Two steps forward... two steps back.
Another year, another assessment of a yearly sports franchise and a decision on whether or not it’s a buy or a skip. In the case of NHL 22, this year’s big drawcard is the move to EA’s proprietary Frostbite engine on both last- and current-gen consoles.
The obvious question here is simple: is an upgrade to the engine enough? Off a stellar release in NHL 21 and in a franchise where players are happy to take a year off, the answer is complicated.
First, let’s deal with Frostbite. On Xbox Series X, NHL 22 looks beautiful. Light and shadow exist like never before seen in the franchise, and there’s a newfound sense of realism that is hard to deny. Even playing the Xbox One version via backwards compatibility on my current-gen console, I can easily note the visual upgrade that NHL has received.
When it comes to gameplay, Frostbite generally delivers a boost as well. Things seem fluid and fresh, and player animations are top-notch. As a defenceman in Pro-Am, I appreciated how my centre would circle back and give me a bump on the gloves after the beginnings of a great shift between face-offs.
I also appreciate the ways in which NHL 22 rewards reading the play when it comes to defence. On the whole, being in the correct position means you’ll take away a potential scoring chance, though occasionally, your player will behave as if the puck isn’t around him. Player AI seems improved upon last year (which itself seemed to have improved on the one before), with AI players becoming better at stopping cross-crease movement for cheesy goals. AI goalies are the exception, becoming dumb as posts in online play and still quite susceptible to cross-crease passing and one-timers. In Threes modes, goalies just seem to turn off; I’ve seen so many pathetic shots just trickle through an arm or five hole.
That all said, there’s something wrong when it comes to passing. I can’t quite put my finger on it, and that’s what frustrates me the most. I’ve played NHL for so long, I certainly rely on muscle memory in the minute-to-minute stuff. In NHL 22, there are times where I simply cannot connect the puck with a teammate. Holding my joystick to its leftmost point and charging up for a hard pass, I am frequently astounded when I put the puck almost directly behind my player instead. At other times using a saucer or a lighter touch, I’ll find the puck just skips over my intended recipient; at other times, they’ll behave as if the biscuit is nowhere near them (mirroring the defensive problem I detailed earlier).
EA Vancouver’s new augmented reality broadcast system is a mixed bag. I appreciate the effort to overlay shot counts or powerplay effectiveness on the ice before a face-off, but frequently the system starts a little too left or right of camera and can’t truly be appreciated before it disappears off-screen. At others, a direct overhead shot means the arena’s lighting puts a spotlight overtop of stats, meaning they become so washed out they can’t be read. Those same overlays work perfectly in World of Chel, of course, and that’s because it’s all outdoors.
The sheer amount of pixelation on featured player transitions and stats displayed in the penalty box is astounding; they’re ridiculously noticeable despite a marked improvement in said graphics since a week ago in the EA Play ten-hour trial. While overheads are decent in World of Chel, you instead get a ton of random lens flare from the sun when at ice level or in the penalty box. Certain player-created hairstyles also have a weird green screen effect where the transparency doesn’t quite work. All of these visual bits and bobs don’t impact gameplay, but they are strange nonetheless — especially considering most other broadcast transitions and animations are slick, polished and incredibly smooth.
Apart from Frostbite, the other big addition to NHL 22 is its X-Factor system, a way of bestowing super-powered abilities to a select few players. I don’t mind the newfound functionality, but I dislike the way it has been applied overall. In offline modes with real rosters, it’s a way of pointing out the NHL’s elite. In World of Chel, it seems like half the screen is taken up with X-Factor icons because literally every real online player has one (imagine the image above if all 12 slots were full of live players).
Though decidedly not her fault, most of the new commentary delivered by Carrlyn Bathe in 22 is utterly cringeworthy. She’s no longer just serving up lines on The Rookie in Be a Pro but instead is the one explaining X-Factors. It’s a weird fit in that EA Vancouver is clearly going for an immersive simulation and that’s wholly derailed by someone explaining how a player’s video game power-up “Zone Ability” benefits them.
Bathe also comes over the loudspeakers in the World of Chel hub, offering up random messages to the community that come off as disingenuous. It again breaks immersion; you know full well she didn’t see whatever imaginary goal she’s just referenced, nor does she actually take note of anyone’s chosen fashion. Being told that amazing fictional games are occurring while you’re struggling to find an online match doesn’t help matters either. To date, I’ve only played three EASHL drop-in games with a full complement, and I’ve never played a Threes Eliminator game with a full roster. I understand that I’m in Australia and most players will be in North America, but I’ve been trying to matchmake against EA Play trial members and those who’ve pre-ordered the X-Factor Edition at prime times across the pond with hardly any success.
Last year’s beefed up Be a Pro returns with little to no changes (apart from all-important X-Factors). Cutscenes remain the same, interactions in between games are nearly identical and I’m rather disappointed we don’t get a different narrative experience like the FIFA franchise offers up year on year. At the very least, the copy/paste nature of the mode means it’s a good way to show off how Frostbite has changed the franchise… so enjoy that above.
While the issue has seemingly resolved itself, I note that my created player’s appearance wasn’t reflected in cutscenes until a full three days after I’d changed it up. It was the strangest thing, as my player looked the way I intended him to in actual gameplay — it was just the cutscenes that were off. And yes, this was after restarting the game, my console and even after a 2GB update that contained stability fixes.
Despite soul-crushing ping for this Aussie (163 MS), World of Chel otherwise offers up a fun experience with other hockey enthusiasts. I’ve noticed my ping has gotten worse as the game opens up to more players, so the feeling that I’m skating through molasses continues to worsen as I play. You can pick out who’s just started their World of Chel experience simply due to the amount of off-target hard passes they try to pull off. You almost feel bad for the players until you remember that you did precisely the same when you started.
HUT and all associated modes remain as you’d expect: soulless and after your hard-earned cash. It disappoints me to see EA Vancouver go to great lengths to protect the HUT economy (aka opportunities for it to charge microtransactions for card packs and points); to me, the player, that just means I have an X-Factor pro in the Xbox One version that I can’t transfer over to Xbox Series S & X because I started the current-gen iteration first.
I also want to point how just how unfriendly the error message that pops up in the Xbox One version of the game is to that effect. A quick search inside the HUT Auction House shows my last-gen X-Factor player nabbing — at the vary minimum — 100,000 in-game Coins for use inside HUT (or at the very least, an Achievement inside the current-gen version if I could transfer him over).
In addition to the matchmaking problems detailed above, I’m encountering issues where NHL 22 menus will simply hold for minutes on end without any fathomable reason why. Similarly, I’m noticing synching issues in offline modes like Threes Circuit, which pause the game inexplicably before resolving themselves. Said incidents seem to have lessened since the aforementioned 2GB patch was issued, but don’t appear to have been fully resolved. Worst yet, I can crash NHL 22 a resounding 100% of the time by trying to play a two-player offline shootout game with player-controlled goalies. I can do this without fail across two different Xbox Series X consoles and using either the Xbox One or Xbox Series version of the game. I made a video detailing the scenario below.
The good thing about most of these issues is they can likely be patched out and quickly (though why they’ve not been to date is a head-scratching). Those aside, NHL 22 is a solid package, like NHL 21 before it and now taking advantage of Frostbite, for better or worse. I’m honestly more excited for NHL 23 is that respect, where the weird issues with passing and the like will almost certainly be stamped out (but hopefully before then).
NHL 22 is okay, just not great. It has potential, but a lot of the goodwill that EA Vancouver earned last year has been squandered. I’m indifferent about X-Factors and I just want more rewarding offline modes and less of an emphasis on things that could potentially have me opening up my wallet.
In the grand scheme of things, I’d say that NHL 22 is a skip overall, though long-time hockey fans will certainly find enjoyment. And hey — just like NHL 15 before it, this is one of those years that means double Achievements/Trophies because of its cross-generation release. Quite honestly, though, I’d prefer cross-gen play and one Achievement set instead, and that’s a lot coming from Mr 600,000 Gamescore over here. It’s very likely that the matchmaking problems I’ve encountered have been exacerbated by the lack of current-gen console availability; while the Xbox One version is near identical to Xbox Series X in terms of gameplay, I’ll stick to playing the prettier-looking one.
NHL 22 was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox Series X, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.
15 October 2021
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