Prettier, Smoother, And Frustratingly Familiar

HIGH The visuals finally feel worthy of new console horsepower…

LOW …until the replays are seen up close.

WTF SNES hockey strategy shouldn’t work in 2022.

Last year I described NHL 22 as a “mildly underwhelming next-gen experience that still holds promise for the future.” Today, after nearly a month of play, I’m describing NHL 23 as a “visually appealing current-gen experience that needs to start delivering more on its promise.”

Visually, it’s clear that EA Sports took past criticism to heart. While previous editions hinted at ramped-up eye candy, NHL 23 seems to make the most of current hardware, from player faces to subtle animations. For example, when taking a faceoff, real-time reflections of the overhead scoreboard are seen on the freshly-polished ice surface. As each period progresses, visible deterioration from skaters dulls the reflection until the next one starts. Details like this don’t affect gameplay, but they do allow for a sense of immersion, even from a distant overhead camera.

Likewise, player faces and reactions are far more accurate and situationally appropriate, leaving lifeless expressions on last-gen consoles. The league’s current lighting and concert-like presentations are also well-implemented into each opening segment. It’s clear that EA wants NHL to be a visually arresting series in the next few years, and this year’s edition takes a big step forward by focusing on the nuances that make live hockey such an unforgettable experience.

Overall, NHL 23 is a strong visual contender in the sports game arena — at least until replays, when the camera zooms in. Once up close, users will see cracks in the graphical armor, as smooth animations seen from above are revealed to be somewhat janky and stilted. It may not affect gameplay one iota, but it seems odd to see butter-smooth movements from one angle reduced to marionette performances, just from getting a slow-motion view of the action.

Thankfully, the controls and gameplay speed are more realistic than ever thanks to improved physics, and an AI that demands more user accountability. Easier difficulties will still see goalies turn to swiss cheese on virtually every breakaway, but moderate-to-hard difficulties are fair, challenging, rewarding, and accurate. Disciplined hockey strategy will always beat button mashing in PvP matchups, which should appease many critics of this series, present company included.

At the same time, the often-cumbersome control scheme has been made more accessible to newcomers and old souls alike. Admittedly, I’ve often reverted to the simplified NHL ’94 controls to enjoy the game at my own casual pace. For NHL 23, I never even considered it, as for the first time, using a simplified control made it feel as if I was missing out. The streamlined advanced control scheme still takes some work to master, but once it clicks with users, I don’t foresee many gamers regressing ever again.

In terms of modes, NHL 23 delivers the usual deep slate of offerings, from the microtransaction-heavy Ultimate Team to the deeper and more engaging Franchise Mode. None of it is new or revolutionary. but it’s all been fine-tuned to keep the focus on the ice, and not the grind of micromanagement.

Unfortunately, there are notable flaws in some of the longstanding modes and features. First, the omnipresent Be a Pro mode continues EA’s downward trend of career mode storytelling. At no point during my avatar’s hockey journey did I ever feel engaged or connected to the narrative, nor the decisions I was making. None of it seemed to matter on the ice, anyway. Maybe a deeper dive would produce a long-term storyline reward, but I felt trapped in a week-to-week deluge of minutiae, rather than feeling the excitement of a pro hockey career.

Last year, I enjoyed the online “World of Chel” offerings, praising the matchmaking and overall online gameplay balance. This year, the mode took a serious step backward. While the wide variety of arcade and simulation play options is welcome, I had significant difficulty finding a stable game, and the matchmaking usually placed me with far better players than I could ever hope to beat. Over the course of several weeks, I experienced considerably more imbalance and fickle connections than in the previous edition, and before long I disconnected permanently in favor of the same, reliable offline hockey I know and love.

Sadly, I think this is the key problem with the NHL series in its current form — despite all the visual sheen, extensive modes, and unparalleled control depth, this is still, at its core, the same game we’ve been playing for decades. Online and offline, even with the engine rewarding well-executed hockey strategy, most games ultimately devolve into a redundant pattern of “check/breakaway/shoot/repeat.” Even on the most stringent difficulty levels, I rarely saw the game AI slow down and run a cohesive offensive series. Instead, it shot at will, never seeking to set up an open skater.

There may only be a few realistic ways to present videogame hockey in a playable form, but once the AI chose to play “run and gun” arcade hockey, I realized I was employing the same tactics I did in my college dorm room, far too many years ago. If this series is going to truly progress and make good on the updated visual presentation, more nuanced gameplay will have to become a reality, not just a promise.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is published and developed by EA Sports. It is available on PC, PS4/5, XBO/X/S. This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox Series X. Approximately 22 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. Approximately 4 hours of play were dedicated to online multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E. This is a realistic simulation of hockey, including player-controlled fighting and often-aggressive body checks that may concern parents.

Colorblind Modes: There are colorblind modes available in the Accessibility menu.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: NHL 23 features subtitles (see examples above) and numerous tactile feedback features within the controller, in all modes. The game is easily playable without sound and is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: There are several controller configurations but the game’s controls are not remappable.

Brad Bortone
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