A Sign Of Silliness To Come?

HIGH Next-gen polish brings new life to a tried-and-true formula.

LOW X-Factors feel meaningless in the heat of gameplay.

WTF The single-Be a Pro mode has become a complete afterthought

NHL 22 is my third NHL review here at GameCritics and after spending time with this series and covering it fairly regularly, I’m confident in saying that this latest iteration is both more than an annual update, and less than the sum of its parts — in a nutshell, it’s a mildly underwhelming next-gen experience that still holds promise for the future.

Beginning with the positive, diehard NHL fans will immediately notice the visual and presentation upgrades.

Though the previous generation’s graphics were nothing to sneeze at, player models still had their share of janky moments that took me out of the moment. Coupled with the tried-and-true (but ultimately boring) top-down presentation, the series was long overdue for some extra polish in this regard.

That said, most of the presentation tweaks are pretty superficial. Sure, replays and closeups have a level of visual sheen never seen before in digital hockey, but at the same time, when watching the bird’s-eye view of gameplay, it’s difficult to get excited about light reflections and accurate ice-chip physics.

Also, it should be noted that non-player avatars (such as fans and agents seen during the Be a Pro mode) have exaggerated, cartoonish features. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Perhaps this is a nod to a new visual style coming down the road? It wouldn’t be the first time EA Sports has injected humor into its annual hockey offering.

On the audio end of things, the commentary remains stiff and disjointed, and before long it became a repetitive distraction rather than something to draw users into the experience. While some clips are spot-on and replicate a real game’s commentary, there are plenty more that have little connection to the on-ice action, even evoking unwanted laughs on more than one occasion.

For example, during an intense series of near-misses in front of the crease, commentators Ray Ferraro and James Cybulski had trouble keeping up with the frantic pace, then inexplicably cut to rinkside reporter Carrlyn Bathe for an update on a player that was not involved with the play. When the game returned to a faceoff, there was no acknowledgement that nine shots had been stopped by the goaltender in a matter of 25 seconds. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a videogame, but then again, this is a new generation of hardware — maybe I’m justified in being disappointed?

NHL22’s biggest improvements (thankfully) occur on the ice, where next-gen horsepower really proves its worth.

Play is both more responsive and better-paced, leading to one of the most accurate simulations of hockey to date. Goalies don’t feel as if they’re on rubber bands, and skater physics better align to the players’ actual physical traits, rather than a simple “fast,” “average,” “slow” series of archetypes. I’m guessing most gamers likely don’t put that much thought into hockey physics, but when compared to a real life team, they’ll see how ridiculously-detailed EA really was when developing this aspect.

One item of note — X-Factors (temporary, situation-specific performance boosts for elite stars) were a noticeable factor in how this year Madden titles performed, but they have much less impact on NHL 22. While users will see occasional bursts in skills such as scoring prowess from odd angles or the ability to navigate the puck through crowded defenses, most of these boosts are short-lived and ineffective. The presence of X-Factors doesn’t harm the experience, but it hardly adds to it, either.

The annual NHL singleplayer modes all make a steady, if unspectacular return this year.

Franchise mode is a little more accessible (with less micromanagement needed) than previous editions. The Be a Pro “story” mode, however, is completely devoid of personality, giving the impression that EA might be ready to leave it behind in future releases. While there are narrative threads to follow, they’re based solely on conversation trees, and not anything truly tangible for the player.

Instead, EA seems to be going “all in” on the World of Chel — an online/offline hub offering player creation, team customization, and novelty modes like Threes, online clubs and much more. Even with three months of lead time, I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the customized hockey available here. That said, it’s almost too much for any one person to explore without getting overwhelmed.

Online, the World of Chel does a nice job of matchmaking by skill level. Though it’s not a confirmed feature, the matchmaking actually found a way to place me on teams in need of sharpshooters, rather than surrounding me with like-minded online denizens. Whether intentional or not, it made for some pleasant, balanced online endeavors — hardly a guarantee in online sports gaming.

Overall, NHL 22 is a solid next-gen effort for the series, and points to bigger things to come. While longtime fans may be tired of the samey gameplay, there’s enough reason here to believe that EA has plans for the near future. Let’s hope they’re less about novelty modes and more about deeper presentation overhauls and a richer singleplayer experience.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is published by EA Sports and developed by EA Vancouver. It is currently available on PS4/5 and XBO/X/S. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBX. Approximately 22 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. Approximately 4 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. Text cannot be resized or altered. (See examples above.) Sound is not necessary for successful gameplay. This game is fully accessible.

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

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