NHL 23 Review
Skating on thin ice
Last year, the EA Sports NHL franchise made the jump to the current console generation without much fanfare. Under the hood, the switch to the Frostbite engine was smooth, along with some performance improvements and a very nice looking ice surface, but there wasn't a big leap in gameplay or features that some may have hoped for. And it should come as no surprise to long-time series fans that NHL 23 continues this trend of largely chugging along. There are some tweaks, some minor additions, and some ongoing problems in this year's entry. The focus is clearly on not rocking the boat too much, and with no competition in the gaming landscape, hockey fans get yet another functional and licensed, but lukewarm hockey simulation release.
The major addition in NHL 22 was the X-Factor system, in itself a port of the idea that EA Sports Madden introduced a few years back. The system returns again this year across all modes, with a few balance tweaks to the special zone abilities (stat boosts in certain situations) and a few new ones added for the best players in the sport. It continues to make a minor difference on the ice, where the gameplay remains quite familiar. Offline play remains highly customizable, and the AI seems to be improved this year and able to break into the attacking zones more easily, and generally play better. Online, passing accuracy has been tweaked so that you can actually make good plays without sending the puck wayward. Poke checking is still good and effective, while slashing penalties from stick lifts seem to be the flavor of the week for the referees. Everything will feel very familiar to returning players, as the vast, vast majority of the goals will still be from close-in shots after a deke move.
The lack of goal variety isn't perhaps entirely to blame on the lack of player creativity. The goalies this year got a boost, and so trying to play more true-to-life hockey just doesn’t pay off. So everyone waits for the usual breakaways, so they can pull off the same deke or cross-crease snipe move that always results in a goal. All other attempts are simply too risky – offline and online, you are likely to get dispossessed by taking too long or by an errant pass, and the goalies save pretty much everything that comes from outside the circles. So it's just more safe and efficient to use the same moves over and over, as has been the case for a few years now in the franchise. There's even a bug that is evident when you have to play through various HUT challenges that set the AI to the lowest difficulty. Even in these moments, while you easily outskate the opposition, the AI goaltenders are almost impossible to beat – except with the usual cheese moves that all long-term players are too familiar with.
There are some notable new animations for the netminders, to coincide with a new Last Chance Puck Movement mechanic. This allows players to still handle the puck and make shots even as they lose balance and are falling to the ice. These new animations can be neat when they work and allow players to perform a last-ditch effort on goal or a pass. However, like net battles a few years ago, this mechanic is highly situational and doesn’t crop up very often, making it a bit weak as a headlining gameplay addition for the year. Online, most players use the new diving move as more of a joke and look to abuse a glitch.
Offline gameplay modes haven't got much of an update. Be a Pro is largely unchanged after its revamp two years ago, letting you break into NHL as a rookie and create a long-lasting career. Without new additions, or improvements to the existing mechanics, the mode can still be sluggishly paced and repetitive, especially after your debut year. In Franchise mode, where you pick a team to guide to glory over multiple seasons and via a highly customizable experience (choosing to look after finances, etc), the main new addition is the ability to play in an entirely custom league. Instead of following the NHL format and Stanley Cup Playoffs, you can create your own experience with an entirely custom number of teams, games per season, playoff rules, and so on. While it's a neat addition that perhaps lets players recreate the past eras of the sport (with extra help from roster sharing), it seems fairly limited in its appeal. Another new function is letting players define specific player roles on Special Teams units, such as who is the Distributor and who is the Finisher. This, along with two new team strategies, helps expand on how your AI teammates behave, at least in theory. On the whole, though, solo career focused players don't have much to look forward to this year.
Heading online, you'll find that shockingly little has changed here as well. One of the main additions is that, like in EA Sports FIFA 23, IIHF Women’s National Team members have been added to the Hockey Ultimate Team mode. This means the pool of player cards has been somewhat expanded, as women can now play alongside the men, and you'll also see female referees. It doesn’t do much to change the HUT experience though – grinding for coins and new card packs still takes forever, and it’s not worth going online until you have at least a half decent team, lest you want to be whooped by players who spend real cash and have all-time greats on the roster from the first day. NHL 23 feels quite stringent with its coins and player packs, as most players will hit a wall fairly quickly around the usual 80-81 overall team rating, and have to begin an increasingly long and repetitive grind for coins and packs. Compared to FIFA, NHL's HUT mode remains more time consuming when it comes to building a decent team. But hey, at least there's still the tiny daily pack that is given for free.
With no new additions, beyond basics like new HUT Rivals themes, the mode doesn't take the opportunity to work on some of its issues either. The visual style of the player cards is still a strain on the eyes; from the tiny icons on the top corner of the cards, to the Synergy icons that this year seem to particularly awfully blend into the cards' backgrounds. The menus are laggy and opening new card packs is a painful process with a cold and hostile background that hasn’t changed in years, and one that still shockingly struggles with framerate.
The other big online mode, EA Sports Hockey League, also sees no major changes or indeed fixes. Creating your virtual avatar and joining a team of likeminded players is still a great thrill, but the community remains few in number, and sadly just as toxic and abuse-focused as usual. At least one of these issues may get a slight improvement with the introduction of Cross Play functionality – but that won't be launching until November, so for now it's business as usual. In a similar "misfire" vein as most of NHL 23, the developers tried to make the character customization reward bag opening more streamlined by letting you open them consequently without retuning to the menu – but it only works for the same "type" of reward bag, which means not much of a streamline at all.
Surprisingly, a lot of effort was spent on the presentation elements of the game. No, not new menus - those are still exactly the same as they have been for years, which is bemusing – other EA Sports franchises at least change their colors and backgrounds. Instead there's things like a refreshed Stanley Cup Win celebration, with new visual effects, commentary, and the ability to select from a basic menu who to pass the Cup to next. Again it’s an addition that comes up so rarely, it doesn't seem like it should have been a priority. Even then, the cutscene has a few glitches like players hugging someone invisible next to them. In regular play, there are cases of T-poses in the stands, and players making the weirdest facial expressions between plays, as multiple players can also spawn inside each other on the bench.
On a more positive note, there are also some new commentary lines that do actually work decently well, and some graphical overlays when your players reach milestones within the team or league. The ice continues to look very good, and is probably the best visual element of the whole experience, now with added accumulation in the corners over the course of the game. New on-ice graphics and (just a few) authentic team introductions have been added, with lights and projections on the ice adding more atmosphere. Even the national anthem clips have been included. Crowd noise has also been updated, though perhaps too much so – while it's cool to have the dynamic elements, such as booing certain players or counting down the last few seconds, these elements make a Sunday afternoon regular season game feel like it's the playoffs, and could use some toning down.
NHL 23 feels like a particularly aimless entry. There's no main hook, no headliner feature to reignite the passion for the franchise. It is particularly thin on new content, even by its own bar that has already been set fairly low over the years. It's likely the annual sports game on the tightest budget under the EA Sports banner, but that doesn't seem to change the full asking price. There are some improvements to the gameplay, and a few neat minor additions, but this year's game really does feel like an obligation, lacking any drive to at least improve some of its long-term issues in the wake of having few new features to celebrate. Newcomers are of course going to get the best entry to date, but that’s not saying much; returning players can very easily take a pass on this.