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NHL 22

Platform(s): PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Sports
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: Oct. 15, 2021

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PS5 Review - 'NHL 22'

by Andreas Salmen on Oct. 29, 2021 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

NHL 22 is an all new game for a new generation, giving you more ways to play and compete than ever before.

Buy NHL 22

EA's NHL games don't have the strongest cross-generation record. The last time an NHL title was released on the Xbox One and PS4, it was a major letdown; there were noticeable graphical improvements, but most modes were cut and slowly added back in subsequent releases. NHL 22 now faces a similar predicament, except that it didn't cut any modes and instead offers very few additions on all fronts, including its visuals. The biggest talking point this year is the long-overdue swap to the last-gen Frostbite engine, which brings some graphical and technical improvements but lacks the feel of a true generational leap — or even half of one. While it is the best NHL version to play, it amounts to little more than another familiar entry.

NHL games have been stuck in a rut for years, offering few gameplay tweaks and the occasional extra mode to tide fans over for yet another year. If you've played every title in the past five years, you're likely more than a little burned out by the perpetually repeating selection of modes and gameplay. The franchise is in a tricky spot. Its gameplay is very much set in stone. It hasn't and doesn't need to change since it handles pretty well, so improvements are marginal. NHL 22 is no exception.

While the Frostbite engine brings noticeable improvements to some visual aspects — e.g., body checks, puck physics, and especially stick interactions — the game largely looks the same. Without a direct comparison to last year's version, the difference in visuals is very slim and often inconsistent. For the star players of the league, character models and faces are better animated and detailed. The rest still wear the same misshapen mugs they always have, which makes them stand out. The ice surface shows more detail as players skate across it and reflects more vibrantly and realistically. The details on textures and models have also increased in the next-gen versions, and if you focus on that, it looks sharper and more detailed across the board but not to a degree that immediately declare that NHL 22 is the superior-looking game. The switch to the Frostbite Engine feels more like a name-drop than a substantial overhaul of the visuals and physics. I hope that this year's iteration is the foundation for more significant visual improvements in future installments because this simply cannot be it.

Once you get into a match, the gameplay feels somewhat different and mostly in the right ways. Overall, the controls and the skill stick to freely dribble the puck are still here, and they work as well as they always did. You can expect the same overall experience, with some vital tweaks to stick physics, so it finally matters where you hit a player or the puck with your stick. In previous games, it was possible to not hit any part of an opponent's body but still incur a tripping penalty. Those situations are largely gone now. Sticks no longer clip into bodies or the boards, so you can steal the puck from an opponent by skating through their stick and pushing it aside.

Penalties occur far less often, making defensive plays less of a risk factor. Things may have become easier on that front, but it also makes playing defense easier and more effective than in previous titles. While it moves away from realism a bit, it feels like it balances defensive play against the offense in a much better way than previous entries. I tried to take a tripping penalty willingly, and even though I kept poking my stick into a running opponent's feet, it took me about 10 attempts to get called on a tripping penalty. Those things can be tweaked with further updates, and I find the overall change in stick physics a much needed and appreciated one.

The other big change — and the one NHL 22 leads within any promotional material — are X Factor abilities. They are essentially additional stat boosts that are meant to simulate the extra edge that star players have in their respective fields. There are 50 players across all teams with such X Factor abilities, and they are evenly distributed across all teams to make it fair. If EA didn't constantly remind players of the abilities via overlays and commentary, we likely wouldn't notice them. The boosts permeate the entire experience, but they're minor enough that they don't translate into tangible advantages on the field.

In franchise mode, X Factor abilities are largely hidden for players you don't own and must be discovered via scouting. The Be A Pro career mode dangles them in front of you as a milestone to hit in your career. In both instances, their effect on actual gameplay is low to minuscule. The biggest influence is in EA's pay-to-win HUT mode, where X Factor abilities and accessories introduce yet another myriad of card packs that you can grind for or pay for with cash. Balancing in HUT is done by giving every team an action point pool that they can activate abilities with, so everyone has a natural ceiling of how many abilities can be used in their HUT team. In essence, X-Factor abilities are a minor disappointment. You can either see them as artificial boosters for star players or as a waste of time, given that other areas and modes need more attention and improvement (and have for years). Both aren't a good look.

The rest of the changes are mostly in the presentation department. We finally get a new menu after years of the same tile-based system, and broadcast information is displayed via "augmented reality." That means that many of the statistical overlays, such as save percentages, are displayed on the ice or across the sides of the rink. That feels somewhat fitting based on real-world broadcasts, but they don't add to the experience.

On the contrary, NHL 22 has a clutter problem. When you jump into the first game without altering any settings, it lights up like a disco ball. Icons above players indicate their special abilities; the on-ice trainer marks where to skate, where to defend, and where to shoot on the ice; and the new overlays do the rest. You can barely see the ice at times between the various overlays that distract from the experience. Those can be tweaked and toned down, but it's not a great default setting because it can overwhelm players.

All of that aside, NHL 22 is (marginally) the best version gameplay-wise that I have played. If you have skipped several years' worth of NHL games, you will probably have a good time. If you didn't, you already know the drill and can willingly throw money at essentially the same game that you've purchased for the past 5 years in a slightly altered state. Since the next-gen versions sell for a premium price, you are paying a lot more for a few minor tweaks and updates.

Apart from gameplay, the experience in NHL 22 is decent. All modes have been retained, so you'll have a strong selection of different online and offline modes. I am disappointed that EA did not further improve the Be A Pro mode that received a minor overhaul last year; it still hasn't reached the level of its Madden and FIFA counterparts. Playing online 1v1v1 matches or competitive arcade 3v3 modes is great fun, and the usual offline modes like Franchise and Season work as well as they always have. There is enough varied content to keep players entertained, given that you have not burned yourself out on these modes in the prior titles. The experience isn't entirely bug-free, and we did not encounter any major issues on the PS5 version, but there were minor things like incorrect or switched stats being shown in the AR overlays and one particularly weird one in Be a Pro, where players' visors continue to reflect the ice rink of the arena while standing in their dressing room. It's nothing game-breaking (yet), but it's enough to notice some regular technical inconsistencies along the way.

While consoles made a generational leap, NHL 22 is still very much stuck in the past. Some of the gameplay tweaks improve the experience, but the game has largely remained the same. The graphical improvements are minor, and the overhyped X Factor abilities are underwhelming. Aside from minor changes, everything else is pretty much in the same state that it was last year, except you can now pay the next-gen premium price for it. NHL 22 is still the best hockey game you can buy (mostly due to the lack of other options), but I'd strongly advise against it if you have played any other NHL title in the past few years. The series has been stagnating, and NHL 22 doesn't indicate any will to make meaningful changes, which is a shame because this would've been the perfect cut-off point to do something new and interesting.

Score: 6.0/10

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