Early hands-on with NHL 18
With betas being the latest trend in gaming (and virtually replacing demos), it’s hardly surprising EA’s NHL has followed suit. The NHL 18 beta, on now until August 8th, gives gamers an early sneak peak of this year’s edition. I’ve put in plenty of hours over the past week to see what innovations lie in store for us this year. Let’s take a look at what’s new in NHL 18!
NHL 18’s competitive modes
EA’s NHL 18 beta focuses solely on the game’s competitive modes, including EASHL, Online Versus, and the all-new NHL Threes. That means modes like Franchise, and the skills training area are not included in the beta. All three competitive modes were playable online, giving me a chance to test out the gameplay and online features. Overall, NHL 18 felt more like an iterative update vs. a complete overhaul, which is usual for a perennial franchise.
By and large the biggest addition to this year’s version is the all-new NHL Threes. The NHL introduced three-on-three overtime during non-playoff games two season’s ago, and it proved to be a hit with fans. Capitalizing on that excitement, NHL Threes offers arcade-style action with faster plays, bigger hits, and more opportunity to show-off your skills. It’s essentially EA’s version of 3-on-3 overtime, albeit with less rules and a pure focus on action. Personally, I loved the new mode.
NHL Threes isn’t the first time EA has experimented with 3-on-3 gameplay: it was central in 2009’s NHL Arcade. While that game had over-the-top elements (like huge heads), NHL Threes is much more rooted in reality. It controls the same as other modes, only there’s no offsides or icing, and penalties automatically result in penalty shots. From my experience, referees are much more lenient with big hits, so you can get away with a lot more.
With less players on the ice, it opens up way more opportunities for skillful plays and showing off. This is accentuated by multiple new creative attack dekes introduced in NHL 18, like one-handed dekes and cheeky puck flips. On the defensive side, EA has re-introduced the defensive skill stick, a much-requested featured by long-time fans. This lets you target your poke checks, sweep your stick to cover a zone, and angle off attacks. Given the faster pace of NHL Threes, the new offensive and defensive moves help keep you in control.
From a presentation stand-point, NHL Threes mixed things up quite a bit. For one thing, the rink is about 75% the size of a regulation NHL rink. The ice is also a deeper blue colour and features original paint designs that differ significantly from regulation games. As well, the traditional NBC commentating team is replaced with an announcer who focuses on working the crowd, instead of giving play-by-play. And finally, NHL Threes has a unique scoring system where individual goals can be worth as many as three. Goals can also increase your score while subtracting points from your opponent.
On the surface, it seems obvious that NHL Threes caters to the casual crowd intimidated by complex hockey simulation. While this is true, core NHL fans in the mood for a fast, pick-up-and-play match could find great enjoyment here. In fact, while I usually head straight to EASHL to play multiple seasons, I spent way more time with NHL Threes. It’s just so much fun to play, and I hope it becomes a permanent mode going forward.
EA Sports Hockey League
Next up, the NHL 18 beta included the franchise’s signature EA Sport Hockey League, or EASHL for short. This mode lets you create a character, join a team, and play games online. As you play you’ll increase your player and team levels, which unlocks new uniforms, gear, and arenas customizations. New in this year’s edition is the ability to toggle-on 3-vs-3 overtime, or even play entire games with six skaters.
The awesome player class system from last year’s version returns, and seems mostly untouched. With it, you can select from various skater classes pre-match depending on how you want to play. There are balanced classes like the Two-Way Forward, physical classes like the Enforcer, and deft classes like the Dangler. Experimenting with the various classes is lots of fun, and I appreciate being able to select my preferred play style.
As per usual, EASHL offers a traditional hockey experience with all the rules used in real NHL games. It also gives you an authentic broadcast experience, complete with NBC Sports commentators Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk. Every year EA further polishes the graphics and improves the player models, and this year appears to continue the trend. There are still a few uncanny valley moments during replays, but for the most part everything looks true-to-life. It’s worth noting, too, this version is pre-release, meaning EA has time to further refine before the September 15th launch.
Overall, EASHL appears to offer modest improvements, with the all-new 3-on-3 matches being the biggest change from prior years.
The last competitive mode included in the NHL 18 beta is the standard Online Versus. Here I had a chance to see the improved A.I., which has undergone several improvements. For instance, CPU teammates are much better at finding you during passing situations (a major weakness in past NHL iterations.) Moreover, they’ll now pass off the board if that’s the safest route to getting you the puck.
As well, your A.I. teammates can utilize all the same deking and defensive moves as you do. This results in smarter plays and harder to anticipate moves like shooting the puck between the legs. I also saw the A.I. link deke moves together, resulting in more skillful plays than I’ve seen in past games. With that said, the CPU still seems to misread situations from time-to-time. For example, too often multiple teammates would go after a single attacker, creating too much traffic around the net. Minor faults aside, EA has done a great job improving the overall reliability of A.I. partners.
If the beta is any indication, NHL 18 is shaping up to be another solid edition. While the gameplay updates are modest this year, the introduction of 3-on-3 hockey is sure to be a hit. I personally had a blast with NHL Threes, this year’s big new mode, and I can’t wait to play more. Thankfully the wait won’t be long, NHL 18 releases on September 15th!