NHL 21 review: Something for everyone

NHL 21 nails the gameplay, but leaves room for improvement in a few places.

7

Today’s NHL is all about speed, skill, and youth. At 30 years old, GMs are wondering how much a player has left before their big decline. Sturdy veterans are bought out of contracts and replaced by kids on entry-level deals who can do things with the puck that will blow your mind. But, if we’ve learned anything from recent Stanley Cup champions, it’s that there’s a place for old-school hockey and a veteran presence.

The same is true with the NHL franchise of video game hockey. You don’t play NHL anymore, you play Chel. Your mouthguard doesn’t go in your mouth to protect your teeth, it’s a chew toy. For someone who will turn 40 before the end of the next season, it’s a balance between a love for the gameplay – which is better in NHL 21 than ever before – and a hatred for gimmicks aimed at a younger audience. EA Vancouver might be focusing on the flashy side of things lately, but they still pay attention to the ways of old.

Pre-game show

Like most years, EA Vancouver focused on a few specific modes and mechanics for NHL 21. The big sells this year in terms of modes were the introduction of HUT Rush, and a revamped Be a Pro. Franchise Mode was given a tweak to the trade deadline experience, and World of Chel got ranked seasons for players to dig into.

On the gameplay side, NHL 21 came with new dekes, both functional and fancy, and improved AI for defense, offence, and goalies. While new modes and features are always fun, gameplay updates are the core of a good NHL game.

First period

My main mode is Be a Pro. In NHL 20, I played to my sixth or seventh season over hundreds of hours. That experience was lacking in many ways, so I was excited to dive into Be a Pro in NHL 21 and see how things changed.

Right off the bat, Be a Pro now has a bit of a narrative to it. Cinematics show your agent doing an interview on your behalf, talking about your potential and the upcoming draft. Throughout a career you’ll frequently meet with teammates, coaches, the GM, media, and your agent as you build relationships and develop a reputation with the fans (your brand), management, and your teammates. Every conversation can impact your reputation and increasing it in one of the categories can lead to opportunities you may not have otherwise been offered, like teammates passing the puck more because you went bowling.

Players can also earn Specialty and Trait Points to customize their pro, and earn cash to buy cosmetics, like a scooter. That’s fine in theory, but I’m unsure of why my pro owning a scooter – or sports car, or whatever – has an impact on attributes. That’s where this all got a bit gimmicky for me.

Before and during games, players will be challenged by their coach and teammates to complete tasks and can choose to play it safe or promise them big results, like a goal. Success will improve your reputation, but failure will see it take a knock. It feels great to promise a goal and deliver, or even to play it safe and secure the win. In those ways, EA Vancouver has the start of something cool on their hands, but it’s a bit one dimensional right now.

I’m not sure why my teammates wanted a stay-at-home defenseman to score three points instead of maybe blocking shots or throwing a big hit. It’s silly for a coach to put a natural center on the wing and then expect them to win faceoffs. On top of this, I’m still being asked to do things that a coach would never ask of a player, like perform a specific deke. More depth to the feedback is still needed, and it needs to consider the player type and position. NHL 21 is assuming everyone wants to be a superstar and bases challenges and feedback on that theory. There’s little attention paid to players who want to embrace the more subtle aspects of hockey.

Rounding out the Be a Pro experience are the additions to its presentation. EA Vancouver turned a corner when NBC was sent packing and Ray Ferraro took over with James Cybulski. This year, the presentation obviously gained some new looks with the Be a Pro overhaul, but it continues to move forward with commentary. Ray and James appear to have more lines, as you’d expect, but they now have female representation in the commentary. Carrlyn Bathe will chime in from time to time, although she’s only a guest and not very often. It’s a small step in the right direction, but it’s not enough, so here’s to hoping it’s better in NHL 22.

Second period

HUT Rush is a new mode introduced in NHL 21 that is like Threes but with more razzle-dazzle. Players can hop into this HUT mode quickly and complete challenges centered around offensive creativity. The more creative your goal-scoring methods, the more points you earn. As you earn points, you’ll unlock new rewards that you can use across your entire HUT experience.

HUT Rush fell flat with me. I get what EA Vancouver was trying to do, but HUT doesn’t appeal to me no matter how much I want to love the mode. I’m just not interested in grinding for the best team or dropping cash to build one that will be obsolete in NHL 22. Therefore, the point of HUT Rush is lost on me. The rewards aren’t appealing, so why spend time in it? I enjoy trying to string dekes together to score in style, but I can do that in Threes, or in one of the practice modes, or anywhere else.

Third period

While HUT Rush feels like a miss, Franchise Mode was already in a good place and EA Vancouver scored big with their trade deadline improvements. I went into full GM mode trying to fix the Toronto Maple Leafs. As we approached the deadline, it looked like we were a contender, so I hit deadline day looking for a depth RD and a depth forward. Dustin Byfuglien’s name was on the board and I immediately went to work trying to land him, racing against the clock as I weighed giving up draft picks and prospects to win the Stanley Cup, something my owner was demanding. Someone else got Byfuglien, but I somehow walked away with a first and second round pick without losing anything big off my roster. The entire deadline was exhilarating and expertly put together. There was a sense of urgency about the entire process.

Overtime

The true star of NHL 21, as it should be, is the gameplay. The one thing they had to get right, EA Vancouver absolutely got right, and I’m not talking about dekes. The overall gameplay experience in NHL 21 is better than it was in NHL 20, and even that was rather good.

AI defenders are much more human-like in their decision making. They back off less and step up more, cutting off zone entries and generally giving the player less time to think. Offensively, I’m finding my teammates are getting open for outlet passes or seeking openings in the offensive zone. Goalie controls don’t appear to have changed much – if at all – but the AI and animations are improved. This is primarily noticeable in net-front scrambles where improved animations allow goalies to react faster and snatch up loose pucks in their crease.

Finally, for the highest-skill players, there’s dekes like The Michigan or The Kucherov, as well as a few for us bottom-six forwards, like chipping the puck off the boards or around a defender. If you’re an average player, The Michigan deke of NHL 21 will be limited to watching Nasher, but I must admit there is a good mix of flashy and functional dekes for players of all skill levels.

Post-game show

I’m not old school like the coaches and GMs that still make up a large part of the NHL, but I’m old school in that I grew up in the 80s and 90s and value hard hockey played the right way over flashy dekes you might see once a season. I’m happy to have a narrative to Be a Pro, but it’s about 10 percent of what it should and likely will be when EA Vancouver gets around to fleshing it out properly. I love dekes as much as the next person, but not at the expense of solid core gameplay. EA Vancouver tried to sell dekes, cosmetics, and the idea of being a superstar, but what resonated with me, an old-school hockey guy, were the core gameplay improvements.


This review is based on a PS4 download code provided by the publisher. NHL 21 is available now on PS4 and Xbox One.

Managing Editor

Bill, who is also known as Rumpo, is a lifelong gamer and Toronto Maple Leafs fan. He is known for his guide writing and, unsettlingly enough, enjoys grinding out in-depth collectible articles. Tweet him @RumpoPlays if you have a question or comment about one of his guides.

Review for
NHL 21
8
Pros
  • Be a Pro tried something new
  • Improved gameplay across the board
  • Trade deadline madness
  • Commentary continues to evolve
  • New dekes are both flashy and functional
Cons
  • Silly Be a Pro challenges
  • HUT still isn't worth the grind
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