Even though I’m not what you would call an “avid” video game sports devotee, I’ve enjoyed the times spent sitting next to my brother with EA’s NHL series, fighting it out on the ice to determine which team was better - mine, the Detroit Red Wings or his, the Anaheim Ducks (or Los Angeles Kings, depending on his preference). We aren’t the die hard sports gamers that pick up every annual iteration of digital hockey (or baseball as we used to) but instead pop-in from time to time when we both get new consoles. Much to Joel’s surprise, I chose NHL 19 as my chance to see what’s been done to video game hockey since NHL 12 and sweet heavenly McGillicuddy, have things gone nuts!
To be honest, I should expect no less from EA. Their sports games have always been stuffed with different game modes that do everything from simulate entire season and postseason games (complete with playable minor league seasons) to one-off exhibition matches. In the case of NHL 19, the options are staggering. Want to play a quick pick-up game with a friend? There’s a mode for that. Simulate an entire season in hopes of grabbing that Stanley Cup glory? There’s that too. Or maybe you want to create an up and coming hockey pro from the ground up? Let’s not stop there: NHL 19 can also help you live out your dream of being a franchise manager, allocating funds for paychecks, maintain the home stadium, negotiate salaries for new players, scout new talent, and even arrange promotion nights.
There’s so much stuff to do in this year’s game that deciding what to play can be overwhelming. The primary content menu, which looks a lot like the Xbox One’s tile-based UI, has enough options to make any hardcore hockey fan lick their chops. On the other hand, I was grateful that it asks you to pick three modes you’re most likely to play and builds a nice, consolidated menu comprised of those choices each time you boot up the game. Dizzying as all the three-on-three, franchise, and Stanley Cup options are, you’re not forced into playing something you might not like. I’m not the kind of person who will get anything out of Franchise mode because I’d rather just play hockey instead of managing money, stats, and spreadsheets (I get enough of that at work).
Out of the myriad of options available in NHL 19, The World of CHEL and Hockey Ultimate Team get top billing. To prove how far out of the loop I live in, I was confused as to what “CHEL” meant. Is it an acronym? Like, “Canadian Hockey Entertainment League?” “Cold Hockey Elevates Leisure?” “Cheese Hamburger Equals Love?” The truth is far less fun: it’s the spelling for the sound made by saying the “H-L” in “NHL.” Try it! Crazy, right? At any rate, CHEL involves creating your own hockey superstar, customizing him or her with different cosmetic options and assign them to one of many classes spread across different skater positions and goalies. A progression system lets you boost your player’s stats and abilities to make them good enough to leave the rural “pond” leagues and into the NHL proper. There are also shorter, more condensed games that challenge you and your friends (or bots) in three-on-three matches against professional hockey players. These challenges are a great way to collect experience points that give you stat bonuses and perks designed to make you more nimble on the ice by gaining advantages across offense and defense. Gaining a level also grants an Overwatch-style cosmetic loot box (“hockey bag” is the preferred nomenclature) that carries random assortment of clothing, accessories, and perks. If you’ve ever wanted to put yourself in the NHL, and not just with a character creator that’ll shoehorn you into a pro-league, then this is the best way to simulate your meteoric rise to fame.
The other notable mode in NHL 19 is Hockey Ultimate Team, a fantasy hockey league mode featured in NHL 18 that lets pull from the past and present to build your own hockey team made up with the sport’s best and brightest. Hockey Ultimate Team feels a little dubious because it leans heavily on microtransactions and a virtual economy mitigated by added daily objectives and long-term milestones. Players, coaches, arenas, and other cards are gained by spending in-game money earned by completing challenges to buy card packs (which look like the sort of collectible card decks you’d find in grocery stores, Target, or comic book shops) that unlock a host of useful (i.e: players) and not quite so useful items like stadiums, alternate uniforms, and currency. Player cards are divided among rarity with big name athletes, like Wayne Gretzky, set as rare “Legend” cards that are a little bit harder to earn outside of milestone rewards, rare Legend packs, rewards for collecting enough daily login packs, or buying them from the in-game Auction House. Legend cards can also be picked up on “loan” for a limited period of time in a sort of “try before you buy” setup. Player cards can have their attributes boosted by upgrading their cards with... wait a minute!
This all sounds too familiar. What other EA game used a card-based system to influence character stats and attributes that could easily throw off game balance by those willing to drop cash to buy up upgrade points? Oh, that’s right. Battlefront II! The game that put the whole loot box gravy train off the rails! Just like Battlefront - even the interface is structured the same way- card packs differ in quality and what you end up getting is left to chance. All this feels like a bummer because Hockey Ultimate Team has a lot of depth and is big enough to be its own budget-priced game. I can really see people getting invested in this video game equivalent of maintaining a collection of trading cards. Even though the challenges, daily objectives and milestones offer virtual coins, I didn’t feel like grinding them for card packs that very well could have stuff I don’t want or need - which, to be fair, can be sold and traded. And besides, Battlefront II really soured me on the “cards as gameplay boosts” feature. Thankfully, the business of buying up card packs is limited to Hockey Ultimate Team, leaving me to have a perfectly fulfilling experience playing hockey with someone and not having to worry about whether or not they spent cash to give the Dallas Stars virtual steroids.
Again, if all you care about is straight-up virtual hockey, you can skip all this stuff and select “Play Now” and experience all the flair that an NBC-sponsored televised broadcast has to offer. NHL 19 continues the EA trend of finding new ways (or gimmicks, if you prefer) to make the sport feel more realistic on a console. After a lengthy “training camp” tutorial, you’ll be versed in the function of the right analog stick and bumpers to conduct play with a good degree of technicality. Swiping the puck, for example, has two different control methods depending on what sort of shot you want to take. Regular strikes use a swift back and forth movement on the stick while slap shots require holding the stick back a moment before following through with the power hit. You’ll need to be careful with slap shots because the puck is susceptible to forward momentum, which means if you wait too long to swing the stick, the puck will have moved out of range and left up for grabs.
Whichever shot you try to take on the goal, when you get in range of the net, a target reticle appears to indicate the direction the puck will go based on the player’s current position. This is cool because an NHL game finally forced me to pay more attention to my team’s position on the ice. Back in the day, I’d always just throw my team at the goal, passing the puck around and hoping for the best. My knee jerk reaction to the reticle was “Oh, great, another thing to try and keep track up in the head of the moment” because trying to time the shot and waiting for the target to turn green as I’m assaulted by the other team seemed complicated and difficult but over time I really grew to appreciate it and can’t imagine playing without it. With its extensive training camps, good on-screen assistance, and complex control schemes, NHL 19 really does push for a deeper sense of realism. The beautifully simple NHL 94 controls return for those who deem the default setup far too technical, which goes a long way to make the game feel accessible to people with different skill levels and experience.
I’ve always been a fan of the level of presentation EA puts into their sports game. I remember playing an old baseball game of theirs from 2003 and marveled at how involved, accurate, and spontaneous the game commentary got to be. NHL 19 is no different: you get full game commentary, replays, a highlights all made to look like you’re watching a real NBC Sports broadcast. Arenas sport their unique designs and the crowds are super fun to watch as they react to the game and suddenly find themselves on camera. As for the hockey players themselves, the 3D models really don’t quite match the real life profile images that pop up whenever attention is turned on them (in my case, when they’re sent to the penalty box). This is one of those areas where some people will care and others won’t - your mileage will vary. Faces were probably an afterthought, given how good everything else looks, especially the animations of the players as they glide, body check people into walls, and celebrate a winning goal.
NHL 19 has hockey coming out of its ears. There’s enough content here to last a good while or at least until NHL 20 finds its way on the shelves. Offering different levels of realism on a large scale, from controls to team management, there’s bound to be something for everyone. Hockey Ultimate Team sounds like a really cool idea but the bitterness I still feel over card packs and microtransactions made it something I didn’t want to invest a whole lot of time in. The World of CHEL is probably the closest the sport will get to a personalized experience but without an overwrought narrative and story. And that’s fine, really. Hockey is an enjoyable sport on its own and it doesn’t need an overly dramatic story a la Madden and NBA 2K to sell itself. After all, this is a sport that involves grown men and women running around on ice skates, passing a rubber Hostess Ding Dong around, and getting into the occasional fist fight. What’s not to love about that?
Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.