Annual sports games face a unique challenge in that they must find ways to provide value each year without the benefit of reinventing the wheel. In the case of the NHL franchise, hockey has remained largely the same game for over a century. There are sticks and skates, hits and fights, and as Ray Ferraro often points out, the nets haven’t moved in over 100 years. The game has and continues to evolve, though, and an annual sports franchise must continuously find ways to provide enough value to convince players to return each year with their wallets open. Unfortunately, NHL 23 fails to take meaningful strides forward and falls well short of expectations.
The list of new features sounds a lot bigger than it is. When you launch the game for the first time it will detail what’s new, listing the AI improvements, X-Factors, animations, presentation updates, and the custom options when you start a new save file for Franchise mode. This year also marks the first year that the IIHF Women’s National Team is in Hockey Ultimate Team, which is admittedly not only cool but also important.
As I dug into NHL 23, my goal was to experience everything that was added to the game as best I could. I dove into Be a Pro to check the AI and new goalie animations. My first game delivered on showcasing new additions. I noticed several animations that I don’t recall seeing from goaltenders in the past. I was treated to a hat trick and the subsequent showering of every color hat imaginable on the ice. Most importantly, the AI seemed to be somewhat improved, although one game was hardly enough to form a final opinion. I even manged to try out the last chance puck movement feature, which seems more about making the gameplay feel authentic than adding crazy goals.
When I moved over to Franchise, which is where I spend the most time, I was impressed with the customization options that were added. You can create almost any league you can dream up, changing the number of teams, conferences, divisions, and so much more. You can tweak the points awarded for wins, losses, and ties, as well as determine the lengths of playoff rounds and even the sequence of home and away games as a series progresses. Once I was into my Franchise, I was able to tweak the Leafs power play to have Nylander gaining the zone, Marner dishing the puck, and Matthews as the shooter.
To test the AI further I fired up the coach mode and watched a third period. I find removing myself from the equation is the best way to truly see how the AI responds. On a power play, I was delighted to see that Matthews was in the position I’d set for him, and even scored on a dish from Marner. It was a vintage Papi one-timer from the left circle. When the game ended, I left with the impression that many of the AI shortcomings from NHL 22 were gone. I didn’t have any instances of defenseman retreating into their zone and being board pinned as they often did in NHL 22. Players seemed to take more shots from a variety of positions on the ice instead of always forcing the puck into the slot. The action looked more fluid.
To get the full Franchise experience, I simulated an entire season, making trades, signing players, scouting, and even fixing up the facilities. I made sure the Leafs won the Stanley Cup so I could take in the interactive celebration. It was nice being able to have Tavares hand it off to Matthews, then to Marner, and then to Morgan Reilly. It was short, but there’s no denying it’s an improvement.
In fact, the presentation in NHL 23 is improved in many ways, including the pre-game, post-game, and even some of the cooler moments within the game. New augmented reality stat presentations will show up between whistles, the crowd will be more responsive depending on the situation, and overall graphic quality is the best it's ever been. There's no denying that NHL 23 looks much better than NHL 22 did, and seems to better take advantage of the power for current gen consoles.
The empty stadium
While most of the additions to NHL 23 are improvements from what was on offer in NHL 22, things start to fall off when you make the rounds through the rest of the modes. As I took a spin through Ones and Threes, I realized both were unchanged. While you will notice some new animations and improved AI in Be a Pro, not much has been done to push the mode forward from a feature perspective. It’s the same gameplay loop that you’ve been dealing with since the Be a Pro revamp and there is little reason to play Be a Pro in NHL 23 that didn’t already exist in NHL 22. In fact, I’d rather not play it because of the time and energy I’ve invested in my character in NHL 22. The fact Be a Pro is a carbon copy from last year only makes it more irritating that I can’t import my save file.
Even Franchise mode is stale beyond the custom settings and strategies. There have been no meaningful changes to trades, contracts, scouting, or maintaining your front office and facilities. You’ll still run out of money to fix your bathroom every year, choose random promotion nights, and get chastised by the owner for not winning your home opener. If you built a winner in NHL 22, you’ve seen everything there is to see here except choosing three players to hoist the Stanley Cup. It’s cool to see the first time around, but it’s hardly worth grinding for season after season.
Almost all the changes to any game mode in NHL 23 are based on updates to AI, settings, strategies, and animations. There are no new modes to play, and no new reasons to dig into core modes like Threes, Franchise, or Be a Pro. While World of Chel modes do benefit from better customization and some player-type balancing, what you know about the online modes from NHL 22 largely holds true for NHL 23.
The season is lost
It dawned on me within hours of playing NHL 23 that I was bored of it already. I realized that there was no long-term hook to keep me coming back. What’s on offer is welcome, but it adds up to what other games include in a DLC. As I sit here and contemplate what was added, thinking that I’ve surely overlooked something substantial, nothing comes to mind. NHL 23 is as lackluster as any NHL game I can remember. There’s fun to be had for sure, but in no way does it push the franchise forward and justify being packaged as anything more than an update. We've seen this before, though; It seems that the first few years of NHL on new consoles are about catching up, with the feature-heavy releases saved for the back half of the console's lifespan.
When I take a step back and look at NHL 23 and what it offers, I realize that I’ve reached the end of my rope with being drip-fed tiny pieces of content and told it’s a new game. Each year should see substantial improvements to core modes like Franchise and Be a Pro. The improved graphics, presentation, and AI should be baked so deeply into expectations that they aren’t even worth flaunting in pre-release marketing. Players should be surprised by all the new conversations they see in Be a Pro, and how cool the new advancements are in trading and cap management for Franchise mode. Instead, we half-heartedly celebrate a feature like watered-down crossplay that doesn’t allow us to team up with friends on other platforms because that’s the bar we’re accustomed to.
As harsh as this may sound, I’ve lost faith in the NHL franchise. My first game was NHL 93, and although they haven’t all been good, it’s clear that this franchise has settled into an annual loop of delivering the bare minimum. There is zero justification for a full-game price tag when you consider that other games offer free updates larger than what’s on offer as new in the entirety of NHL 23. It’s mind boggling.
This review is based on a PS5 digital code purchased by the reviewer. NHL 23 is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S.
- Game looks great
- IIHF Women's National Team
- Improved AI
- Custom Franchise settings
- Be a Pro has been left unchanged
- Franchise is mostly unchanged
- Threes has seen no improvements
- Ones hasn't changed in years
- Why did this need to be a new game?