NHL 21 review for PS4, Xbox One

Platform: PS4
Also on: Xbox One
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Medium: Digital/Disc
Players: 1-12
Online: Yes
ESRB: E10+

Up until a couple of months ago, I had absolutely zero interest in ever playing another NHL game. Despite the fact I?m Canadian, I haven?t watched a hockey game on TV in literally decades, and the last time I tried playing any NHL games, I soon realized I didn?t know any modern players and quickly gave up.

Then the pandemic hit. And, somehow, NHL 19 became one of my go-to games. It wasn?t enough to make me watch the real thing on TV, mind you, but it reminded me of how many hours I sank into NHL 94 so many years ago. Obviously, it?s a little early to tell whether I?ll play NHL 21 nearly as much as I?ve played NHL 19, but my early impressions of the game are pretty good.

The first thing that really jumped out at me after starting up the game was how fast it moves. Even accounting for the setting at which I?d put the speed, NHL 21 moves at a much faster pace than the previous entries in the series that I?ve played. And not only does it move quickly, it moves smoothly — watching my team glide around the ice was an impressive approximation of the real thing.

I was also impressed by the game?s AI. I don?t know if this is new to this year?s version or it started with last year?s game, but the non-human players here seemed much smarter and more aware than they were in NHL 19. In the spectacular Be A Pro mode (of which I?ll have more to say in a moment), I was pleasantly surprised to see my teammates demonstrating impressive awareness, firing off passes to my player whenever I became open and always being in position to take advantage of chances when I set them up. Even the opposition showed a surprising amount of self-preservation, which made it harder for me to just skate around the ice, levelling everything in my path. They even occasionally tried blocking me from busting out rushes — not that they were effective most of the time, but they still made the effort.

And speaking of effort: NHL 21?s Be A Pro mode is top-notch. As someone who loves putting a tonne of time and effort into single-player campaigns in sports games, I?d even say it?s one of the best. It goes a little further than MLB The Show?s Road to the Show by making a big deal about your path from junior hockey to winning the rookie of the year Calder Trophy, but it never gets anywhere close to the absurd melodrama of NBA 2K?s annual over-the-top soap operas or Madden?s Longshot mode. It allows you to step into the life of a hotshot prospect, but it also allows you to play the game, which is a balance that not many other games know how to strike.

(Also, as an aside, it was nice to see the game finally figured out what to do when your created player is female: the announcers actually refer to her as ?her? and ?young woman.? This may sound like a small thing, but I remember a couple of years ago, when the game made a big deal about introducing female players, but the announcers still kept calling him a young man. Progress can take the strangest forms sometimes.)

As for the rest of NHL 21, it?s basically what you?d expect. Franchise mode — which is what got me hooked on NHL 19 — is still appropriately deep, though taking over an expansion team is less fun now that the league has an even number of teams, and your options are to either kick out the new Seattle team (Go Kraken!) or take them on as your project. Ultimate Team returns as well, but as someone who prefers playing offline, I?d be lying if I pretended to speak about it knowledgeably.

But thanks to an insane number of hours spent playing previous NHL games over the last several months, I do know what a good hockey game looks like, and NHL 21 definitely fits the bill. The on-ice product is as fast-paced and free-flowing as the real thing, and there are enough options here to keep you occupied for months on end — which, given the circumstances, is exactly what you may need right now.

Electronic Arts provided us with an NHL 21 PS4 code for review purposes.

Grade: A