The Chill Of Victory. The Agony Of Cold Feet.

HIGH  The upgraded Be a Pro is a huge improvement.

LOW  Player models are showing their age.

WTF  The announcing in NHL Threes should be abandoned immediately.

The end of a console cycle is typically a dark time for sports gaming. Because of the annual nature of sports sims, many companies seem to hold back on innovation, likely opting to put more resources into upcoming next-gen versions.

Thankfully, NHL 21 doesn’t follow that pattern. Instead, the venerable hockey sim paints a tantalizing picture of what next-gen hockey might look like with its most diverse offering to date. Whether gamers want to take their skills online or keep things local, there’s enough content here to keep them sated long through the winter.

In the month leading up to NHL 21’s release, EA Sports strongly promoted the revamped Be a Pro singleplayer story mode, and by and large, this was a success. After several years of minimalist forays into the life of hockey upstarts, NHL 21 ramps up user engagement without descending into melodrama.

While users may not find dramatic weight in this bare-bones series of conversation trees and career decisions, it’s also not a made-for-TV-movie version of professional sports. By keeping the focus on hockey and proving the character’s worth to a franchise, the story becomes part of the bigger title, and not a side distraction removed from gameplay.  

Otherwise, EA rightfully puts the focus for NHL 21 where it belongs — on the ice. The incremental upgrades to play offer notable improvements in presentation, control accuracy and overall feel.

The best example comes with goaltending, improved for both users and AI. NHL 21 features fewer questionable decisions and more stopped shots, as it should. Likewise, AI goalies seem to ‘learn’ user play habits at higher difficulty levels, presenting a fair and suitable challenge regardless of experience.

With the PS4/XBO generation nearing its end, the NHL 21 player models are understandably a little rough, but smooth animations and the afore-mentioned control improvements make it easier to tolerate. Plus, with broadcast-quality replays, most users will be too busy marveling at their epic goals to worry about janky hair.

As expected in an EA Sports title, NHL 21 features an expansive, deep Franchise experience, allowing users to manage nearly every aspect of running an NHL team. Whether users plan to keep their focus on playing through a season or diving deep into coaching and scouting strategy, there’s a wealth of gameplay and micromanagement goodness here.

New to this edition is Seasons mode, driven by goals and missions on top of winning games and climbing the standings. This mode fits right in with established offerings like the card-driven HUT mode. As usual, fans of grinding for card packs and leveling up will feel right at home in NHL 21, even if there hasn’t been much advancement here.

Also new is the online Ones mode — a competition in which users compete for trophies and bragging rights. It’s a pleasant distraction enhanced by the outdoor pond hockey setting, and it’s easy to imagine good competition between friends in this mode.

While this is a strong offering overall, NHL 21 does take a few missteps. For starters, the oddball NHL Threes mode — it’s a rule-free, 3-on-3 hockey experience that ramps up the action and minimizes the whistles that stop play. As a “Blitz-like” throw-in, Threes is harmless for a few minutes, but in a series that has mastered the art of strategic simulation hockey, it’s not likely to occupy interest for long.

The other misstep is the choice of announcers. Fans may have gotten used to these voices, but they’ve never sounded more disconnected from the on-ice action than they do in NHL 21. Whether it’s the repetitive, disjointed commentary during standard games or the cringeworthy ‘dude-bro’ exclamations in Threes mode, it all feels forced and actually prevents immersion in the experience.

Users won’t see a true next-gen NHL title until late 2021 at the earliest, so it’s refreshing to see the developers making a concerted effort to deliver a strong experience for current gen fans — EA did an admirable job here.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is published by EA Sports and developed by EA Vancouver. It is currently available on PS4 and XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBO. Approximately 22 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. Approximately 5 hours of play were devoted to online multiplayer.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+ for Mild Violence. The official description reads as follows: In this hockey simulation game, players can select teams from NHL rosters and play realistically depicted games of hockey. During the course of each match, players may initiate brief fistfights; the perspective shifts to isolate two players throwing punches and grabbing at one another until the fight is broken up.

Colorblind Modes: Colorblind modes are available in the Game Settings menu.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: NHL 21 features subtitles and numerous tactile feedback features within the controller, in all modes. The game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: There are several preset controller configurations, but they are not fully remappable.

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