EA Sports NHL 21 Review – Two-Minute Minor

The Good OLD Hockey Game

It would be an understatement to say that EA Sports has trudged through a grueling 2020. Madden 21 and Fifa 21 currently sit on Metacritic with two of the lowest user scores of all-time. Critics have blasted EA for – maybe more so than any time in the past – releasing what has felt like carbon copies of the previous editions. And as much as I hate to admit this, it’s not hard to argue that overall, the last five years have felt like a frustrating, monotonous blur of roster updates and lighter wallets.

So it was probably my fault for thinking that maybe, just maybe, EA Vancouver would break that trend. That they would deliver not only the hockey game that I’ve waited for the NHL franchise to become but, more plainly, a sports title that reinvigorates people’s interest in the genre. After all, I quite liked NHL 20. I thought that it was the first time in half a decade that the series started to move in the right direction. Yet, as if they’re an express train barreling down the tracks, EA has plowed through my expectations, determined to have the most underwhelming year in company history. It’s not entirely bad news. NHL 21 certainly sees a few welcomed improvements. But on the ice – where it counts – you’d be hard-pressed to notice any tangible difference from NHL 20.

I still believe that the NHL series plays better than it ever has. Flying up the ice and splitting the d-men, dangling the puck on a string before going backhand top shelf, is one of the most gratifying feelings in all of sports games. Creating space for a big one-timer to win a double-overtime playoff game is exhilarating. And watching your goaltender stand on his head to bail you out of a 5-on-3 remains heart-wrenching. But it’s been this way for longer than I can recall. NHL 20 changed the second-to-second gameplay by allowing players to pick the puck up without breaking their stride. It was something you immediately felt. It was a step forward. Unfortunately, EA Vancouver stays stuck in place with NHL 21, and the refinements of yesteryear do nothing but leave me with a sense of longing for more bona fide change. At the heart of EA’s hockey simulation is a game that still doesn’t feel like, well, hockey.

Putting the Team on Your Back

Yes, there are a handful of new dekes that open up several ways to score. And little adjustments like being able to chip the puck off the boards are lovely to see. Even still, NHL 21 suffers from the same issue that’s plagued the franchise ad nauseam. The AI, both teammate, and opponent struggle to respond (for better or for worse) in ways that real hockey players do. Situations like the powerplay turn out unrealistic, devolving into nothing but a cycle of one-touch passes to avoid an unrelenting rush from a three or four-man penalty kill. This leaves you with next to no time to set your team up. It’s bewildering that having a man-advantage still doesn’t feel as if you’re genuinely in a position to score. I suppose that’s what happens when AI can flawlessly predict and react to your every move.

Setting aside the shortcomings of the on-ice product, though, I can’t deny that EA Vancouver is on to something with Be a Pro. For as long as Be a Pro has been an option, it’s left fans wanting more. Much of the excitement of being a professional is everything that happens away from your sport. What does your first big contract look like? What type of house are you going to buy? Are sponsors interested in you? What are you doing with all of that money you’re making? Finally, Be a Pro allows you to explore all of these questions. Thanks to a complete overhaul, you’re now able to connect with your created player like never before. Cutscenes that develop your character permeate your career, and I appreciate that (for the most part), you’re given options on how you would like to respond to situations. Will you be a team player? Or the superstar that thinks he can carry the squad on his back?

Salary perks will give you temporary attribute boosts, and an extensive skill tree is at your disposal to fine-tune your pro. Though, you’ll also need to juggle the expectations of your coaching staff and management if you hope to succeed. I can’t remember the last time there was real pressure to perform. When you tell your coach that he doesn’t need to worry and that you’ll score two goals next game only to get ejected in the first five minutes, it doesn’t feel great. And I adore the fact that I honestly felt that. I wish the conversations were voiced, but there’s an incredibly solid foundation that’s been laid here. I’m anticipating Be a Pro to be a big hit.

If you’re one for more of a traditional NHL experience, though, there are plenty of options to scratch that itch. Franchise and season modes return with all of the usual bells and whistles, and World of Chel still stands out as one of the better online experiences that EA Sports offers. Akin to the NBA 2K series, you’re able to customize a player from an extensive list of unlockable content as you level up and acquire skill points. Although, it is heartbreaking that after months of unlocking gear in NHL 20, I wasn’t able to transfer anything to NHL 21. It’s tough to be enthused about the prospect of investing that time again if it’ll just be lost come next year.

Then again, isn’t that the same dilemma us sports game fans face every year?

Final Thoughts

The NHL series hasn’t drastically changed the formula for fifteen years, so why would I expect NHL 21 to be any different? I certainly appreciate that Be a Pro has been fleshed out, but I’d trade it in a heartbeat for a game that looked and felt like an NHL broadcast. I stand by that it plays as well as it ever has. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a proper representation of the sport. And most of the changes that have been implemented haven’t translated in the way I hoped they would. The defense is still sporadic, your teammate AI is still clueless, and goalies still get beat by the same exploit goals. If EA Vancouver ever hopes to stand alongside the giants of the genre – NBA 2K and MLB The Show – they’ll need to rethink what simulation hockey really means.

***PS4 code provided by the publisher***

The Good

  • Be a Pro Improvements
  • Tons of Modes on Offer
  • World of Chel Formula is Still Fun

The Bad

  • Doesn’t Feel Much Different From Last Year
  • Powerplay Still Seems Ineffective
  • Be a Pro Conversations Not Voiced
  • World of Chel Doesn’t Transfer Over