Lots to be excited for... and lots to be disappointed by.
I had two days to download and play NHL 19 ahead of the game’s review embargo, so I did what any eager (Australian) fan would do: I tethered my mobile phone to my Xbox One to download the game faster.
It was a short — but still painful — wait until my console finally told me “Ready to play!” I booted up the latest in the long-running franchise and was greeted by a swirl of dozens of neon colours; by the time they solidified into the EA Sports logo, I was hyped, screaming, “It’s in the game!” as I usually do by that point.
After confirming my difficulty settings, I was thrown right into training mode, and it was there a sour look fell upon my face. The Hockey Canada representative welcomed me to the game’s “new” tutorial mode… just like he did during the intro of NHL 18.
It was fitting that the first licensed song to start pumping out over the menus was “High Hopes” by Panic at the Disco — it seems EA Vancouver had high hopes I wouldn’t notice, perhaps?
I stopped tethering my phone at that point.
After a couple more hours using my simple ADSL2+ connection, I’ll admit I was pleased to learn NHL 19 isn’t all just a straight up copy-and-paste of last year’s effort. World of Chel (say “NHL” out loud a couple times if you don’t get it) is the game’s new hub area, meant as a portal to its online offerings. It’s here where new modes Ones and NHL Pro-Am are coupled with last year’s Threes and EA’s pinnacle EA Sports Hockey League. Online or not — and hope you like Pro-Am and Threes if you’re Australian — your efforts earn you XP that is used to unlock customisation items from loot box-like hockey bags. At the moment, they’re not accessible by microtransactions, and I really, really hope that remains true months after release.
Pro-Am is essentially a celebration of all things hockey, a locked-position mode that lets you practice with sporting Legends through a series of escalating challenges. If you want to play with The Great One, it’s here you’ll get your chance. Ones, a mode shown off in the game’s recent beta, is a 1v1v1 ranked affair that takes place on half of an outdoor rink. I’d be lying if the experience didn’t have me thinking of cold winter evenings spent in my hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan… though with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop instead of the flat (read: relatively boring) prairies.
World of Chel brings a much-needed levity to proceedings — especially when the NHL franchise remains the only non-Frostbite title in EA Sports’ offerings — but it all seems undercooked. Gorgeous outdoor rinks are locked into specific game modes and situations, inaccessible for things like EASHL practice. Ones is great fun, but that’s sadly dampened by a puzzling, online-only requirement that means you can’t grab two mates and duke it out on the couch. You can enjoy World of Chel, but it has to be on EA’s terms; while you can leave World of Chel to play offline Threes, you can’t do the same for Ones.
When it comes to actual gameplay, EA has made huge improvements in terms of making skating and puck possession feel more fluid and realistic compared to NHL 18. As a defenceman, I was very used to outright flattening an opponent to then watch them somehow get up and continue on with the puck as I hopelessly flailed away at it; that’s a thing of the past in NHL 19. While the changes are largely positive, speed has been cranked up so much the simulation runs the risk of feeling arcade-like in places. Similarly, opponent AI seems to make defenders expert poke checkers, effortlessly knocking your stick off the puck even with sliders turned down as low as possible. That said, enalties are turned way up on both sides, so be prepared for default settings to drastically impact the flow of the game when a stick goes errant.
On the single-player front Be A Pro benefits from a new skill-tree psystem used to grow your player — though your player has to be created from scratch and can’t be attached to your World of Chel player for some reason. Franchise Mode features a revamped scouting system with multiple scouts, enhanced information and can optionally add realism through a Fog of War function that makes it harder to get a read on players. I haven’t spent years of in-game time with simulations yet, but it does feel a bit faster than years past.
It’s not all shiny and new; returning players will immediately notice the same stale Achievements list, poor on-ice coaching tips (and associated punishments) and repetitive commentary from Doc and Eddie. Even the game’s UI manages to go out of its way to disappoint — after making me pick three items I wanted to quickly access in a specialised menu, the game decided to feature World of Chel as a fourth option even though I’d already selected it myself. I de-selected World of Chel to avoid the double-up only to find the EA has replaced World of Chel with Play Now after I’d played a single game. Why play against the Washington Capitals when my new nemesis is clearly the game’s UI?
Even with a bunch new bells and whistles going for it, it’s hard to get overly excited for this year’s iteration of NHL. There is a lot of difference between 18 and 19 — an improvement on the relative holding pattern that the franchise went into last year — but when you boil it right down, 5v5 hockey remains largely the same. For every innovative World of Chel there’s a re-used function that reminds you EA Vancouver is busting its ass to offer variety under what I assume to be a non-existent budget, or at the very least, a fun new mode that makes you play against online opponents or no one at all. For each reason that makes you want to tether your phone so you can play it faster, there’s an equally compelling one that reminds you that you really don’t need to rush into this one.
If you’re an NHL fan who’s skipped an entry or two in the last couple years, this is a definite yes. For the rest, it really depends on how you’re planning to play it — grab it if you’re planning on a lot of online play (read: and you’re based in North America). If you’re sticking to offline, bide your time and wait for a sale. Kudos to EA Vancouver for doing what they could all the same.
NHL 19 was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.