We played NHL 21 – Hands-on beta impressions

EA’s hockey franchise has made progress in recent years, but how much change should players expect heading into NHL 21?

EA Sports’ simulation hockey franchise took a nice step forward last year with NHL 20. Built on the foundation that EA Vancouver, the developer of the series, has laid out over the past few years, NHL 20 featured gameplay that, while not perfect, felt about as good as it ever has on the current generation of consoles. In addition, Franchise mode received a much-needed overhaul, as the additions of line chemistry and coaches made the feature feel as immersive as it ever has. 

Still, it was evident that the franchise still needed some work. Be a Pro remained untouched, and the gameplay meta still retained some of its most unappealing features.

So how much change should the NHL playerbase expect for NHL 21? We had a chance to play an early version of the game, and from what we saw, fans should expect a different kind of game.

EA Sports called an early, playable version of the game a “Closed Technical Test.” It was essentially a beta, but unlike in previous years, the experience was a closed one, meaning it was only open to those who signed up and received a code. The reason behind the closed beta was simple: The development team wanted to “stress test” the game’s servers, as well as address feedback received from the franchise’s passionate players.

Only two game modes were included in the Closed Technical Test: Online Versus and World of CHEL. The beta provided an opportunity for players to not just check out the new changes to CHEL, but also give its playerbase a glimpse as to what the gameplay will look like.

In the gameplay, several changes could be noticed right off the bat. The skating in NHL 21, for the most part, feels more fluid than past years. Faster skaters seem to better act like they should, as there was a noticeable difference between how the quicker NHL players move up the ice as compared to the slower ones. In past years, the difference between faster and slower skaters was there, but it was not as noticeable as it was in our experience with the beta. In addition, the AI seemed to be more cognizant of what was going on the ice, thus making it easier to set up plays by cycling the puck.

Another interesting change was that goalies, in general, were more challenging than in prior years. NHL 21 goalie animations are more fluid and realistic, and netminders can move around the crease much quicker and respond to cross-ice plays. This was a pleasant change, as in past years, goalies’ response time to cross-ice plays have tended to be slow, leading to some pretty frustrating goals. While scoring in NHL 21 might seem more challenging, the goaltender movements and skating should be a welcome change for those who want a more realistic simulation experience, as well as for players who have become frustrated with non-stop “cheese” goals.

And there was one gameplay change that left us intrigued, but at the same time, bemused. The back-skating in NHL 21 is quite different than it was in 20, with skaters, particularly defensemen, not moving as quickly as they have in the past when back-skating. It is somewhat understandable as to why the NHL team might have done this — sluggish back-skating should mean that players might be more willing to dump and chase, something that’s almost never seen in online games. However, the muted back-skating does leave us somewhat concerned that this change will lead to too many odd-man rushes. Every game typically sees a handful of these to begin with, and the presence of lethargic back-checking could lead to even more defensive breakdowns, even among those who are defensively responsible. We’ll have to see how this plays out come October, but our early advice for online players is to be very careful with pinching your defenseman, and prepare to back-check a lot with a forward who can skate back in a forward motion.

World of CHEL still retains some of its older features, such as player loadouts and customization, but it also sees the addition of CHEL Ranked Seasons. The ONES tournament field has now been reduced, which is something that players who want a quick gaming experience should appreciate come October. 

It’s still too early to tell what state NHL 21 will launch in on October 16. After all, this beta is not reflective of what the final version of the game will look like. However, it’s important to note the series has been moving in the right direction. Franchise mode took a step forward in 2019, and Be a Pro will receive a much-needed overhaul this year. And if the beta is any indication as to how gameplay will be for NHL 21, that too seems to be receiving some important changes. 

The key, however, will be what the game will look like come November and December. The gameplay in NHL 20 felt fresh and different compared to previous titles throughout the beta and the first week of its existence. But after receiving several gameplay updates and nerfs, the franchise’s gameplay, in many ways, reverted back to the same things as past titles, inhibiting it from reaching its true potential. Hopefully, NHL 21 will be a change of pace.