I’m not sure if EA is finally getting the message or if this is just some kind of trap 2020 is laying for fans of the EA Sports NHL franchise, but NHL 21 finally gets the kind of improvements players have wanted for years.
The skating, revamped last year with RPM Tech 2.0 to allow ‘on the fly’ puck pickups, gets subtler tweaks this year with the addition of chip and slip dekes to avoid contact either in open ice or along the boards. There must be a Crosby fan of the development team, as they’ve added the back-of-the-net bank self-pass that he uses so effectively to create room, as well as the Mohawk turn he’s been known to use to open up for cross-ice passing. In addition, Svechnikov’s lacrosse-style goal is in the game and technically possible to pull off, though I haven’t managed it yet, as is Kucherov’s ‘no move’ shootout deke.
Changes are also found on the defensive side of the puck, with AI that makes much smarter decisions about gap control, do more to challenge and limit zone entries, and there’s more dogged pursuit of the puck by opposing forwards. Goaltenders are also improved, even after the overhaul last year that saw them get over 400 new animations, with better reads on developing plays allowing them to get in position and give up less cheap goals.
There were two key things listed in my NHL 20 review that I wanted to see in NHL 21: distinctive skating strides and an overhaul of the Be A Pro mode to make it more of an RPG.
Let’s see how they did.
Distinctive skating strides? Not only did that make it in, but your created players can have their own custom-made stride thanks to a toolset that includes the ability to change your body angle, your stride style, your arm movement – the whole nine years. Expect to see some truly horrific skating styles come out of that tool.
What about overhauling Be A Pro into a ‘live the life of an NHL player’ mode with RPG-like choices and repercussions? It’s all that and more. Not only does Be A Pro now feature conversational dialogue choices with your ownership, coaches, teammates, and media, but there are also luxury items you can buy using your salary to give yourself permanent or temporary stat boosts.
After years of the mode largely being ignored, it feels like Be A Pro finally got the overhaul players wanted for EA Sports NHL 21. From the menus to the content, everything feels new and exciting at long last. I’m loving the off-ice conversations I have with my agent and teammates, and getting called over to the bench by my coach during a game ramps up the tension and pressure. Do I promise to keep the opposing team from scoring, or do I want to call my shot and promise I’ll get a goal instead?
While Be A Pro was clearly the center of attention this time around, Franchise mode also got some great upgrades. The trade deadline is now a race against the clock, simulating the real world’s tension for GM’s who must either find a deal or risk being left out in the cold. Trade AI is improved, and behind the scenes there’s a new system of valuing players and draft picks in trades that feels a lot closer to reality than in past years.
For all the improvements, there are still some things that need to be addressed though. Legacy AI issues, for example, continue to haunt the game – particularly in the offensive zone, where teammates can’t seem to figure out how to run the systems I’ve called. They do a better job of filling open space on the rush than in past years, but if you settle down into a puck cycle it quickly goes all to hell and looks like a bunch of 8-year-old players chasing the puck. I’d love to see that fixed for next year’s release.
Another thing for next year, and the game’s first appearance on next-gen systems, would be revamps to player faces. The body types are generally good, but the faces could use some work. Understandable, given the restrictions COVID-19 placed people under, but it seems like there were no new player faces scanned for this year’s outing. I’m one of the biggest Oilers fans out there, for example, but I couldn’t pick fully half of the team’s NHL 21 player faces out of a lineup and that probably includes Leon Draisaitl…who won the Hart, Ted Lindsay, and Art Ross this year.
EA Sports NHL 21 is one of the best NHL games EA has ever put out. The focus on Be A Pro really stands out, and the upgrade to RPM 2.0 Tech last season continues to pay dividends as well. I can’t wait to see what the team can do next year with all the power of next-gen systems to play with.
EA Sports NHL 21 is available now on PS4 and Xbox One. Xbox One version reviewed using code provided by the publisher.