After a slow start this console generation, the NHL franchise finally found its footing in 2017. NHL 18 introduced the fun arcade mode NHL Threes, injected more puckhandling creativity with a new layer of dekes, and gave defenders more control over their gaps with the defensive skill stick. All were positive steps in the right direction, but developer EA Canada has a lot of grinding to do if it wants to stand among the best sports games.
Game Informer’s resident puckheads Matt Bertz, Kim Wallace, and Matthew Kato put their heads together to formulate a winning strategy on how the NHL series could take the next big leap forward.
- Fix Puck Pickups Once And For All
The number-one glaring gameplay issue year in and year out, EA Canada needs to finally find a more organic system for puck pickups. Far too often players don’t have the awareness to locate the puck at their feet and gain possession, resulting in turnovers or missed opportunities during what should be a routine play for an NHL player.
- Making Skating More Fluid
For whatever reason, too many players in NHL still turn like the Titanic rather than like the agile, world-class athletes they are supposed to simulate. We’d like to see the system evolve to allow players to turn more realistically, as well as more fidelity of movement in small spaces to both allow defenders to stay in position better and allow savvy puck handlers to glance past potentially devastating checks.
- Rework The Checking System
How many times have you seen diminutive Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane blow up a much bigger defender in real life? You have a better chance of seeing the Phoenix Coyotes hoist the cup. In NHL, you see this type of physics-defying feat more often than you should. The checking system should factor in size, speed, and weight more realistically. Kaner shouldn’t be able to knock people off the puck – he’s better off using his stick. Menacing Jets defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, on the other hand, should have no problem clearing bodies from the front of the net.
- Embrace Player Differentiation
We’ve harped incessantly on this point for almost a decade, and last year EA Canada finally created a bit of a gulf between fourth liners and first liners. We remain convinced the game would greatly benefit from stretching out the player ratings further like Madden has. We’d also love to see EA introduce player traits and specialties like instigator, master puck deflector, needle threader, penalty shot specialist, etc. to further distinguish the behavior between players.
- Lose The Bad Angle Cheese
The NHL series is in a relatively good place when it comes to scoring. Getting to high-percentage scoring areas like the slot greatly benefit your productivity, but we still see some questionable goals happen way too frequently, particularly in bad angle shots along the half-wall. We’d like to see these cheap goals happen less frequently to both preserve competitive balance online and bring goalie save percentages up to a more realistic number when playing against the curiously accurate CPU A.I.
- Revamp Board Play & Physicality
Board play hasn’t received a proper re-evaluation for some years now. No one wants to see the return of suction animations, and the programming can’t be easy, but we’d love to see a new system that introduces more physicality. With puck possession at stake, we see players pin and elbow each other, use their size and strength to box out the opposition, and dig frantically for the puck with their sticks. Almost none of this happens in the video game. We’d also like to see A.I. teammates help more when you’re pinned or there’s a scrum in the corner. A dedicated teammate assist button like FIFA has would help in these situations as well as face-off tie-ups. In terms of overall physicality, we’d like to see more jostling in front of the goalie (including how it affects goalies at the top of their crease) and realistic garbage goals, including those that are poked through pads or trickle over the line.
- Introduce Roster Sharing
Not everyone agrees with the ratings EA Canada gives players, whether it’s not punishing regression in aging players or being too stingy with rookie ratings. We’d love it if they could just give us the damn keys and let us do it ourselves. Roster sharing could enable dedicated users to redo the entire league to create more differentiation, and allow us to import proper draft classes for a more realistic experience.
- Develop An Advanced Passing System
The passing system in NHL already allows users to bank the puck off the boards and raise the puck for a saucer pass, but we’d like to see this system evolve once more to factor in the amazing stretch passes we see defensive all-stars like Erik Karlsson and Ryan Suter occasionally pull off. We’d also like to see more flourish in the passing game like amazing behind-the-back passes some of the best dishers in the NHL pull off. This would have to be tempered, of course, as currently no-look passes can be overpowered.
- Offscreen Indicators
Since NHL doesn’t have a radar system like a soccer game might, it’s impossible to tell if your linemates have gone for a line change or whether your defensemen are stationed at the point when you’re in the offensive zone. Indicators at the edge of the screen would be an easy way to let you know if any offscreen teammates are available for a pass.
- More Teammate A.I. Awareness
Your A.I. teammates have gotten better about staying onside and facing the right directions, but work could still be done so they don’t bunch up and get in your way when you’re carrying the puck. Player switching to the appropriate player could also improve.
- More Player Likenesses
We say this every year – there are just too many players sporting generic faces in this game. We’re not just talking fourth liners, either. Plenty of top-tier talent still doesn’t look like their real-world counterparts. If access to the players is a problem, EA Canada needs to find another solution. A new player model generator that delivers more varied draft classes and created players would also be welcome.
- New Commentary Team
After a few years of Doc, Eddie, and Ray, it’s becoming clear this team never gets enough time in the studio for recording commentary. Lines repeat way too often, and the team rarely dives into league happenings outside of the game at hand. NHL should take a page out of the Madden playbook and hire commentators that can dedicate more time to making the play-by-play and analysis dynamic.
- Expand Player Data
When you pull up the player profile, as it stands you get some basic information about their skill set and stats. We’d like to see this expand to include a log of player movement transactions, rating trajectory, and heavily adopted metrics like the Corsi and Fenwick. The more information about a player, the better.
- Add Authentic Coaches
Many sports games have already incorporated head coaches, but the NHL bench bosses are still relegated to being generic faces. I would love to see the Q-stache patrolling behind the Blackhawks bench or red-faced Wild coach Bruce Boudreau aiming his icy stare of death toward a ref after a dicey call. Adding the coaches could be just the excuse EA needs to incorporate a wider differentiation of tactics into the game. We’d love to see more aggressive coaches pull the goalie with four minutes left in the game while other coaches wait until the minute mark, or have a coach put some grit into the lineup if they got dominated the last time they played your team. This could help franchise mode games play out differently from game to game, and change your responsibilities when playing in the Be A Pro mode depending on what team you’re on.
- Capture Playoff Intensity
Outside of a few zealous arenas, the atmosphere and buzz surrounding a playoff hockey game is exponentially more exciting than a midweek, regular season showdown. Crowds waving rally towels, loud vocal reactions to each rush and save, goalie chants, and more chirping after the whistle should all be incorporated to further drive home the high stakes of the cup. I’d also like to see EA Canada turn up the game speed a notch during the postseason to make the game feel faster as well.
- Trade Finder
Good trade value can be difficult to find in NHL, and constantly proposing trades to these stingy GMs can be a laborious process. To help streamline this experience and give you more to work with than predicable one-liners about looking at a team’s trade block, we’d love to see EA finally introduce a trade finder.
- Scrap The Scouting/Drafting System
Two long-neglected parts of franchise mode in need of serious refurbishing, scouting and drafting, would greatly benefit from scrapping the old systems in favor of new ones that gives GMs more meaningful feedback than an incomplete and hardly trustworthy amalgamation of potential skill ratings. Scouting is an imperfect science, and it would be great to see EA Canada build this off by inundating the GM with information and differing viewpoints from your scout team on players. Adding custom draft classes would also help breathe new life into the process as well.
- Give Players More Agency
The current player morale system doesn’t have any real meaning behind it. We’d love to see a system based off the NBA 2K approach that gives players personality traits and career goals that would determine their happiness. If you promised a free agent a second line role with time on special teams, but he’s been supplanted by a more talented or productive youngster, he could have a real reason for being disgruntled. A lot of these traits could drive both the morale system and player motivation for signing with particular clubs in free agency. Perhaps a veteran wants one more shot at the cup at the expense of a lucrative contract, or a hometown guy is more apt to take a discounted rate to play in front of friends and family.
- Rebuild Free Agency
Free agency is one area of sports games that developers haven’t gotten right yet. The perfect personification of this frenzied yearly ritual would involve accentuating competition between teams, introducing player demands, back-and-forth negotiations, and operating under a limited amount of time to make a big splash when the signing period opens. We’d love to see the media play a big role as you build up to free agency, hinting at teams your target is considering and letting you know if one of your players is thinking about walking. Player demands should also fall in line with on-ice production; if a player is coming off a poor season, they should understand why a team isn’t offering top dollar. Maybe they instead sign a one-year “prove it” deal before angling for another multi-year contract.
- Add No Movement/No Trade Clauses
EA Canada still has some work to do when it comes to integrating the rules of the real NHL. Adding no movement and no trade clauses to the contract negotiations could give you one more element.
- Create A Useful News Hub
The news feed in NHL is embarrassingly useless. EA should take a page from Madden and introduce storylines into the news feed that track prospects, discuss potential trades, celebrate accolades, discuss team streaks/slides, etc.
- Make Trade Deadline Week Matter Again
The weeks leading up to the trade deadline are some of the most exciting in hockey, as teams on the verge of the playoffs mortgage their future to make a push for the cup with major acquisitions. EA used to capture this element of the league much better, but in recent years these deadlines can go buy with almost no activity. EA should create a new system like the Transfer Day experience in FIFA to give the day more of a critical role in franchise mode whether you are buying or selling.
- Expand Draft Board So We Can Tag More Than Five Players
We love being able to assemble our own draft board, but why are we just limited to a handful of players? Give us a deep draft board toolset that allows us to formulate plans without the need of a pen and paper.
- Revamp The Injury System
Injuries play a critical role in the modern NHL. Rather than head to injured reserve, many modern NHLers tough it out and play with broken jaws, dislocated shoulders, and even torn knee ligaments. The NHL series should introduce this component to its franchise, having GMs weigh long-term effects versus short-term gains of skating an injured player with impaired ratings.
- Practice Mode
If there’s only one new feature that comes to EASHL this year, we hope it’s a practice mode for clubs. We’d love the ability to hone power play and penalty kill strategies before going into ranked matches, and it would be a great way for newcomers to gain familiarity with their teammates before stepping on the ice in competition. While they’re at it, they should throw in a spectator mode for good measure as well so late-arriving players can watch their team play a game while they wait in the lobby for the next competition.
- Bring Back Attribute Allocation
EA’s modern approach to player skills in the EASHL is unquestionably more balanced than the previous version, but it lacks user agency. We’d love to see a new system that takes the best of both worlds like the one used by Visual Concepts in NBA 2K. It takes a little more work on EA’s part to balance attribute caps, but letting users build a skill matrix with attributes of their choice would result in more player variation and allow users to build the type of player they want to use instead of selecting from less-than-ideal prebuilds.
- More Classic Customization
We enjoy seeing the awkward cages and wooden sticks from a bygone NHL era appear in the player customization options, and we’d love it if EA further embraced Old Time Hockey with classic skates, equipment, hair styles, and facial hair.
- Let Us Rename AI Teammates
One of the best (and sometimes worst) parts of the EASHL is seeing all the creative team and player names. But there is always one constant: the generically named A.I. players that stand in when you don’t have enough human players to fill out a full line. Rather than keeping these generic goaltenders, defenders, and forwards, EA should allow each user-controlled team to name the A.I. players.
- Redefine 3v3 A.I. Roles
Defensemen jump into offensive play way too much in 3v3. EA needs to further hone the A.I. so it defers to the humans and stays more frequently in its given role.
- Clean Up The Community
As we said earlier, we love seeing the creative team and player names. But we’re surprised how many blatantly racist, homophobic, or sexist names make it past the EA filters.
- Make The EASHL The Esports Centerpiece
The NHL took the lead on trying to make the EA Sports game an esports competitor, but it made the curious decision to opt for head-to-head games rather than using the 6v6 EASHL as the competitive focus. The team building angle to EASHL makes it a much better fit, and we hope EA can convince the league to make this the focal point moving forward.
HOCKEY ULTIMATE TEAM
- Create More Varied Challenges
Hockey Ultimate team is the least-developed UT mode made by EA. We’d like to see the studio introduce the depth found in games like FIFA and Madden with a deeper pool of challenges out the gate and more frequent challenge events throughout the season. It would also be nice for some challenges to end as soon as you achieve the stated objective, like Madden Ultimate Team, instead of having to play a full game. A challenge restart would be awesome as well.
- Add A Companion App & Web Browser
Who doesn’t want to flip cards and snipe auction deals while at work or standing in line?
- Let Us Forfeit
It would be nice to allow players to agree on a forfeit and auto-loss for those situations when you want cry uncle and just get on to the next game without having to endure another period of a foregone conclusion.
- Get Rid Of Contracts
Contracts should be trashed because they end up being useless and are pack filler. If not, the least that should be done is allow them to be applied en masse like in Madden Ultimate Team.
- More Auction & Marketplace Options
The auction search should allow you to look up a specific player so you can get a better sense of their worth on the market easier (for sellers and snipers), plus more auction filters such as for ratings would let you drill down to find what you’re really looking for. Overall, the auction bidding process should be easier to keep track of so you can respond quickly to counter-bids, and being able to set a maximum bid at the outset would deter people from trying to slip in a last-second bid.
- Integrate Historical And All-Franchise Teams
One of our favorite features in the NBA 2K series is the amazing collection of historical teams and all-franchise teams. How great would it be to pit the Broad Street Bullies against Gretzky’s Oilers, or throwing the All-Franchise Montreal Canadiens against the All-Franchise Toronto Maple Leafs for bragging rights north of the border? Adding these types of teams to the mix would also result in much more varied team match-ups in Online Versus mode.
- Rebuild Be A Pro
We said this several years ago, and it still holds true: Be A Pro is a lifeless husk compared to the other career modes in sports games, which is unfortunate given how innovative the mode was last generation. We don’t necessarily need a high-production value story like the Alex Hunter saga in FIFA, but the mode needs a full renovation that takes users behind the scene and gives them a taste of what it’s like to be an NHL pro. Giving players the ability to interact with coaches, general managers, and teammates would be a great start. What’s the locker room atmosphere like around trade deadline? What kind of bond do you form with your linemates if you have good or bad chemistry? Giving users a glimpse into this side of the league would be thrilling.
- Bring Back Online Franchise
The last version of online franchise was so horrible that EA shouldn’t have been surprised hardly anyone used it. That doesn’t mean there isn’t demand for this type of mode. We hope EA takes another crack at delivering a shared franchise experience.
- Make Switch/PC Versions
The NHL hasn’t been on PC for way too long at this point, which is a shame given the large install base. We hope EA course corrects soon and brings these neglected players back into the fold. We also think a mode like NHL Threes would go over extremely well on the Nintendo Switch.
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Have a suggestion or comment? Put it in the comments section below, send me an email, or reach me on twitter at @mattkato.
PRO EVOLUTION SOCCER 2019 OFFICIALLY REVEALED
Konami has announced the next iteration in the Pro Evolution series, bearing out the earlier leak regarding new licenses and re-workings for the MyClub and Master League modes (as well as some new tidbits as well).
Of course, the company isn’t giving everything away just yet, as I expect official licenses to be revealed at E3 and afterword. I also hope to find out exactly how the two modes have changed – hopefully for the better.
I plan to do a full examination of PES 2019 at the show and beyond, so stay tuned for much more, but my immediate reaction to the PES announcement boils down to a few points:
- Online Has To Be Fixed
If the matchmaking isn’t good, lag cheaters persist, and lag in general isn’t eliminated (including dedicated servers), then whether Konami changes MyClub mode or not will be a moot point for many online, competitive players. Tying players cards even more to their real-life performances could be good, but I hope we not talking about a market flooded with new versions of the same players. But, in general, I look forward to the developer’s declaration that we’ll be building our clubs differently from now on in the mode.
- Make Master League Exciting
This can be done in many ways, but as Konami is talking about reworking the transfer process, I’d really like to see more drama in signing players. Last-second bids from other teams, fussy agent and player demands, more back-and-forth, tense negotiations, and more accurate transfer figures would go a long way to giving Master League the overhaul it needs.
Gameplay can always be improved, and the one thing I want above all else is more fouls. It doesn’t have to go back to what it was like a few years ago, but a happy medium would be nice.
LASER LEAGUE REVIEW – THE FUTURE IS BEING VAPORIZED BY A LASER
Laser League by Roll7 is a sport of the future that’s about quick decisions and smart strategy as you navigate an everchanging arena of laser nodes. The multiplayer title succeeds not only because it’s easy to pick-up-and-play, but because it’s balanced well, too. This combo makes for an addictive good time. Check out my full review here.
A quick rundown of some of the sports news from the week
Report: Dutch Commentator Says EA Has the Champions/Europa League Licenses
Regular Season Announced For the NBA 2K Esports League
Games have already begun and continue for 12 weeks.
New Gameplay Today Video – Descenders
You can also read more about the game in this previous Sports Desk entry and see Kyle make a has of it. The game is in the Xbox Game Preview program starting on May 15.
New Gameplay Today Video – Onrush
The game is getting a beta on March 17.
Andre Agassi is a Pre-Order Bonus For Tennis World Tour
Take a look at the game’s full roster of pros at the official website.
NBA Playgrounds 2 Gameplay Trailer Released
NASCAR Starts Youth Esports League Via iRacing