NHL 18 Review - Time to Work on the Basics
The big marketing push behind NHL 18 this year was skill. Deke instead of dumping the puck in and getting it deep. Dangle through defenders instead of making the sensible pass. This marketing push is reinforced by the way the game plays online. Its focus on flashy comes at the price of ignoring some of the core hockey principles and mechanics that you’d expect from a simulation. Our NHL 18 review will weigh the dangle-instead-of-pass mentality NHL 18 takes, going in-depth with pros and cons of this approach both online and offline.
What’s New in NHL 18?
The list of modes, mechanics, and features new to NHL 18 is long. On the modes side, there’s the 3-on-3 EASHL, NHL Threes, and more ways to play online and co-op than one could reasonably name in a review. Hockey Ultimate Team has also seen a bit of an overhaul, with players now able to enjoy co-op modes, and new ways to earn packs and collect Coins that don’t require online play.
On the gameplay and mechanics side, there’s the new Defensive Skill Stick, the ability to play through the expansion draft as the Vegas Golden Knights, or create your own franchise from scratch, adding the 32nd NHL team to the league. There are also a batch of new dekes and moves that skilled players can use in what EA Canada is calling Creative Attack Dekes.
So Much to Play
I’m not kidding when I tell you that it will take you days to work your way through all the modes at your disposal in NHL 18. Even if you tackle them all, most allow you to play either online or offline, which changes your experience dramatically.
The core modes are obviously back, with those being Be a Pro, Hockey Ultimate Team, EASHL, Franchise Mode, and the new kid in town, NHL Threes.
Be a Pro looks almost identical to last year except you can now request a trade. The more time I spend in the mode, the more convinced I am that this was perhaps the only significant addition or change to Be a Pro. Other than going in there to snag yourself a bunch of trophies, I really can’t see many players putting a lot of time into it. In a year when there are more co-op options than ever, how did Be a Pro not give you the option to play through your career with a friend? Or, why can’t you carry your Be a Pro character from NHL 17 to NHL 18, and so on?
Franchise Mode has seen some big changes. You can now play the expansion draft as the Vegas Golden Knights, or you can create a 32nd NHL team and customize it from the ground up. That is a crazy amount of fun, but where this mode loses me is when my owner starts threatening to fire me because I haven’t made fans happy at the concession stands. Go tell Lou Lamoriello that the fans aren’t happy with the price of a Coke and see how that goes for you. Overall, though, NHL 18’s strongest offline mode is by far the Franchise Mode, and you can turn off those annoying owner goals if you’re not in the mood for it.
NHL Threes is the new mode this year, and it’s basically the M&Ms on top of your already decorated cake. It’s fun, can be played offline, co-op, or online, and uses an unlock system tied to performance. That progression system is flawed. It adds an aspect of grinding to the mode that mixes with the overall tone of Threes like oil and water. Threes feels like it should be the coffee break mode of NHL 18, and it is in ways, but it’s also not something I’d spend much time in unless I was hunting for PS4 trophies, Xbox One achievements, or chilling with friends on the couch.
EASHL is back and now includes the 3-on-3 mode. This doesn’t even require three humans, as you and one friend can play and be joined by an AI player on your team. Still, it’s a big step in the right direction in terms of space on the ice to enjoy yourself. It’s also much easier for most players to find one or two friends to play EASHL with instead of five. Where EASHL struggles, however, is with the overall push EA Canada has made with its online gameplay, and the fact they recently introduced penalty shots for all on-ice infractions. We’ve already written extensively about the penalty shots in 3-on-3 EASHL. It’s bad. Really bad.
Rounding out the core modes is Hockey Ultimate Team. I skipped this mode last year because I was tired of the pay-to-win formula. That’s still very much a thing, but offline and co-op additions to HUT, like HUT Challenges, has renewed my interest in the mode. There seems to be more ways to earn Coins and packs than ever before, although the best method will always be to drop real cash. You could spend hundreds of dollars throughout the year, if not more.
With HUT, there is a laundry list of things that don’t make sense in terms of the navigation and menus. The menus in NHL 18, as with about the last 10 games in the series, are clunky and slow, But with HUT, EA Canada does a terrible job of making managing your team and interacting with the Auction House intuitive. It would benefit from the ability to see the average price a card has been sold for by simply inspecting it. As it is now, expect to have to search for that card in the Auction House, ballpark the average price, then back out of about five menus to post your own card.
Sick Dangles, Kid
The more NHL 18 I play online, the more I feel that EA Canada needs to pump the brakes on trying to sell dekes and kids chewing on their mouth guards. It’s cool and I think adding it really pops, but I feel like it is hiding the fact there are some big flaws with the core game. I’d rather see those flaws fixed up first, and then the flashy triple deke with your mouth guard hanging out added on later.
NHL 18 suffers from most of the same gameplay flaws that it has for years. My first 10 minutes in the game beyond the very cool Training Camp were spent testing all last year’s cheese goals, only to find that each of them still worked. When you’re playing online and your goaltender is AI controlled, a player who is skilled with deking can pull off cheese goal after cheese goal, besting flaws in game design instead of you. I’m sure players will always find new ways to exploit AI, but what I don’t understand is why EA Canada doesn’t prioritize fixing exploits that have been around for years.
The online matchmaking can only be described as bad. If it’s not a design flaw, it’s because there isn’t a large online base of players. Either way, it’s common to get blown out of the water playing online HUT by a team full of superstars and a player that is well beyond your skill level. What’s worse, is that there is no way to get a quick death. Expect to spend 20 minutes getting smoked when you knew one minute in that you were outmatched.
The counter to this, though, is that NHL 18 is so heavy in content that there is something for everyone. I’m likely to get tired of cheese goals and bad matchmaking in HUT or EASHL very quickly, but I’m more than happy to do some co-op HUT Challenges with my buddies, or retire to my franchise mode. If you don’t like something, NHL 18 has something else to offer.
The offline modes are also rich in settings. The new Defensive Skill Stick is great, but you’re bound to get a lot more tripping penalties than before. Luckily, you can tune tripping penalties (or any infraction) specifically. I turned down tripping and charging, two penalties that haunted me in my Be a Pro career as a left wing power forward in NHL 17. The sliders don’t stop there. You can tune almost anything so that you get your perfect idea of what an NHL simulation game should feel like.
What’s Missing in NHL 18?
NHL 18 adds a lot, but it also leaves a lot out. Right at the top of my list is an online Practice Mode. I have one semi-experienced friend to play EASHL with, and one friend who is the definition of rookie. It’s very frustrating to get smashed game in and game out as your only means to improve, when you would really like to get them alone in a Practice Mode and help them with the fundamentals. Yes, there’s a Practice Mode offline, but how can a game with more co-op options than a hockey player has teeth not offer some form of co-op or online Practice Mode?
This year’s NHL 18 is also lacking any sort of improvement on commentary from the NBC team. It’s been the same for years, and most likely NBC is paying for that spot. However, it’s an absolute crime that this hasn’t been overhauled. Mike Emrick is much better at calling actual NHL games than he is in the NHL series. In fact, it’s a common community practice to mute the commentators.
There doesn’t seem to be an option to customize the goaltender’s mask for your created franchise, even though you can customize the regular player helmet. Franchise Mode could use both a no trade and a no movement clause feature. Even though the NHL entry draft is cool, the trade deadline is a shell of what it used to be. How did we go backwards there? And, how in all that is holy about hockey can you have a create a team option and expansion draft without an authentic Quebec Nordiques logo and uniform option.
Post Game Analysis
NHL 18 does its absolute best to distract you from its neglected core gameplay by hitting you in the face with a shotgun blast of modes and ways to play. It’s very likely that you’ll find something you enjoy, and hockey’s hard-core video game fans will spend hundreds of hours playing, but NHL 18 would have been better off if it worried as much about the fundamentals as it did about flashy dekes.