NHL 21 Preview: Be The Rookie in its new Be a Pro narrative

With just over a fortnight to go before the release of NHL 21, EA Vancouver offered Stevivor the chance to put its new, narrative-drive Be a Pro mode through its paces. For the purposes of this preview, we were able to take a star through the CHL, Europe or head straight into the NHL, and we chose to play through the Memorial Cup as a member of the Saskatoon Blades.

Last month, we played through NBA 2K21‘s MyCareer mode with excitement, and for the express purpose of trying to get a handle on what to potentially expect from Be a Pro. While big-name stars and a narrative that features a love interest didn’t make the cut in EA Vancouver’s first story-based outing, there’s still a lot to be excited for.

“Be a Pro has such a devoted following out there, and those fans have been asking for a more immersive experience over the years, with narrative [and] choices that matter and rewards for performing well on the ice,” EA Vancouver’s William Ho, Creative Director on NHL 21, told Stevivor ahead of the ability to go hands-on. “The freedom to carve out a legendary career, from gunning for rookie of the year honours [and the Calder Trophy] to lifting the Stanley Cup.”

I decided to make The Rookie (otherwise known as The Kid) in my own image, working through NHL 21‘s revamped character creation system to not only give him my name and general appearance, but customised slap shot, one-timer and skating animations. Opting to play as a offensive defenseman — aka, one who scores rather than someone who’s outright rude — I headed into the experience.

It wasn’t long before I ran into the first of what Ho confirmed to be “hundreds of story beats” — a conversation with my agent that seemed to act as a tutorial for what was to come next. My agent set the tone, reminding me that the Memorial Cup tournament was my last chance to impress NHL scouts and not only secure a selection in the upcoming draft, but to try to become the first picked overall. My responses to his questions were all labelled as “Neutral,” making it clear that future choices would have some added weight attached to them.

How right I was; before jumping into the first game of the Memorial Cup’s round robin, my coach took a seat beside me in the Blades’ locker room, wanting to know if I was about to play for my team or myself. Largely, the conversations you’ll have will be this binary — either stay friendly with your team or build yourself as a brand — though you will be able to throw Skill Points into a dialogue system that offers up further nuances when handling a situation.

While building your own personal brand will offer up better sponsorships, more cash and additional perks, I feel that selecting the team-based options is the way to go. Split between management, your teammates and your coach, siding with your team seems to have more immediate perks including the chance to be promoted to a better line, added to special teams or even just increases the likelihood of passes from your linemates. While some choices will force you to take a bit to one side of that binary set of stats, it’s important to know that’s not the case with every conversation.

No matter the decision you make, the one-two combo of the Calder Trophy and the Stanley Cup seems to be your ultimate goal, so I made sure I asked Ho about the way the game balances things to make it so you don’t have to go with a forward to get it done (and hey, I know defensemen and goalies can win the Calder, but let’s be realistic).

“We did design the mode so that no matter what your fantasy, your choice matters,” Ho said in reply. “It’s not fair to have exactly the same thresholds or objectives or progression rates for all the different positions. A sniper is going to be called upon to score more goals whereas a defensive defenseman won’t be.

“Under the hood, we have different thresholds for what performance targets you have, for which categories you have to impress in to be able to get those favourable reviews from the media, from your coach, from your management and from your teammates,” Ho continued. “For example, even between defensemen — an offensive defenseman will have higher scoring thresholds whereas a defensive defenseman will be called upon to have a better plus/minus, to have more shot blocks and so on and so forth.”

In hindsight, my choice to play as an offensive defenseman perhaps made it all seem rather simple, as the conversations I had with my coach, agent and teammates were joined by in-game Coach Challenges that boiled down to “defend the lead” or “score a goal”. Playing through nearly ten games, this never changed, though Ho said that other challenges could involve things like delivering a giant hit that starts to bring you and your team some momentum.

Here, it’s important to remember that the usual in-game assessment tools remain in play, so if you’re gunning for a goal, you may find that your run of the mill feedback takes a hit because of your greed. Gameplay therefore becomes a balance of what you’ve promised, pitted against the progression you’ll earn (or lose) because of your actual in-game play.

Outside of the new mechanics that are based around conversations and subsequent aspirations, Be a Pro’s menu system has been streamlined to offer up activities on the left and your player’s stats on the right. For those with less time on their hands, you can rest assured that using the calendar to sim to specific dates won’t blow by potential conversations; rather, you’ll stop and engage with them before deciding if you will continue simming on. The downside to this is that you should really stop then and there, as most conversations that’ll take place will task you to perform some type of activity and will penalise you if you don’t. There are also quick-sim options that will let you get to your next game or “big event”, aka convo.

Ho confirmed that a majority of the Be a Pro narrative content will sit within your character’s rookie year, but EA Vancouver is extremely keen to receive player feedback and continually add to the experience (next-gen, near year anyone?). Ho also confirmed that players will have standard milestones to hit in that first year, but that nothing is predetermined. As examples, players could encounter instances where content will be offered because you’re either hot or cold and going into a long road trip, or when your special teams performance is high.

Moreover, Ho teased that after you’re settled into a team and your line starts clicking, commentators James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro will start to refer to your line by a nickname they create based upon performance. Both Cybulski and Ferraro seemingly have recorded hours of new voice work for Be a Pro, and again, most of that will be used within The Rookie’s first year.

A thousand words in and I’ve yet to address gameplay at all. Admittedly, I was focused on the changes to Be a Pro as part of my limited-time preview access, but did do my best to make the most of new moves including a no-move deak, the ability to bank pucks off the boards and off the back of the net to either keep momentum or trick defenders, a new between-the-legs shot and Svechnikov’s crazy lacrosse shot. I wasn’t successful with most, to be honest, but Ho assured me that Team Canada’s Training Camp videos will be expanded to help you understand these new skills. You’ll need them to secure a top spot in the draft and to then work toward getting your new NHL team the coveted Stanley Cup.

NHL 21 heads to Xbox One and PS4 on 16 October; a next-gen release on Xbox Series X and PS5 is not planned. We recently had the chance to check out the new HUT Rush mode here, and our very own Be a Pro gameplay video will be accessible below from 1.00 am AEST on 3 October.

NHL 21

16 October 2020 (PS4 Xbox One)

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About the author

Steve Wright

Steve's the owner of this very site and an active games journalist for the past ten years. He's a Canadian-Australian gay gaming geek, ice hockey player and fan. Husband to Matt and cat dad to Wally and Quinn.