NHL 21 Review: A New Coat of Paint Does Just Fine

It's a shame that the NHL game series from EA Sports is the least talked about of the major sports video game franchises on the market. Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K all generate more conversation — and probably sell more copies — than NHL, mainly because those other sports are more popular in the United States. However, when you look at the games themselves, rather than the real-life sports they're about, NHL continues to prove itself a better franchise than the rest. NHL 20 was a fantastic entry in the franchise, and while the newly released NHL 21 doesn't really improve on its predecessor's formula, it doesn't take many steps backward, either.

There are two categories in which the NHL series is unmatched: the variety of its online play and its smooth controls. Both of these things are on full display in NHL 21, showing that the creative team behind the franchise knows what works, and has no plans of changing it.

Hockey is one of the hardest sports to translate to a virtual format, given how many different technical aspects go into the sport itself. To be able to control the skater and the puck is a challenge in and of itself, but the stick system set up in NHL makes catching on very easy. For beginners, it may take a game or two, but the controls are intuitive enough that you can learn the ins and outs without too much of a curve. For veterans, this system is one that can be mastered if you devote some time to practice, and you'll be rewarded for it.

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(Photo: EA)

What's most impressive about these controls is how consistently smooth they are. It's rare that you find yourself frustrated over your player doing something you didn't intend, or that you get caught up in between making two different movements. Moving, shooting, passing, and defending are almost always clean. It's a fresh break from similar struggles plaguing other sports franchises.

When it comes to game modes, particularly those played online, NHL still offers an impressive array of options. The World of Chel mode itself will keep you busy consistently, with several different tournaments and styles of play. Going from a Ones tournament to a drop-in game of Threes makes for a fun and satisfying one-two punch. When you add in the likes of HUT (Hockey Ultimate Team) and standard online matches, it's hard to get bored.

If there's a downside to NHL 21, it's definitely the Be A Pro Career mode. The team is clearly trying to improve the story mode of the game by making it more cinematic, but it suffers from some of the same pitfalls as similar modes in other sports games. The cut scenes are strangely scripted and hard to look at. The in-game saga of your character doesn't often make sense. After a season or two, the story fizzles out and interest immediately fazes. Once you're done with the first season of the mode, it's hard to want to go back and play more.

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(Photo: EA)

Despite the flaws, it's easy to see that NHL's Be A Pro mode is striving to be something good. The game is attempting to evolve with the times and create a story mode on par with NBA 2K. In all likelihood, it will get there eventually, but this year's version comes with some serious growing pains.

For many NHL franchise players, the career mode has never been the reason to pick up the game, so it's easy to live with this lackluster story. The other game modes in NHL 21 are as good as ever. You may not be a big hockey fan, but if you enjoy sports games, it's hard to do better than this.

Rating: 4 out of 5

A copy of NHL 21 on PlayStation 4 was provided for the purpose of this review.