Every year when the new NHL game drops from EA Vancouver, I get excited. That’s a game I’m going to play for the next year. That’s the game my friends will buy so the six of us can play against the CPU a few nights a week. It’s the game that my buddy and I will play for hours as we manage our franchise through in-game menus, a ridiculous spreadsheet, and even a whiteboard. Each year I’m eager to find out what EA Vancouver has added to the game, and how they’ve pushed video game hockey forward. This year, however, I’m underwhelmed by the additions to NHL 22, and the lack of polish for both new and old features alike.
In the lead up to the release of NHL 22 EA Vancouver wasn’t shy about how a move to the Frostbite engine, as well as to the PS5 and Xbox Series X, would allow for better visuals. This is mostly true, as NHL 22 can look far superior to past games on the PS4 or Xbox One. The lighting in the arenas is much better, as is the detail in player uniforms and facial expressions. This extends to the visual presentation, as NHL 22 now features stat packages presented as augmented reality graphics before some faceoffs. It’s also once again solid on sound, with Ray Ferraro and James Cybulski calling the action, and Carrlyn Bathe chipping in between whistles.
The issue with the visual overhaul, is that there are graphical hiccups that didn’t exist in the old system. Facial expressions can be downright comical at times, with ample examples of players looking a lot like Branden Tanev’s last few headshots. Most of the time when I pop into an instant replay and look closely at a player’s face, something is off. Maybe they are staring in the wrong direction, have the Tanev eyes, or lack any semblance of life whatsoever. This extends to augmented reality stats between whistles, where the on-ice graphics are either difficult to see or gone too quickly. When you get into Be a Pro cinematics, you can get wild discoloration in your player’s hair, or a complete lack of texture for the hair of some NPCs. This was particularly bad with my coach in Be a Pro.
Where I want to give credit is with the accessibility push. NHL 22 features extensive settings to make it more accessible, including color blind options, menu narration, and more. I wanted to love the color-blind settings because protanopia allows me to read menus easier, but they change the color of uniforms in addition to the HUD and menus, which I just couldn’t get used to. Still, there are real steps to make the NHL franchise more accessible and inclusive. There are several in-game notifications promoting positive play and encouraging players to make NHL a safe place for everyone who wishes to enjoy it. These notifications promoting safe and positive play pop up so often that it sticks with you, and that’s a good thing.
What’s in the box?
From a gameplay perspective, the biggest change is the addition of Superstar X-Factor Abilities in NHL 22. These are broken down into two categories: Zone abilities and Superstar abilities, and they are available to two types of players: X-Factor and Superstar. Zone abilities are more defining and are reserved for X-Factor players, like Sidney Crosby and his Beauty Backhand Zone ability. Superstar abilities are more specific and less powerful, such as improved shot deflection or better agility in direction changes. An X-Factor player can have both Zone abilities and Superstar abilities, while Superstar players only have Superstar abilities.
Superstar X-Factor Abilities are probably the most exciting addition to NHL 22. Their impact varies depending on the mode, though. I found little reason to care what abilities my opponents had in Be a Pro, but I did find myself chasing them to configure my World of Chel character. In Franchise, these abilities do have an impact on scouting and line chemistry but, overall, more players need Superstar abilities. That might take renaming the feature, but there are a lot of players around the NHL known for specific skills, and it feels like a miss to only highlight that among the league’s elite. You already want the elite players on your team, with or without special abilities and boosts. Give a grinder special shot-blocking skills, though, and you change the dynamic of the entire Franchise mode.
NHL 22 comes loaded with all the game modes from NHL 21 and nothing more. Sure, there are tweaks here and there, like new power-up items for Hockey Ultimate Team, World of Chel quality-of-life improvements, and improved stick physics across all the modes, but nothing stands out as vastly different or improved. You can still do an online or offline shootout, enter a practice mode, or hop into an online versus match. HUT Rush still exists, which I had completely forgotten about since I tried it out while reviewing NHL 21 last year. There are tournaments and season and playoff modes. They’re all there, but what’s missing is any kind of fresh take on any mode in the game. I was hoping for some progression when it comes to Threes or Ones. Ones, for a couple of years now, is all about who can skate into the high slot and fire a slap shot top corner. It’s getting old.
Unfortunately, once you get beyond the new visual presentation and the Superstar X-Factor Abilities, NHL 22 is done pushing the pace. The jump to the Frostbite engine appears to have brought some new animations with it, so there’s that, but the play on the ice still feels the same as NHL 21, and it may even have taken a step back. There have been multiple instances where passing the puck outright fails, as if the input is being missed. I’ve experienced this on PS5 and Xbox Series S, so it’s not a system or controller issue.
My hope was that Superstar X-Factor Abilities were going to change the on-ice play for the better, but most of the time you don’t notice it. Nifty little icons appear above a player’s head at the faceoff circle showing their abilities, but the second the puck drops this is forgotten. It reminds me of a couple of years ago when a few players were given unique shooting animations. I popped into practice to try this out with Auston Matthews, saw the animation once, and never noticed it again. Yeah, Superstar X-Factor Abilities are more developed than that system, but they don’t drastically change the way you play from one minute to the next.
The old barn has leaks
The problem with throwing all your marketing eggs into two baskets – improved visuals and Superstar X-Factor Abilities – is that a miss in either of those areas is crushing, and that feels like the case with NHL 22. For the most part, there is almost no meaningful change to any of the modes included in NHL 22. There are no new modes in NHL 22. One could argue that growing the Be a Pro narrative beyond the first year is expanding the mode, but I’d argue that the Be a Pro narrative in NHL 21 was half baked and what we’re seeing now should have been there from the start. Beyond that, I pushed through to the end of my third season, and other than the new objectives, I really don’t notice much of a difference beyond the first year.
There’s also the issue that the narrative in Be a Pro specifically is awful. During the Memorial Cup, Antonio Stranges, the captain of the London Knights in NHL 22, called me a goody two-shoes for not wanting to stay out past curfew before a big game. Sidney Crosby recently asked me to put up three points, ignoring the fact I’m a 6’6”, 230 lb defensive defenseman. Most of the story in Be a Pro aligns with those two examples, to the point where I don’t feel any sort of connection to my player. When I was drafted by the Penguins, my first thought was, “I need to get Crosby one more Stanley Cup.” In that moment, a random thought in my head created more narrative for my Be a Pro than anything NHL 22 has thrown at me through conversations.
Be a Pro does add storylines. Basically, your player will get into a conversation with someone and, after it’s done, you’ll receive an objective to complete. If you complete that objective, you can unlock a Superstar X-Factor Ability to apply to your character. I love the idea of completing objectives to unlock abilities, but someone explain to me why my defensive defenseman wants to unlock an elite toe-drag. Calling these storylines is a stretch too. They start and end with a quick conversation, but the space between these conversations is filled with nothing but a tucked away menu where progress can be tracked.
The lack of meaningful progression with the Be A Pro mode only serves to highlight problems that are long overdue to be fixed. You still can’t import your save from one year to the next, so if you want to play every game of a 15-year career, good luck with that and say goodbye to your progress each time a new NHL game drops. Playing a full season or two in the CHL is still gone after it was ripped out in NHL 21. As a season ticket holder to the London Knights, the best part of Be a Pro was lacing up my skates to play alongside Connor McMichael or in front of Brett Brochu. These misses are joined by the awful state of contracts in Be a Pro, where the NHL franchise has long shown zero understanding RFAs, no-trade clauses, or bonus structure.
On the Franchise side of things, I welcome the Superstar X-Factor Abilities in both line chemistry and scouting, but beyond that I just don’t see meaningful progress in the mode whatsoever. Scouting is still wildly unsatisfying. Expect to be told by a pro scout that a player fits a line, only to find out they actively tank it. This makes trades feel bad. You could send a scout to assess a single player for an entire year and still not know if they are a power forward or two-way forward. Your facilities will be a mess since there is never enough money to fix things. A friend and I like to joke that by the end of a season the bathroom is just a hole in the floor since it seems to be impossible to keep them in a state of good repair. None of these are new problems, but the coat of paint slapped on everything this year fails to hide the game’s shortcomings, causing them to stand out even more.
What to do?
The difference between a good or bad NHL game is often tiny. For the most part, moving the experience forward in any meaningful way is enough to get me to buy in. Maybe that’s a massive improvement to gameplay and AI, or a new mode that becomes a staple of the series. These wins are often enough to make the longstanding bugs or omissions tolerable. Problems arise when what’s on offer as the year’s shiny distraction falls flat. In NHL 22, improved visuals are there but are buggy at any given moment. Superstar X-Factor Abilities are cool but alone are not enough. NHL 22 doesn’t feel like the next leap forward for video game hockey. It barely feels like meaningful DLC.
This review is based on a PS5 digital code provided by the publisher, and an Xbox Series S code purchased by the reviewer. NHL 22 is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. The game is rated E10+.
- Improved accessibility options
- Superstar X-Factor Abilities are cool enough
- Improved stick physics are nice
- New visuals are buggy and inconsistent
- Be a Pro narrative still lacks depth and quality
- Franchise still needs a lot of attention
- Ones mode hasn't improved whatsoever
- Bring back full CHL seasons, you cowards
- Boring contract and trade request features still there
- Not enough players have abilities
Bill Lavoy posted a new article, NHL 22 review: Time for a rebuild
Every EA Sports game is as well built as a Russian automobile
Thanks for the review Bill! Unfortunate to hear it's not up to par. I was hoping the engine change would be enough, but maybe they need another year with the engine to refine it.