What’s new in NHL 21 and is it worth buying?


For many years, EA Sports’ NHL, or National Hockey League, video game series has proven to be nothing more than a traditional sports game that is overshadowed by the giants that are the Madden and NBA 2K games. In other words, the NHL series has been EA’s malnourished cash-calf, and for a while now fans of the series have been slowly losing interest due to feeling as though they are buying the same game repeatedly.

On Aug. 24th, EA Sports released the trailer for the latest installment of the NHL series, NHL 21. This time, it looked like there would be monumental changes to the game’s core mechanics. There would be  several new dekes, or moves, the most notable of which being the legendary Michigan spin. And while the new moves on their own generated a lot of excitement for NHL 21, it was multiplied with the announcement of a revamped Be a Pro mode, where the player could create a custom character and play through a simulated professional hockey career, which for years had been a great concept that was poorly executed.

Personally, being a massive fan of hockey and thus the NHL series, I bought this game the same day it came out and played it pretty consistently for a few weeks.

Upon loading up the game, I was greeted by the main menu. The exact same one from NHL 20. Except this time it was neon green and black instead of blue and orange. Now, this color combination fits the game quite well. Introducing black as one of the main menu colors really creates the feel of a hockey rink hours before a big game, and the green seems to pair well with the black. But the issue I have with the menu screen of NHL 21 being virtually the same is that it looks clunky, and feels that way too. The menu consists of only a grid in which its cells serve as the options. This makes the game seem very packed and, in a way, messy. And it doesn’t help that these options are uninspired boxes of ugly text that, when selected, are overlaid with a dull gradient and the occasional green swipe. Also, holding down the left stick to navigate over multiple options has a really cumbersome delay.

But a poor menu doesn’t make the actual gameplay bad. For the most part, the gameplay and the graphics stayed the same, which isn’t a fault. The meticulously modeled faces of stars and the solid and responsive controls and overall balanced mechanics have always been good. What is a little disappointing, however, is that the AI does not use any of the new dekes. Speaking of those dekes, specifically the Michigan spin, it’s extremely tricky to pull off, something that some people may find disappointing. This isn’t a bad thing though, as it’s easy to argue that moves in the NHL video game should at least try to mirror the real-life difficulty. Other than the new dekes, there was little change between NHL 20 and NHL 21 in terms of direct, on-the-ice gameplay. But the real change came with the new modes of play, specifically Be a Pro.

The most stark difference between NHL 20 and NHL 21 is certainly Be a Pro, which got almost completely rebuilt. It has a new and more sleek menu that features your custom player sitting in their locker room. In a nice transparent overlay in the top right corner is all the important information about your player: statistics, personality type, how likable you are, number of followers, any challenges you accept and where you sit on your team’s lineup. But the menu clean-up wasn’t the only change. Upon creating a new player, and after a criminally long cutscene you’re forced to endure, you’ll be prompted to choose an archetype for your player. Something like this did exist in NHL 20, but it was not as emphasized. You can choose between six different archetypes, essentially styles of play, with each option displaying a short explanation of that archetype followed by visually represented stats for that archetype. This selection looks perfect. On top of the stats and description, each option displays a current player fitting that play-style in the fore-ground, and a well-blended veteran player who once fit that play-style in the background. 

Next, you decide where your player will start their career. Last year, the choices were very bland. You could start in the Canadian Hockey League, in the Memorial Cup or skip to the NHL. Skipping to the NHL is boring, and playing in the Canadian Hockey League or in the Memorial Cup is basically the same thing, as the Memorial Cup is awarded to the champions of that league. This year, however, starting in the Canadian Hockey League is no longer an option, but they added the option to start in a European league, which adds some more variety to the paths the player can take, making the whole Be a Pro experience more realistic. 

On top of the already plentiful changes that came to Be a Pro, something I never saw coming made its way into the game. Now, as you play through your player’s career, you will be presented with choose-your-own-adventure-type scenarios. There are a couple types of these scenes: interviews with the media, talking with your management and chatting with teammates. Each time you say something during these scenarios, you can become more or less liked by teammates, your management, or your brand, which is another new addition. You can also accept challenges from these scenes. While at first these scenarios seem interesting and fresh, they quickly become old and obnoxious, preventing you from skipping them and becoming repetitive as they use the same dialogue over and over. On top of that, your legs from the knees down can completely disappear, which, while humorous, is pretty glaring and shouldn’t be in a new game sold for $60.

One of my favorite additions to the game is the new Milestone Tracker and Record Book which allow you to break records and gather trophies to fill up your tracker. This adds another level of competition that was completely absent. Another attempt EA had to add some more purpose to in-game stats are the new Salary Perks, essentially allowing you to spend the money that your player makes on various things like cars, homes, instruments, and even art and furniture among other things. But, none of the things you buy actually make much of a difference. You can’t see the art, or the cars, or the watches, all you get are certain buffs that, more often than not, make absolutely no sense. For example, purchasing local artwork for $120,000 gives your player increased offensive awareness and passing, but decreased slap shot power. To pour more salt on the wound, these nonsensical and minor perks for buying the art only last for five games. But sure, the time that these item perks last vary, and so do their potency. Still, it is a questionable attempt to give in-game salary a use. In defense of this decision, EA put a lot of work into this specific mode, so it’s no surprise that it may lack in some areas for a few more years. Ultimately, the pros outweigh the cons in this updated career mode.

The only other modes that had any noticeable change were Franchise Mode, and HUT Rush. Franchise Mode saw the addition of a Trade Deadline event. This event is a welcome change that is not only well-designed, but also does a great job adding to the immersion of Franchise Mode. Instead of being able to take all the time you need to on the day of the trade deadline, you’ll be thrust into this event, which simulates a live trade deadline. A clock on the left side of the screen shows the time ticking by, and there are even trade alerts that scroll by at the bottom of the screen as the simulated teams make their moves, encouraging you to make those last minute trades before the players you want get snatched up. This is a great addition, and a step towards an improved Franchise Mode.

HUT Rush, which replaced last year’s Draft Champions, on the other hand, never truly caught me as anything special. It has an interesting concept: draft or create your team using your Hockey Ultimate Team cards and face-off against an opponent with a focus on showing off fancy moves and completing objectives which earn you points that can earn you rewards for Hockey Ultimate Team. This mode does not appeal to everyone, as Hockey Ultimate Team is a slow mode with some heavy pay-to-win elements.

So would I recommend this game to someone who has never played a game in the NHL series before? Most definitely. Do you absolutely need to check this out if you already own NHL 20 and have no interest in the update Be a Pro or playing games with updated jerseys and rosters? Definitely not. The best way I can put it into one sentence is, if you want to get your money’s worth, wait until you can find it for cheaper than to buy it new.