NHL 24 Review
A fading love for the sport
Annual sports games are always treading the line between how much budget and development time they have, and how many new features fans are demanding to make the yearly purchase worthwhile. With EA Sports NHL series, while the timeline is about the same as any other sports game, the budget has always been an obvious limiting factor. While there are no official numbers, it's likely the lower selling product under the EA Sports umbrella, as FIFA/EA Sports FC and Madden are likely taking the larger chunk of the sales – and thus the production budgets. But given there are no alternatives, hockey fans have been keeping the series going, despite its many stumbles over the decades. With NHL 24, the returning fans' patience is likely to be tested, as the margins for what qualifies to be a new game get ever so thinner.
Everything that you enjoyed (or didn't) about NHL 23 is back, as you'd expect with an annual sports entry. The X-Factor system, the new last-second dives and shots, goalies that desperately flap around, are all back with minor polishing added. After switching to the Frostbite engine a couple of years ago, NHL 24 continues to produce a smooth and mostly entertaining product on the ice – but there are some notable changes this year. The first minor change is the new physics-based hitting system, which makes it more realistic and difficult to pull off major collisions. Timing, direction, and speed are more important than ever, and you can now observe players somewhat hilariously crumble to the ice or into the benches as the ragdoll physics go overboard. With passing, a new Vision system introduces a Madden-like overlay which displays face button icons above teammates if you hold the pass, letting you choose the precise destination player. It's a good system in theory, giving more precise control over where the puck goes – but because NHL is a quick sport, it almost becomes a QTE rather than a strategic decision, and may often result in loss of possession as you hold the pass too long.
But the two biggest changes are linked to the controls and Pressure system. While you still have the classic Skill Stick option where the thumbstick controls all the shooting and skill moves, NHL 24 introduces a new control scheme that hopes to simplify the game for new players, called Total Control. With this scheme, instead of using the thumbstick for skill moves, you now have them bound to the face buttons. You no longer need to perform elaborate maneuvers with the stick to pull off a fancy move – it's now just a button press. While this new system makes sense in theory, the implementation is a little lacklustre - you can't even change which four skill moves are used.
And while Total Control adds some accessibility, the developers have also removed a lot of it with NHL 94 and Hybrid control schemes being gone. The former was made for newcomers to enjoy simple button-based gameplay, and the latter allowed for a nice combination of both the buttons and skill stick usage. Clearly, accessibility was no longer a priority. The removal of these control schemes was the top player complaint from the beta and at launch – so much so that the developers have already announced plans to bring these control schemes back later on in a patch. Tethered Control System for goaltenders is also new, and it's not great either; developers also plan to bring back the more traditional goalie controls with the patch. So while the new Total Control scheme may not be a well implemented idea, it's the removal of the other options that causes more frustration.
The other big gameplay change is the Sustained Pressure System, which adds new dynamics, but seems lacking in nuance. When teams spend time in the offensive zone, they build up momentum by taking shots at the goalie, hitting, and just keeping control of the puck. There is a visual pressure indicator on the ice, and after it reaches the maximum (the puck does not leave the attacking zone), it activates a 30 second full pressure mechanic. During this time, the defence and the goalie are more prone to making errors, as they get drained of energy quickly, reducing their reflexes and speed. This is certainly based on the real life aspects of the sport, as keeping constant pressure in the offensive zone can lead to mistakes, and goalies choosing to freeze the puck and get a faceoff becomes an even more strategic move as it replenishes some energy.
Still, there is obvious room for improvement in the implementation. It feels very arcade oriented, while the game is still trying to maintain a realistic approach; players now have an avenue of abuse as they enter the zone and just cycle the puck to artificially drain the goalie and defenders of energy. It's also strange that after the 30 second full pressure timer, things just sort of reset – at least visually and mechanically, though the goalie and defenders will still be running on empty. The pressure gauge is displayed smack in the center of the attack zone ice, not even faded, and the boards light up with lots of flashing messages and red color, which can be distracting. This new pressure system is a visual and direct adaptation of what can happen in the real sport, but it just needed a bit more refinement.
The new focus on individual player energy levels also means everyone now has a visible stamina gauge. Depending on the situation and game mode, it helps you judge when to change lines, how your team and player will behave in online play, and when your netminder needs a break. Big hits drain more of the stamina, and can result in risk/reward decisions on the ice. Though useful, it again slants the game a bit more towards the arcade visual style.
All of these gameplay changes are in effect across every game mode, of which there is the usual assortment. In Hockey Ultimate Team, there is only one new addition in the form of HUT Moments – a revamp of the similar system from a few years ago (and one that EA FC also introduced recently), which lets you play through some key moments in the history of the sport. Major game winners, comebacks, and individual superstar moments are on offer, as you attempt to recreate history. The idea is decent, but the execution is again a bit lacking. There is a short video before each moment, and then you're thrown into a typical game – there are no visual or gameplay alterations to help with the atmosphere and the historical settings, like NBA 2K does so well.
Elsewhere, HUT is largely unchanged – you are still trying to collect player cards, worry about team synergy, and compete in various online and offline modes. Like EA Sports FC 24, HUT 24 doesn't have any welcome packs, and seems quite stingy with its rewards from various game modes – so it will take some time to build a decent team. Even the arcade HUT Rush games have been reduced in their reward output while objectives are notably drawn out. But at least you still get a free pack every 24 hours, though the days of this charity are surely numbered. Players who grind and absolute ton, or spend real money (which it seems more and more geared towards), can fill out a seemingly endless amount of Sets in order to marginally improve their roster and dump their unwanted cards. Packs this year seem more diluted with customization items and celebrations, instead of giving you players, though maybe it’s just bad luck. At least, NHL 24 now combines same-generation Xbox and PlayStation consoles into one HUT auction house, to help with the market.
The other major online mode of EA Sports Hockey League also returns, with minimal changes, as you play with friends against others in 3v3 or 6v6 modes, with drop-in or as a club. There is a new one-period 3v3 mode to get even more games done faster. After last year's limited effort, a more complete cross-play is now available, so fans on the same console generation can matchmake and play together. Unfortunately, this isn't helping a whole lot with the matchmaking, with lots of waiting across all EASHL modes. The avatar customization zone has been improved and streamlined, so it's quicker to make changes to your skater's appearance. EASHL Playoffs have been tweaked with a new 16-game path to the title, allowing players to earn ranking points across the bracket. All of the mentioned gameplay tweaks – the pressure system and new controls – are of course also implemented here, and will have an impact on how teams compete this year.
Perhaps the biggest changes in EASHL are unfortunately aimed at monetization and microtransactions. Players used to get random hockey bag drops as they leveled up or completed objectives, and this system has now been replaced by giving players special currency to spend on visual customization items in the shop. There is also now a battle pass to work through and unlock more visual rewards. The logic here is that players can now buy exactly what they want, instead of hoping they get a random drop. But of course, there is a catch - there are only certain items available to buy at any given time, chosen by EA - so you could still be waiting for your LA Kings jacket for a long time to appear in the store. While many items can be bought with currency you earn from playing, there are many that can only be acquired with real money.
Online play and HUT have been at the forefront of the NHL franchise for years – and really, for all annual EA Sports titles. But there is usually at least a semblance of an effort made to bring changes and new additions to the offline career modes – even if those additions are surface level and not always well implemented, like in EA Sports FC 24. But NHL 24 takes it a step too far, and makes the bold choice of doing absolutely nothing. Both Manager and Be a Pro Career modes – while they got nice revamps a couple of years ago – have no additions. There is barely a mention of these modes on the official website and marketing materials; what mention they do get reads like patch notes, instead of describing what's new for this year. A couple of things have been adjusted, but they are more like bug fixes. If you’re an offline player, this is the easiest decision you've had in years – there is no reason to grab NHL 24, unless you are desperate for new mechanics on the ice.
The presentation elements also didn't get much adjustment. It is still a nice looking game and the next-gen ice continues to look great. Player animations and facial expressions remain of average quality, and the cutscenes in the Be a Pro career mode can be rough. After last year's silly decision to remove replays for goals in offline modes, they are back. However, the broadcast quality is still falling behind – like EA Sports FC, there are no player or team intros, and even something massive like a playoff game barely gets a 10 second generic intro clip, with the only difference being crowds holding glowsticks. There's glass breaking now, but that's hardly worth a mention – and it happens a bit too often. There are new fancy arena lights and colorful visuals on the ice, though it's becoming a little bit distracting and over the top. One new element is individual player celebrations after each goal, with a strange camera angle and a spotlight that focuses on the player (called a Flex moment, of course), followed by the usual team celebrations. It's very arcade-like, and if you were a cynical person, you could argue it's just meant to show off player celebrations which have a renewed focus in all online modes, where you can get them via microtransactions.
Audio design remains decent, with another rock and alternative focused soundtrack. The commentator duo has been refreshed, with Cheryl Pounder joining James Cybulski, replacing Ray Ferraro. The pair actually have very good chemistry and a strong variety of commentary, and it feels more natural and better than the new EA Sports FC 24 pairing.
In terms of performance, while the on-ice gameplay remains smooth, the menus are still awfully slow. It's quite shocking, really, that there is some kind of deep underlying problem that the developers haven’t been able to address for years now. Navigating menus across all modes, online and offline, is a slog, with constant lengthy pauses, slowly loading elements, and lagging audio effects. HUT pack openings still take you into a dark and laggy void. It's baffling at this point.
NHL 24 is a strange edition of the long running sports series. Despite what seemed like a promising fresh start a couple of years ago, with a new engine, and new modes, things are starting to look dire again. The new fatigue and attacking pressure systems do resemble the real sport, but the execution of these mechanics seems very arcade-focused and lacking in nuance, while the core gameplay is still trying to be realistic. The presentation is also skewed towards arcade, with too many flashing lights on the ice and not enough broadcast quality. While HUT and EASHL get a few changes, they are quite surface level, and focused more on monetization and making you grind for longer. Offline, there are no notable changes, which is a wild decision for an annual full priced game. NHL 24 still has a very good baseline, so of course if you’re coming into the series for the first time in many years, it's worth checking out. But returning players – while it's not the disaster that NHL 15 was – will be shocked at the lack of worthwhile features for this year's outing.