NHL 22 Review
A shiny new surface on some familiar ice
Transitioning to a new console generation always brings a new set of challenges, and this is especially true for annual franchises. Not only must you deliver something new to entice fans for another year, but also offer worthwhile updates for the new hardware. Sports games have had to go through this a number of times now over the past few decades, and some handled it better than others. In the case of EA Sports NHL, the last transition was a rough one; NHL 15 needed an extra year to make the jump, and the result was a barebones experience that threw away most of its foundation for a fresh start. With NHL 22, the series again needed an extra year to make the jump, and while the transition is a much smoother one, it still has its share of issues.
NHL 22 marks the switch to the Frostbite engine, and thankfully the game doesn't lose any modes or features in this big change. Players can still choose from a variety of offline and online modes, whether that's the Be a Pro revamp from last year, Franchise mode, Hockey Ultimate Team, World of Chel/EASHL, and more. The menus have been revamped and now offer a cleaner UI and easier navigation – however, there is still plenty of pauses and lag. Even on PS5, with the extensive hardware power and an SSD, the menu speed continues to be a surprising snag. It gives weight to a wild theory that NHL 22 is really a modified port of NHL 19/20 onto a new engine – a totally baseless claim to be taken with a huge truck of salt, to be sure, but with some of the issues and details that we've noted in this year's game, it's not completely outlandish. The still-slow menus being the first possible hint, and the fact that the small development team would obviously need more than a year to switch to a new engine, so they had to go back further for their code base than NHL 21.
The new engine does offer a few tweaks to how NHL 22 plays and looks, but it's not a groundbreaking new experience. Similarly to FIFA 22, the next-gen jump is fairly underwhelming for this EA Sports series, but it hopefully lays the ground work for a more impressive future. The most immediately noticeable, and sadly only, next-gen improvement is the look of the ice. The surface looks truly great, with a ton of detail and neat reflections. The overhead arena lights could use a bit of turning down on their reflection brightness, but otherwise it's a simple but awesome improvement. There are also some new animations during play and collisions, and the physics between sticks and pucks offer a higher sense of realism. However, that's about where the changes end – the crowds still look very dated and last-gen, some of the new broadcast elements are just simple overlays, and a ton of the gameplay animations and cutscenes are re-used. So, besides some physics-based gameplay tweaks and the new ice surface, there's not a ton that NHL 22 offers exclusively on next-gen.
To be fair, the physics tweaks do improve the experience for the most part. Offline, you can still tweak the settings sliders very extensively to fine-tune the gameplay to your liking. Skating, passing, and shooting feels familiar, and still mostly satisfying, and the physics puck and stick interactions add a little bit more detail to the plays on the ice. The referees are really improved, letting more things go and finally making the defenders feel like they can use all their tools – from poke checks and defensive sticks to big hits – without the constant risk of drawing a penalty. However, the AI seems to have taken a step back – regardless of difficulty settings, they have a tough time breaking out, will circle their own zone for a while, and struggle to manage the puck behind the net. These are issues that seem worse than last year, so it's another notch in our wild theory that this is a tweaked port of a two/three year old NHL title.
The main feature of NHL 22, regardless of what console generation you're playing on, is the X-Factor system. It's incorporated into every single mode in the game, and basically marks the top players in the game as having specific skill sets and passive stat boosts. From Ovechkin's one timer to Eichel's snapshot, these are basically designations of something that the player excels at. There are shooting and defensive abilities, ones for movement/dekes, as well as those for goalies. Essentially, whenever players find themselves in a specific situation, those X-Factors give them a boost to performance. They have a main X-Factor, as well as some smaller ones. In reality though, it's a fairly basic system that doesn't really affect anything in the moment to moment gameplay – you already know Ovechkin's blast from the point is going to be great, and having an X-Factor designation doesn't change anything other than displaying an icon above his head. It's a system that is from EA's Madden, where it debuted two years ago, so it's not exactly a fresh innovation.
In the Be a Pro career mode, you will still play as a highly touted rookie being drafted into his first NHL team. The X-Factor system comes into play here as you can eventually grow and develop your player to earn these new abilities and boost your stats in desired areas. There are also multi-year goals now, so the story doesn't abruptly stop in year 2 as it did in NHL 21. However, the mode could have still used a bit more content and variety as it is nearly identical to last year; and it feels like there are too many pauses this year. From the constant interviews to your coach giving you objectives / feedback during breaks in play, the pace can feel glacial, even in the middle of a hockey game.
In Franchise mode, where you take over a team to guide them to the Stanley Cup, the game remains flexible and offers some minor new additions. You can begin your season with the Seattle Kraken (or a new 33rd team) expansion draft, and there is a system to protect your players from being exposed. The mode remains very flexible, in letting you tweak things that you want to deal with when running the team, from player morale to finances and relocation. One interesting thing is that the simulation of results is all over the place, with tons of 10+ goal games. X-Factor system comes into play here again, but to a lesser extent than other modes. Having or drafting/scouting X-Factor rated superstars really doesn't affect much; these are the top pros and prospects in the game, who just happen to have an icon to identify their specific area of strength. Franchise mode remains a deep and engaging offering, but quite similar to last year, from menus to the flow of the game.
In online modes of play, the changes in NHL 22 are more notable. In Hockey Ultimate Team, you still try to put together a roster from players cards by collecting packs and managing the team synergies (again, special passive boosts that activate when enough players on the roster have the ability). You can play a variety of returning HUT modes, from arcade style to proper NHL tier competition. Putting a decent team together doesn't take long, thanks to the unique aspects of HUT compared to EA's other games, such as daily free packs. Objectives and milestones, as well as the Set collection rewards, also net you more packs to open. However, you still hit a wall around level 80-82, as getting players rated higher than that depends on luck, or via the transfer market.
X-Factor system has a bigger impact on HUT than offline modes. If you get an X-Factor player, they will actually be low-level, and by spending coins or special upgrade cards, you can level them up over time, to get to their top stats. With each level up you can also adjust their synergy, and unlock their X-Factor as well as their minor boosts. To bring some semblance of balance to the system, your team can only have a certain number of X-Factor abilities present, and you can manually choose which ones are active.
Elsewhere, the World of Chel is still your online Pro hub, where you can partake in a variety of casual and competitive modes, including EASHL. The X-Factor system again comes into play here, as a customizable way to boost your stats by equipping the X-Factor boosts and bonuses. You unlock new ones as you level up, and they can be freely swapped around anytime like a loadout in an action game. Players can also even tweak their stats further, beyond the pre-defined roles, to fine tune exactly the areas where they want to be effective – within certain limits, of course, and at the expense of reducing their other attributes. The menus have also been revamped in this mode, and it's finally easy to keep your group together as you migrate between Drop-In and Club games. Overall, in terms of function and flexibility, World of Chel is probably the most improved mode in NHL 22.
Regardless of what mode you play in NHL 22 online, you will be faced with one major problem – a lack of players. Because of the change in engine, there is no cross-play between console families or console generations. Considering that the NHL series already has one of the smaller fan bases, fracturing it further leads to fairly extensive matchmaking times in all online modes. From launch day, we've had issues finding games across HUT, EASHL, and even Ones/Threes arcade, and the in-game metrics always read as Low for online population. This is undoubtedly bad news for the health of the online community this year. When you do find a game, for example in HUT, you will be immediately faced with completely stacked 90+ overall teams, as matchmaking cannot find anyone closer to your level. Further, despite or perhaps because of its small size, the community remains one of the surprisingly most toxic in sports games, with a lot of rude player names and looks, and poor sportsmanship behavior online.
As mentioned earlier, the next-gen version of NHL 22 impresses the most with its ice surface, but elsewhere remains quite familiar. There are nice new broadcast overlays that display stats right on the ice, but these are features that could exist in last-gen. There are some new goal celebrations, but few in number and constantly re-used – even in situations where there are less than five players celebrating, which looks strange. Goalie animations and idle player movements after the whistle remain a mix of old and new. It adds another minor point of evidence that the game code base is a few years old. There are minor nice touches, like the changes in ambient lighting and shadows as the sun apparently sets during outdoor games in casual modes. Some players have improved likenesses and maybe minor details (that are too small to notice, like facial expressions); but for the most part many of the camera angles, such as the coaches and the player bench, reveal the very dated animations and models. The fans in the stands are decidedly last-gen. The soundtrack is once again the expected mix of rock and pop tunes. The commentary duo sometimes points out player milestones, but is starting to feel dated and limited, despite being introduced only a few years ago. They are also overly enthusiastic and inconsistent in their interpretation of the events on the ice.
PS5-specific features are limited to the DualSense controller, which has some new haptic vibration feedback. Unlike FIFA, for example, it at least makes sense that the controller is constantly vibrating as you skate around. However, when the novelty wears off, you'll probably go back to the classic mode of just rumbling for body checks. There's also a variety of sounds, such as goal horns, that will play through the speaker of the controller - this again is mostly distracting, and you'll want to turn it off.
The game has some technical glitches. A new mirror-like reflective visor sometimes has issues, but the bigger problems are things that again possibly feed the theory of this being an older base game code. For instance, online you will be faced with a number of lag issues, and the infamous faceoff loop glitch making a return in a big way – something that hasn't been prevalent in the game since, you guessed it, NHL 19/20. Other minor things, like the game UI missing or duplicating the player name displays on the ice, are minor but notable.
NHL 22 is a comparatively smooth transition to a new engine for the hockey series. It manages to bring over all the content and modes from the last year, and introduce something new – the X-Factor system. It's not exactly a game-changer, but it gives you something new to consider, whether playing online or in franchise mode. On the ice, NHL 22 is an enjoyable but largely familiar experience, with the biggest improvements coming thanks to the shiny new ice surface, relaxed referees and physics based stick/puck tweaks. Still, the experience is clearly drawing from its past, with the typical scattering of glitches and some problems in online play, not the least of which is the lack of cross-gen play for an already small community. Considering that NHL 22 on next-gen is $10 more expensive, if you've got a choice to get it for last-gen console – and especially if that's where most of your friends still play – then that probably remains the better option this year.