There's something very different in the way that Electronic Arts handles the NHL series when compared to its other sports titles, with the hockey experience often getting the short-end of the stick in terms of upgrades or narrative options. Still, every year brings with it a new game, and this year's entry is none other than NHL 18. Fortunately, the slight changes implemented into the gameplay itself are noticeable for veteran fans and the addition of two brand new modes makes this a standout iteration in EA's long-running franchise – albeit still very familiar.
In terms of gameplay, the overall feel of the NHL series hasn't been lost or rebooted this time around. The skill stick is still crucial to executing wondrous dekes, while an aggressive poke check can change the tides of an offensive rush. In fact, the poke check has received some major upgrades in order to make defending a little bit easier for those hoping to intercept the puck before it finds its way to the goaltender. This defensive skill stick acts as a bit of a double-edged sword though, making it easier to strip an opposing attacker of the puck at the cost of knowing that an opponent can do the same to you.
It's a necessary part of the experience, as it's a common move in the National Hockey League, but those adjusting to the addition will find it an annoyance in the early goings. Not content on wrapping things up there, developer EA Canada has also added a menagerie of offensive maneuvers into the mix as a means of counteracting the defensive skill stick. Everything from one-handed flicks to slotting the puck between one's legs before rifling it top cheese are featured this time around, making breakaways a much flashier affair in the process.
Of course, these displays of gongshow-ness shine especially bright within NHL 18's new Threes mode. Utilizing a three-versus-three layout on a smaller ice surface, this mode harkens back to the days of older arcade hockey games – but it retains all of the nouveau mechanics of the EA Sports franchise. As a result, Threes is a way for those that just want to throw out highlight reel goals to do just that, but it also allows players still learning how to play the ability to level the playing field a little more with tide-turning Money Pucks.
If that weren't enough, fans can also tie up some skates and suit up as real-world mascots, further showcasing how wacky the mode truly is. Now, these costumed cheerleaders are unlockables found within Threes' quasi-story mode known as Circuit, where players will face off against CHL, AHL, and NHL teams. It gives a greater purpose to the mode and acts as a nice time suck, but the repetition associated with shuffling through a familiar lineup of real-world players over and over again wears a little thin after a while.
Franchise Mode is another beloved aspect of the series that's been neglected over the years, but this time around some much-appreciated additions have been made to it in order to appease hockey aficionados – namely the ability to participate in an expansion draft. This newfound option to draft a hypothetical 32nd NHL team or take over the reigns of the recent implementation of the Vegas Golden Knights club are both fun ventures in managerial work, and they help pad out the finished product.
While Threes and Franchise both flesh out the NHL 18 experience, the "Be A Pro" mode feels a little underdeveloped. Comparatively, FIFA and Madden have both opted to include cinematic stories and even a faux protagonist, leading NHL users stuck with going through the all too familiar grind with their character here. It's not awful, it's just more of the same, and it's time for EA Sports to address some of the lingering concerns of the cut-and-pasted solo feature.
The transaction-heavy HUT mode also makes its triumphant return, this time toting a few improvements to keep itself more engaging in the eyes of consumers. These additions arrive in the form of challenges that award specific rewards and currency to help fans build their dream team, which help to provide players with options that don't involve opening up their wallets. Meanwhile, Draft Kings mode has made the transition to 18 almost completely untouched, which is fine given its relatively recent appearance in the series.
NHL 18 is a predictable step forward for Electronic Arts' ongoing hockey series, but that's not to say that that's necessarily a bad thing. The gameplay feels familiar, yet revamped to address some of the issues fans have with previous iterations. While the implementation of three-on-three overtime hockey in the real-world NHL has lead to one of the more engaging modes in recent memory through Threes. Every minute changeup in the formula shows that EA is listening to fan feedback, and while there is still work to be done, gamers will be hard-fought to not be entertained by what's present in the final game.
NHL 18 is currently available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Electronic Arts provided Game Rant with a copy of NHL 18 on PlayStation 4 for review purposes.