Playing EASHL in the NHL series has become a routine for me and the team I play with. Each year we participate in the beta and buy the game on launch day. As the captain, I have a process of immediately creating the team followed by meticulously designing our jerseys for the season to come. It’s a process I take far too seriously and spend far too much time on. But that’s what EASHL means to me and my team. No matter how many video games I play over the course of a year, truly an inordinate amount, I always make time for NHL with friends. So as I have done annually, below I will provide my thoughts on the EASHL mode in the latest NHL title after spending time with it in both closed and open beta.
Since this generation of consoles began, EASHL has been a hotly contested topic for NHL fans. When NHL 15 launched as the first iteration of NHL in this generation, EASHL was inexplicably absent, and fans were displeased (to put it lightly). Given the outcry, a tremendous amount of focus was placed on EASHL for NHL 16 and it showed. The fan favorite mode was back and contained a ton of new features and balance updates compared to the previous iteration in NHL 14. Then when NHL 17 arrived, changes were more evolutionary than revolutionary but customization options such as building your own rink and custom jerseys were welcome. With NHL 18, many wondered what significant changes EA Canada would make to the mode. From the time I’ve spent with it, it would seem the answer sadly is seemingly very few.
Before I talk about some of my disappointments, let’s focus on the positives starting with team customization. Customizing your team’s jerseys is now easier due to the simple addition of a highlight for the area you’re changing. This sounds simple on the surface, but compared to past iterations where you would have to guess and experiment due to the game not showing which area you were changing in real-time, it could sometimes take a long time to create the design you’d imagined. Beyond the slightly expanded arena and team customization from last year, mascots have been added in NHL 18 with the ability to customize your mascot head to toe. When playing home games your mascot will walk about the arena and even bang on the glass at times while playing. It’s a simple touch, but one that adds further personality to the game especially when you’re playing at home.
Creating a mascot adds further flair to your home games
Within EASHL though, gameplay is the most critical aspect and as most teams don’t play with a full 6 players, the A.I. being intelligent, or at least passable, is crucial. NHL 17’s CPU teammates were a large mixed bag. At times they would make extraordinary plays that would have you questioning how it was even possible, while many times they made plays so poor that you were left questioning life itself. EASHL games can get rather intense and there’s nothing worse than playing your heart out for 20 minutes only to lose because your CPU defender just put the puck in your own net. As I mentioned on last week’s Seasoned Gaming’s Bitcast, I was highly disappointed with the first few games I played of the NHL 18 beta as it felt nearly entirely unchanged from last year. After several more games though, I can say there have been some improvements. In particular, your computer controlled teammates are well positioned more consistently and they are much better at passing and driving a play forward. With EASHL being a fast back and forth style of play, trepidation among your CPU teammates would often ruin plays in the past. While that of course will still happen on occasion, I have seen many instances where they’ve made a solid play that wouldn’t have occurred in NHL 17. They now utilize the boards when necessary and are more decisive with the puck. The dreaded fumbling of the puck around your own net seems to be lessened and defenders will once again move the puck and clear it while on the penalty kill too. I also witnessed a few occasions where the A.I. would make a long lead pass to me near immediately without me even having to call for it. It’s those types of plays that can make the difference between winning and losing so it’s nice to see improvements in those areas.
An example of the improved “creative” A.I. being touted by EA Canada
As I noted, only a small percentage of teams play 6 on 6 and it’s likely a reason why EA is touting the new “Threes” and EASHL 3 on 3 mode. While Threes is a separate mode entirely and focused on a more arcade experience, EASHL 3 on 3 is essentially a full game in the vein of the NHL Overtime format. EASHL 3 on 3 is full ice, full rules, but with only two offensive and one defensive player for each team. For smaller groups that play EASHL, it adds an interesting option and when starting matchmaking you have the option of playing 6s, 3s, or either. However, while I expected to adore the mode, I found it to be rather bland. While it gives a lot of open ice to the players and thus allows a highlighting of single player skill with the puck, it somehow also feels rather boring as there’s very little team coordination in play setup. One of the best feelings in playing hockey, whether in real life or in a video game, is when your team makes several passes to then beat the opposing team on a goal. That feeling is missing when playing 3 on 3 and my team and I bored of it quickly. This of course could vary by team so I’m interested to hear what others think as their teams spend time with the mode.
Threes is a large new addition to NHL 18, but it has no bearing on EASHL
At this point you may be wondering when I’m going to discuss the remaining updates and improvements to EASHL in NHL 18. Sadly I have. While some core gameplay has been adjusted, there are a few new additional customization options, and improvements have been made to the A.I. in areas, overall the mode is shockingly similar to NHL 17’s offering. With that in mind, let me talk about some of the disappointments when looking at this year as a supposed new offering.
In looking at the team management home, I can’t honestly see or find any changes other than the font itself. The home screen for your EASHL team is otherwise identical to NHL 17. Seasons and progression are handled the same way, playoffs look the same, stat tracking and leaderboards seem to be the same, well, you get the idea. There are so many changes and even simple quality of life updates that could be made here, it’s almost maddening to see nothing having been done. I’d love to see a more in-depth season mode that offers some variety to the standard progression your team makes. It would be excellent to be able to see your team roster in full form with character models and complete tracking accessible through a couple of clicks. And with regard to stat tracking, again it’s identical to what we’ve had the past few years. Where are detailed statistics on puck control, PP/PK time, penalty breakdowns, etc…? The NHL is a stat driven league nowadays. EA Canada could at least entertain the idea of providing that level of detail to some degree.
A slideshow comparison of NHL 17 and NHL 18. Try to spot the differences.
Player types were added in NHL 16 (and expanded upon in NHL 17) originally as a way to balance the gameplay in EASHL. Rather than the old system which allowed customization of stats individually, this allowed EA Canada to focus on balancing the player types and how they compete against one another. While 17 added some much needed variety to the classes, again we have nothing new in 18. While some adjustments have been made, I was really hoping to see these expanded out to truly create more variety in the player you create. For instance, if you choose Sniper, you are automatically a smaller, weaker player who loses the puck easily. The “Hitting Sniper” (added in NHL 17 and my personal class of choice) is still very similar other than the ability to hit while being slower overall. Why? There are plenty of Snipers in the NHL who are larger and strong on the puck. Why not offer varieties of each class itself so that you could actually begin to identify with the player as your avatar. It’s certainly feasible for EA Canada to add varieties of each class in possibly a two-tier selection system. No matter what, the player types should continue to evolve and be fine-tuned so that each iteration doesn’t feel the same.
Moving past team management, again it’s more of the same. The only addition seems to be the capability to play 3 on 3 as noted, but otherwise it’s the same as it’s been for years. But it’s moving onto the ice where I found the most egregious examples of reused assets. Putting NHL 17 and NHL 18 side by side you are unable to spot any meaningful differences. Standard character models and even the names for the CPU players are the same as NHL 17, with the goalies and coaches being complete copy and paste examples. It should go without saying that using the same models is lazy. But using the same names, numbers, and stats as well? That’s unacceptable. Even smaller items like the standard goal celebrations, camera angles, and crowd views seem to be the same as last year. Setup and gameplay options are the same as they’ve always been as well with certain small features still missing. For instance, as a left wing, why can I still not take the faceoff when my Center takes a penalty? Why can I not give instructions on defender placement during key faceoffs? Items like these could really make the difference to core NHL players especially those who are big hockey fans in real life and yet, year after year NHL makes no progress in these fundamental areas.
My favorite aspect of the game, but you can expect to see all the same faces in 18
Overall, the on-ice gameplay feels nearly identical to NHL 17. Outside of the improved AI behaviors I detailed above, I also noticed a few new animations for players given the new deking and offensive move sets. But otherwise, movement feels the same, goalies react in familiar ways, and nearly all of the same plays you’ve grown accustomed to setting up in 17 will work the same way in 18. Though I will say, I have seen less glitch goals in the games I’ve played. I’m not sure if it’s due to the better AI positioning or improved awareness but I appreciate it. But sadly, as EASHL veterans know, that’s unlikely to last. Finally, the post-game screens, stats, and coach information are entirely new…………………is something I wish I could say. But no, they are all the same as well.
As of right now, I feel rather disappointed with EASHL in NHL 18. While the AI improvements will certainly make for a better experience game to game, especially for a game that gets hundreds of hours of play over a year, it’s about the only area where the game feels different. The lack of meaningful class changes, team management, on-ice management, and customization are large let downs and I think the EASHL playerbase needs to be more vocal about the changes we’d like to see going forward. As we saw when NHL 15 released, EASHL is a loved mode and there are many NHL buyers, myself included, who buy the title to only play EASHL. When we came together to voice our displeasure in how NHL 15 was developed, we saw a huge focus on EASHL for NHL 16. Hopefully, we can coalesce to be that vocal with EA Canada again in the future. For now, it seems we’re stuck with more of the same.