The NHL series and I go all the way back. By 1992 I was playing ice hockey and a big fan of the NHL. When the original NHL hockey released on the Sega Genesis, I was hooked. It became an annual love of mine, and my friends and I played it endlessly. It’s hard to believe it’s been over 26 years since then but as I’ve spent the last several days diving into NHL 19, it pleases me greatly to see the series I love continue to evolve its emulation of my favorite sport. So as I’ve done for the past couple of years, I wanted to provide my in-depth thoughts on NHL 19 with a particular focus on EASHL.
Before we get to EASHL specifically, and in-turn the new “World of CHEL”, I need to comment on the new skating and checking systems as they are a highlight of the title. EA Vancouver has introduced a new movement system named “Real Player Motion” which, by association, has also greatly modified the checking physics. You now have greater control over your player, can maneuver in tight spaces more effectively, and every collision with another player is noticeably more realistic. This is due to RPM calculating players with individual limbs instead of as a single object and identifying the precise point of contact. In prior games it often felt as though there were two speeds to move, moving or not, and checks were either full knockdowns or complete misses. The RPM system has added many layers in between and it’s drastically changed the gameplay for the better. You can now make small corrections to your direction and how you navigate tight spaces with the puck which feels much more realistic than prior titles in the series.
As someone who loves to hit hard and often, it’s how RPM affects the checking gameplay that I was even more impressed with. Working in coordination with a new system that identifies individual limbs rather than just a solid player, you now witness a full gamut of checks depending on the size, speed, and angle of the hit which of course, is how it should be. It’s difficult to stress how much of an improvement the RPM system has brought to the game. It not only makes the game more realistic, but as you acclimate to the new gameplay, it opens up far more strategic options for you and your linemates. While we are continually disappointed to see development companies’ claim that new “systems” change their respective sports games every year, this is one of the rare cases where the claims are valid. I’ll touch more on this later but for now, there are many new features to cover and they are all encompassed within the new “World of CHEL”.
For those wondering, “chel” is slang for the final syllable in how some pronounce NHL (EN-H-CHEL). Think of it what you will…
The World of CHEL is NHL 19’s new hub for all modes relating to customizable online play. Rather than create your player(s) for EASHL independently, this year your player(s) will be used for the online Three’s mode, the new Ones mode, and EASHL. No matter what mode you play in the hub, and whether or not you play with friends, drop-in games, or AI challenges, you’ll earn experience for your online profile. Experience is gained by simply finishing matches, winning, performing well, and surpassing milestones which are similar to what you’ve seen the last few years in faceoff wins, goals, assists, hits, etc… This makes progression not only vastly more enjoyable, but gives you more options to progress your online profile even if you want to play alone. And with leveling now having a fundamental importance to your player(s), you also have more incentive to do so.
Returning players will obviously be familiar with EASHL and the Three’s mode that debuted last year, but this year introduces a third mode in Ones. Ones aims to offer a quick, fun mode that hearkens back to the recreational pond hockey played by many youths. The matches are between 3 individual players, last only 3 minutes, and take place on half-ice of a few outdoor rinks. To add a sense of progression and competition, a tier system has been added. You begin as tier 4 with the goal of progressing to Tier 1 or “Diamond”. Online leaderboards track your progress and you can jump in and out of the mode quickly. Personally, while I find the mode rather shallow from a gameplay perspective, it’s definitely fun to play on occasion and/or when waiting for your buddies to join the EASHL lobby. And as noted, as progression occurs across all modes in CHEL, you can level up through Ones instead of just sitting around waiting for your buddies who let’s face it, are usually late. But now, let’s look at what I consider the meat and potatoes of the NHL series, EASHL.
The last title to truly move the bar forward for EASHL was NHL 16. After the mode’s unforgettable exclusion in NHL 15, it returned in NHL 16 and introduced many new features that pleased long time fans. NHL 17 evolved those features further but as you may have read in my impressions from last year’s title, NHL 18 simply stayed the course. With nearly nothing notable added in NHL 18, it resulted in yet another disappointing entry for EASHL fans. Therefore, it brings me great pleasure to say that NHL 19 is the title we EASHL die-hards have been waiting for since this generation began.
One of the largest new features in NHL 19 is how online profile progression is handled. As you level your CHEL profile, you unlock skill attributes and hockey bags both of which are new to this year’s title. The hockey bags contain customization options for your player(s) across all CHEL game modes. The items used in EASHL will be mostly familiar to returning players, however there are many more that are able to be used in Threes and Ones specifically including coats, hats, themed jerseys, and more. There are some truly fun additions here, my favorite of which references the classic NHL 94. There’s a tremendous amount of items to unlock over time with EA Canada stating there are currently over 900 items with more likely to be added in the future.
Meanwhile, the system behind building your player(s) is all-new for NHL 19 and I find it to be a very good balance between the flat class system introduced in NHL 16 and the old skill point system featured in last generation’s titles. As with the last few years, you begin by selecting a player type (which are the same as NHL 18). However, each player is then allotted two traits and one specialty which uniquely impact different attributes for that specific player. These are unlocked as you level and offer substantially more nuance to player builds than we’ve seen the past few years. For instance, you may prefer to be a little faster on offense but still like to check. You can go about this many ways now from having a power forward with skating related traits, a two-way forward with durability and strength traits, a dangler with strength, hitting, and durability buffs, etc… As an example, one of the traits is titled “Beast Mode” and improves puck control, stick checking, and offensive awareness while decreasing your overall wrist shot accuracy. With many different traits and specialties to choose from, each impacting multiple attributes, the options to experiment with different builds is potentially the best it’s ever been. And experimentation is easy when accounting for the fact that you can change player traits quickly and efficiently via the new loadout system.
Similar to modern shooters, you have several loadout slots that allow you to build different player types that you can switch between quickly before matches. As I play multiple positions for my EASHL team, I immediately had three different loadouts built including a big hitting power forward, a skill oriented two-way forward, and a fast puck moving defensemen. Switching between or modifying the loadouts can be done from the CHEL hub or even while in the game lobby which is efficient and well designed.
One of my favorite aspects of EASHL is customizing my team, the home rink, and all of the little details on our jerseys. In this regard, NHL 19 will feel completely familiar as much is unchanged from NHL 18. Though, I did notice that there are substantially more custom logos which is a very welcome, and much-needed, addition for teams like ours who like to experiment with different looks. Like everything else in CHEL, customization options for your club are done through a club specific leveling and hockey bag system. While the lack of significant, club specific changes may disappoint some fans, it’s really the aspect of EASHL that needed to evolve the least and in that respect, I don’t find it to be truly negative.
Where fans were truly hoping for an evolution is in the gameplay, and to that end, NHL 19 doesn’t disappoint. In fact, while I realize it’s far too early to state definitively, I believe NHL 19 has the potential to be one of the best playing NHL titles of all-time. As I noted earlier, the RPM system has had a large, positive impact on the gameplay, far more than I can describe here. But simply play NHL 19 and NHL 18 back to back and it will become apparent almost immediately. The introduction of RPM working in unison with the recent defensive A.I. improvements (which has had further tuning it seems for NHL 19), the far greater nuance between player types, and the recent re-work of the puck physics, NHL 19 is starting to truly feel like real hockey. In my time with the title so far, I’ve seen power plays that have controlled the offensive zone for nearly the full 2 minutes which could have been used as highlight reel material. I’ve seen far more intuitive A.I. player positioning which means that playing a locked position properly has a much more realistic impact on team puck movement. I’ve seen a plethora of hitting/bumping/checking that more accurately reflects player movement, control of the puck, and the resulting play breakdowns. In short, if you’re a veteran of the series and a veteran of the sport in real life, you’ll experience just how improved NHL 19 is over prior years.
Now, before I get you too excited, realize that it is still an NHL game and it still has faults. The menus somehow seem to get more cumbersome annually which speaks to poor UI design, particularly when customizing your club. Moves like backwards skating or protecting the puck are still too effective at times. And while the announcers have some new lines which are amusing, some of them are still overused, cheesy, and at worst, completely out-of-place.
Overall though, I’m thoroughly impressed with NHL 19. It feels like the game the team at EA Vancouver has been wanting to make for a number of years and certainly the NHL title I’ve been waiting for since this generation began. While I’m unsure what changed over the last 12-15 months to allow it on the development side, I’m thankful for it. My only complaint right now is that I have to wait another month for the full release.
It’s also worth mentioning that early access did not include the new “Pro-Am” mode that has been highlighted in some of the information from EA. You may have noticed Gretzky as the cover athlete on some versions of the title, and that is due to a new mode in which you can play with over 200 legends of the game in 3 on 3 style tournaments. I’m quite excited for the mode, but as I haven’t been able to play it just yet, I can’t comment. I will however, update this article in the future to cover it.