Does anyone else feel like it was just yesterday when we were watching the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals? The champagne may still be drying in the bowl of Lord Stanley’s ultimate prize, but this is no time to sit back on your skate heels. Your 2020/2021 campaign begins right now with NHL 21 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
NHL 21 Details
NHL 21 makes huge improvements to Be A Pro
I tend to bounce around a lot with EA Sports’ NHL franchise. One year I’ll primarily stick to playing HUT (Hockey Ultimate Team). The next year I’ll dig into Franchise Mode for the long haul. Last year I fell down the EASHL rabbit hole and was participating in Ones Eliminator tourneys daily.
The mode that usually catches my attention year over year is the one with the freshest update and best new features. In NHL 21, this is “Be a Pro” mode, without a doubt. EA Vancouver brings vast improvements to Be A Pro this time around. As such, I’m already spending nearly all my time chasing an NHL legacy with my custom player.
NHL 21 bolsters Be A Pro with new dialogue, storylines, and narrative choices. The game tasks players to make all kinds of choices that reflects situations a real life player would face. Each scenario offers the potential for both rewards and consequences.
You’ll face decisions in how you respond at press conferences, GM interviews, and even whether or not you decide to go bowling with your teammates on off days. The coach will even pull you to the bench mid-game, where you’ll decide whether to commit to a team approach or go superstar and focus on notching another goal for yourself.
Creating your legacy
All these interactions and decision influence your pro to a significant degree. Your pro has a rating for “Team”, “Management”, and “Brand”. Many decisions you make can positively contribute to one while conversely having a negative effect on another. It’s a really engaging aspect to the game, as you try to either balance your choices—or simply focus on the kind of player you want to be.
“Brand” is probably the most intriguing aspect, and is the best indicator of your individual superstar factor. It measures itself primarily in social media followers, and rewards cash—such as product endorsement deals, which you can actually spend on player upgrades. “Management” obviously involves pleasing your bosses, and can affect line position, play time, whether you get traded, and so on.
Finally, your “Team” rating measures your teammates’ attitude toward you. What’s really neat is that this can affect how they interact with you during an actual game. If you aren’t keeping your relationship with the team copacetic, they will actually be less likely to pass to you—even if you are in perfect position.
Everything you do ultimately contributes to your legacy, with career milestones tracking along the way. To create even more immersion, narrative storylines supplement the experience. You’ll often hear James Cybulski discussing your performance with telephone callers after a game.
What a RUSH
The other most significant and noteworthy addition to NHL 21 is “HUT RUSH” mode. HUT RUSH is essentially a revolving series of replayable events that score your performance and let you unlock increasingly valuable rewards. These include HUT coins and player packs, and it’s a nice way to unlock some new items without spending real money.
The rules will change as events refresh, but you’ll always be able to play HUT Rush against the CPU or real world opponents. One nice feature is that some events let you draft your team—meaning you get to play with some superstar players and don’t always have to worry about matching up against a HUT player with a stacked roster.
HUT RUSH also rewards extra points for performing certain moves or chaining together specific actions. I like how this can prompt players to put in the time to learn some of NHL 21‘s more complex skills. It provides motivation to improve and a practical training ground for testing new moves.
HUT RUSH is a refreshing way to dip into the broader HUT space, and it feels to me like it offers some fair rewards without too deep a grind. Others will disagree, but if you are just a casual HUT fan, I believe you can have a decent time playing without microtransactions. Make no mistake though, if you are a competitive HUT player and want a team of superstars right away, you’ll need to buy it.
Stop me if you’ve played this one
With a few additional exceptions, the rest of NHL 21 is pretty much a rehash of last year’s game. EASHL introduces ranked seasons, and a retro “NHL 94” mode is arriving at the end of October—but otherwise the bulk of what remains is simply NHL 20 with a new soundtrack.
The overall interface, menu configuration, and presentation (outside of Be a Pro of course) is so similar I’m not sure I could tell the whether or not I was playing NHL 20 or NHL 21 from moment to moment. If I haven’t already made reference to your favourite mode, it’s pretty safe to say the experience remains the same.
It’s also worth noting that NHL 21 will not be receiving an upgrade for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S. The game will be playable on both consoles via backwards compatibility, but it won’t be given a performance boost or a standalone release for next generation.
NHL 21 delivers an exciting new Be A Pro experience, while other modes remain untouched
Pretty much every annual sports franchise is taking a similar approach this year. We are seeing a lot of recycled content with a handful of notable updates here and there. I suspect the impending leap to next generation consoles has a lot to do with developers’ game plans, as they (hopefully) prepare to make big leaps with their first true next gen offerings.
However, in my opinion NHL 21 gives players a few good reasons to check in this year. In particular, I am really enjoying the revamping of Be A Pro mode. I love the level of immersion the new storylines and mechanics provide, and I intend to spend a lot of time here in the coming months.
If either this or HUT RUSH intrigue you, then NHL 21 is a safe bet to satisfy your hockey cravings this season. If other modes are more your style however, changes are far less notable. Here the choice boils down to whether or not you want to be playing with the latest rosters, updates, and online communities.
+ Exciting new elements to Be A Pro
+ HUT RUSH is a fun new way to earn HUT reward
– Some modes appear entirely untouched from last year
OVERALL ASSESSMENT OF NHL 21
Lasting Appeal/Replayability: 4/5