‘NHL 18’ review: Thoughts on single player after 6 weeks with the game

After spending a bunch of time with EA’s latest hockey game, here are some impressions.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve put a good amount of hours into playing NHL 18. It’s the latest edition in EA Sports’ annual hockey sim franchise, and if you’ve played one of the recent ones, many parts of NHL 18 will be familiar to you. The developers at EA Canada have made some good progress in filling out the game since it’s unacceptably spare launch on PS4 and Xbox One a few years ago, but the game still doesn’t quite live up to its potential as the only console hockey game out there.

One aspect of this review which, in my opinion, reflects an issue with the game’s development is that I play primarily offline. I’ve dabbled in EASHL and HUT over the years, but the high bar for competition makes playing online, at least if you want to do well, demanding in a way that’s reminiscent of hardcore shooters like Call of Duty. You either play a lot, or you get your butt kicked by people who do.

So I play primarily single player, and it’s clear EA can be strained in putting the proper resources to those modes along with a robust online game. The game is much better than it was years ago, but it’s still nowhere near as detailed as more popular franchises like Madden or FIFA. Between an annual release schedule and the need to develop online and offline modes, you can see how it’s difficult for everything to get the love it deserves.

Anyway, those are some broad thoughts on the future of the franchise, but NHL 18 is still a game worth playing if you’re into hockey. Let’s go over some positives and negatives, focusing mainly on single-player stuff.


The gameplay in general feels good

This is the main thing EA Canada nailed from the start of the transition to this generation of consoles, and the game still feels really good. The physics are impressive, the goaltending is much more realistic than older games, and it still captures the speed that differentiates NHL from its FIFA brethren.

Player ratings make way more sense

They’re not quite perfect, but the effort to make ratings more sensible this year has been a boon for franchise mode. There are way fewer players in the 82-88 range, and that makes elite players stand out in a more realistic way. There’s a wider talent gap in the NHL than the old ratings system had.

This also goes for developing prospects in franchise mode. You can now easily pick players in the top five of the draft who will become superstars in short order, just like we see in the real NHL. That used to be more difficult in the old game, and it was never really clear why certain players would reach their potential while others didn’t. The development system isn’t as good as in Madden’s franchise mode, where your on-field effort directly corresponds to increases in players’ ratings, but developing a team through the draft is much more satisfying in NHL 18 than before.

Also, you can now turn off notifications for your scout asking where to go. You used to have to do this every six weeks in the sim and it was a pain.

Threes is a blast

One of the issues with the game’s move toward hardcore sim gameplay is that it’s made the game less accessible for people who just want to pick up and play. Threes is EA’s solution to that, and it’s a great way to hop into a hockey game with friends who haven’t played NHL in years without skipping a beat. It’s essentially NHL Arcade Mode. It’s good.


The menus are hellishly slow

So usually this is the kind of thing you only notice when it’s a problem. Menus in NHL 18 still crawl for some reason, and it becomes a real issue in franchise mode when the whole game is basically scrolling through menus for hours on end. There’s way too much time spent staring at the screen, or at your phone, waiting for the game to get on with whatever it’s trying to do.

Everything feels like it takes longer than it should. Simulating games, changing your lineup, looking at statistics or standings, looking at free agents, it all takes an extra few seconds because the menus need to load. They made nice improvements to the main menu for NHL 18, so that’s good, but franchise mode would be even more playable if the game loaded faster.

No, I don’t want to make promotions for my team

In franchise mode, you’ll often be asked by your owner to do various tasks like setting the budget, setting your promotional schedule, and getting feedback from the owner. None of this stuff is fun. I legitimately don’t know how any of it got into the real game without anyone asking whether it’s stuff players would actually want to do. It’s total fluff.

Instead of that, why not try to copy FIFA’s idea of having managers invited to run national teams? Imagine being the GM/coach of the Blackhawks AND the GM/coach of Team USA, taking on Canada in the World Cup of Hockey? Maybe that’s actually a dumb idea, but it can’t be any worse than having me schedule bobblehead nights so I can try to add $25,000 to my budget. Who cares about my budget in a hard cap league?

The AI is better, but not quite good yet

The biggest gameplay issue with NHL 18 remains the AI. If you’re playing EASHL with five good teammates, the game can come together in a way that borders on magical. But if you’re playing alone with five AI teammates, expect to do a lot of the heavy lifting because your teammates are basically worthless.

They’ve made some improvements from the past couple years, particularly when it comes to positioning, but the AI still isn’t quite there. Sometimes, it’s a defenseman skating backwards even though he was the closest player to the puck. Others, it’s a forward on a 2-on-1 rush with you suddenly skating away from the goal instead of driving to the net. The game gets so close to what you want the AI players to do, but sometimes they still drive me nuts.

Be A Pro needs its Longshot

The future of single player sports games, to some degree, is story-based narrative games like Madden’s Longshot and FIFA’s The Journey. Those games sell more, so it’s not surprising they got the resources to make those modes before NHL, but Be A Pro will never quite feel like enough anymore until EA gives it the cinematic treatment. Those other modes have felt revolutionary for sports games, and it’d feel revolutionary for hockey games, too. Find some of that sweet, sweet HUT money and make an NHL story mode, please.

Final thoughts

NHL 18 feels like it’s split between its various worlds. The online modes might be your thing, but if they’re not, it can be hard to get a ton out of the game. The franchise mode is fun, but also a time sink that lacks the personality or detail of similar modes in other sports games. It’s a good game if you’re an NHL fan — the best game given there are no alternatives — but it’s flawed in many of the same ways as past years.

Note: This game was played on Xbox One with a code provided by EA Sports.