toward your goalie, but also the confidence you can have in offense with skaters finding genuinely good positions and space without simply patrolling set areas or routes. As a result, the hockey experience is successfully translated onto your screen: there's fluid, smooth, exciting, and fast play, tough and physical battles, and dextrous and skilful stick-handling. All the ingredients to make it feel like lightning on ice.
Let it Pro
An NHL 21 highlight is the much improved Be A Pro mode, in which you live out the big-league dream: from the draft, the race for the Calder Trophy (for best rookie), to taking on a team's captaincy, and beyond. You start by customising your character and beginning your journey in Canada or Europe, which enhances the roleplaying nature and the concept of earning your place in the NHL. After this, the career journey is exciting, interesting and likably varied.
Chats with your agent, management, and individual teammates help to shape the role-playing journey through the career. These work well, with a few caveats. The addition of full voice acting with multiple teammates (not just the same one over and over) would be a great improvement. There could also be more jeopardy and tangible outcomes with the implications: for example, I can make a promise to a teammate, receive +25 in likability, fail in that challenge, and only lose that same 25 points in likability; there is no real consequence.
However, the conversations do set the tone for something deeper than just a hockey play sim, and in combination with multiple skill trees, salary perks, specialty skills, and more, form the foundations of a great role-playing journey with real-life immersion.
Building a dynasty
Amplifying the personal journey to a team journey, NHL 21's franchise mode is excellent. From the meta-scale of building a dynasty to the micro-scale of training, scouting, and how many toilets or car parking spaces the stadium has - I'm serious - it's deep, immersive, and rewarding. This is the one area where some prerequisite knowledge of the NHL, salary caps, staff rosters and trade blocks and so on would be really useful, but it's not essential to enjoying the systems and process.
The scouting system is a standout feature, with a greater emphasis on needing to widen your database through manual, targeted and repeated scouting. The 'Fog of War' setting is crucial to making the scouting better and more realistic, obscuring players' details that can only be revealed by monitoring them closely. The chaotic trade deadline day is fun too, and an underrated highlight is the ongoing challenges and demands and expectations given to you from the owners. These might not be massive ('win the opening home game') but can lead to welcome bonuses such as money or favour. They can also take the form of those stadium upgrades improvements too, but all help to give you things to focus on, and moving forward and add to immersion and the realism of running a franchise.
The World of CHEL is home to NHL 21's online community and offers a great outlet for those looking for regular online play with leagues, seasons, and ranks. There's welcome variety to the modes on offer, with Ones and Threes being great for open styles of play. HUT Rush is a great idea too: the more style you demonstrate in the on the ice, the more you build up your score multiplier – while crazy rules like first-goal-wins ratchet up excitement and tension.
Ultimate Team is inevitably back too, with a microtransactions model that feels far less cash-driven than found (and often criticised) in FIFA. The real meat and potatoes of NHL 21 is definitely its single-player modes, but there's plenty of online enjoyment here too.
Overall, NHL 21 suffers from identical troubles to its once-vaunted contemporaries as next-gen approaches. It's not much of an upgrade on last year's instalment, and features generation-wide frustrations – yet safely remains the best game of its kind you can play right now. Never a clean hit, then, but a solid and enjoyable one, that sets things up tidily for NHL 22 to be a PS5 and Xbox Series X smash.
Reviewed on PS4. Code provided by the publisher.