While the NBA2K series once again takes sweat to the next level on Playstation 5/various XBox naming conventions,* EA Sports’ NHL ’21 mainly stays in place. Actually, judging by the reverse retro jerseys hitting ‘NHL 21, and NHL ’94 Rewind, you could argue that EA Sports’ hockey focus is often in the past. But what about future games, particularly whenever the series jumps to the PS5/Xbox Series X/etc.?*
After getting in an unsettling number of reps with NHL ’21, let’s make a wish list for NHL ’22. Actually, let’s throw the net wider. Here’s a wish list for the first EA Sports NHL game capable of really yielding the power of next-gen consoles, NHL ’22 or later.
* – Seriously, those Xbox naming conventions are downright unwieldy. Get it together, Microsoft.
Want big changes for NHL ’22? Be careful what you wish for
Frankly, you don’t need to do much digging before you find complaints about gameplay in NHL ’21, and other recent editions. And many of those criticisms are valid. Offense really is too dependent upon cross-seam passes and/or one-timers. Artificial intelligence remains lacking in crucial areas, especially with teammates in the offensive zone.
Realistically, it would be better for EA Sports to make incremental progress in those areas, rather than throwing out all of their code altogether (so to speak).
Because making a new NHL game, engine and all, from scratch? That’s easier said than done.
EA Sports itself suffered through painful lessons with its NBA titles. For years, the NBA Live series sold reasonably well, even though NBA2K titles were more critically acclaimed. Maybe those review scores got to EA, as they tried to revamp their NBA games. Let’s just say it hasn’t gone well. There have been cancellations, “Starship Troopers”-sized bugs, and cancellations following embarrassments over bugs.
In a dream world, EA Sports could pump huge resources and staffers into revolutionizing NHL ’22, thus finding a perfect balance between simulation and fun. In reality, NHL ’21 and its ilk might be flawed, but there’s fun to be had.
No doubt, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Just note that this wish list aims to keep expectations at least somewhat reasonable.
Customization, and connections
- If you search (gasp) other wish lists, you’ll notice themes (beyond the less constructive griping). One mostly reasonable idea is to add “roster sharing” for NHL ’22.
While a part of me fears that custom rosters and other sharing suites might open up the door for racist or profane names, these features are fairly common in sports games. Just about any time EA Sports announces player ratings, people gripe. (I, for one, remember the days when Eric Lindros was a star even into his Rangers days.) By allowing users to share custom rosters, you could limit at least some of that whining.
- Bringing back “GM Connected Mode” might be asking a bit much, but people want it.
The idea of jamming servers with leagues of up to 31 people — hundreds, if not thousands of them — seems like it’s asking a lot. But it was in EA NHL games many moons ago, and people want it. And … let’s be honest, it would certainly be cool and ambitious.
If it’s in the game …
- While NHL ’21 features a more nuanced Franchise Mode than ones from years ago, there are still some issues.
Maybe it would be too much to ask EA to allow conditional draft picks to be part of trades. But maybe they could allow no-trade clauses to be part of negotiations? Perhaps signing bonuses could make or break a deal, or make a team’s owner get impatient with losing?
In NHL ’21, EA Sports added some flavor to its trade deadline. It isn’t perfect, yet it’s an improvement. It would be great to see that bit of flair added to contract negotiations and other facets of running a team.
- Adding real-life coaches would be nice.
Look, the truth is that NHL games don’t command the same budgets as a FIFA or Madden. So maybe it wouldn’t be feasible to add Joel Quenneville, and thus delight fans by rendering his mustache with glorious HDR.
(How many teraflops does it take to capture the art of the dive?)
- More nuance in free agency? Basically, we need to recreate John Tavares and his Maple Leafs bedsheet.
You can get deep into the weeds talking about the smaller and biggers ways to make NHL ’22 and future titles more authentic. The above list seems like a good start, though.
[MORE: A review of Franchise Mode in EA Sports NHL ’21]
OK, now for an airing of pettier grievances.
- Honestly, I feel like I’ll be grumbling about this while unable to play NHL ’45 because of arthritis. But for real, can there just be standard icon-switching? NHL ’21 and earlier games produced workarounds, but they’re less solutions than paint over holes in the wall.
- “Board play” has never really been good. The suction cup/magnetized inevitability is one of the most poorly instituted EA gameplay mechanics since the nightmare QB cones of vision from Madden days of yore. (Although at least you could choose which WR you wanted to pass to, albeit at your own risk if they’re outside of that vision cone.)
- Yes, player ratings need freshening. In general, the game tends to be a bit too forgiving to bottom-pairing defensemen.
Granted, player ratings bring things back to be careful what you wish for. While the ideal is to truly capture the stardom of a Connor McDavid, it could also create grumbling. After all, if you wanted to bring your favorite team online, would you be happy facing a loaded Lightning squad, and so on?
Counterpoints like these remind you that EA Sports and other developers face challenges. Plenty of people have wish lists for NHL ’22, and they’d likely be very different from mine. What would be on yours?
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.