From July 25th through August 1st EA Sports made the beta of their upcoming NHL 18 available for online play. I signed up, logged in, and got my taste of what is essentially going to be NHL 18 when it’s officially released on September 15th. After bingeing on it over the course of a week I decided to take some notes and give you all a review of my experience.

The three available modes you could play were EASHL, Online Versus, and the new arcade inspired “NHL Three’s” mode. If you don’t habla EA NHL hockey, EASHL is a mode where you play as your own created player at one position with up to five friends or randoms on your team online against other people. In Online Versus you use real NHL teams against other people, primarily head-to-head. And the new “NHL Three’s” is like a 3-on-3 hockey version of NBA Jam with real NHL teams.

I primarily played EASHL with my created skater (Lemmy Kilmister) at center and occasionally I played defense. I did not touch goalie. Just like the tendy’s I grew up playing real hockey with, you’re all nuts for doing it. No thanks. I gave Three’s a good run and dipped my toe into Online Versus as well.

If you don’t want to read beyond this point I’ll just say this: based off of playing the beta, NHL 18 feels more like NHL 17.1. It’s a nice patch. And that’s a bummer.

Here’s why:

The new NHL Three’s, although conceptually a great addition since most people play with three or less gamers, didn’t wow me like I hoped but I did enjoy it. I love the speed of it and the skating feels pretty responsive. But the only reason I can’t call it a homerun is because it lacks some real “over the top” arcade features. I was expecting a dramatic crazy alternative to standard hockey. Massive hits that keep guys down awhile, awesome fights, and some ridiculousness sprinkled into gameplay. Instead it felt more like a faster, forgiving, regular game mode with terrible goaltending on smaller ice. Instead, I want Connor McDavid to be an absolute wizard and Milan Lucic to be a ridiculous hulking destroyer. Kids and late night drunks may enjoy this mode but I’m not sure of the long term re-playability here. I’m not sure the gimmick that is this mode is wild enough or NBA Jam “He’s On Fire!” enough to keep coming back for a thrill. I think if you’re going to sell arcade 3-on-3 you gotta go bigger than EA did here. Again, it is a nice addition, it just wasn’t quite as exciting as I had hoped and I hope it doesn’t end up like a flash in the pan NHL ’94 mode was.

On the simulation side EASHL was nearly exactly same as it was in NHL 17. The only noticeable difference is now being able to play a 3-on-3 overtime style game as well as traditional 6’s. No new presentation, still the same ol’ 2-man goal celebrations rather than including your teammates in 5-man cele’s, and just a general disconnect from it feeling like you have a unique player. The goodies you can unlock through wins and milestones didn’t get a worthwhile expansion. The same player builds exist (sniper, power forward, etc.) and still give no real feel of differentiation between them, much like how often playing with a fourth line grinder or high rated winger in Franchise mode seem no different. I enjoy playing EASHL to drink beers and “hang” with buddies but this mode didn’t improve from NHL 17. It would be cool to add custom bracketed tournaments where clubs can invite other clubs to join. Or even the creation of “best of” series matchups. Instead the mode remains stagnant, going on five-plus years now with no default right-handed shot right wing or right D CPU/AI players in EASHL.

Lastly, online Versus was by far the most brutal mode. If this is your go to mode you couldn’t have been happy. It is painfully slow. Night and day slower than NHL Three’s and it really showcases the games flaws. But I did like that you can edit lines and strategies pre game search. I also thought the AI did get a nice boost as my breakouts and zone entries weren’t plagued as much by poor AI positioning playing solo. Yet it still has a long way to go. The same glitch goal hot-spots like righties shooting stick side, unscreened, still exist. Goalies still don’t hold the post. I’m not sure where gamers find any enjoyment in Online Versus.

As far as new features go I did enjoy the defensive skill stick. As a defensive minded pass-first player it was an effective tool. I could take away space and if anything just showing the skill stick would help me guide an attacking forward into an area I was hoping I could lead him to. Taking away space was nice.

As for the “new” dekes that are included in NHL 18, a lot of them aren’t new. They were in older versions of the NHL series and brought back and sold as new. I’d say they are most effective on breakaways and less so against a solid human skater in on 1-on-1 situation. A simple backhand-forehand move still works just as good on a breakaway as any fancy new deke does. So even though cosmetically the new dekes seem cool they really aren’t going to make much of a difference. Bad players will still be bad, lack skill stick ability, and generally remain predictable, while good players can still be just as creative using the old basic dekes to accomplish what they always have.

Overall, the same ageless complaints still exist too. Pucks and sticks still go through solid objects like the boards. You still can’t win a foot race with the CPU for an icing or breakaway after you just stripped them of the puck at the blue line while they were at a standstill. Players getting wrecked on big hits still often get up and get the puck before the hitter, while the tiniest of bumps can cleanly dislodge the puck even if you have the angle on a defender.

The CPU self boardpin behind the net instead of just breaking it out, although less frequent, is happily still there. And you still have to hold right trigger to “charge up” a hard pass (I’ll never understand that) rather than the trigger just being pressure sensitive (like most games) for the type of feather or hard pass you want to make.

Although I do like the how the net can now come off its moorings even if it will never stop me from running the goalie when I feel like it. Menus also seemed to load and change much faster which is nice.

Because I went into the beta not expecting much the only thing I was truly curious about was the core mechanic of hockey, which is skating. Was skating tuned better? Was controlling my player easier and more natural? That’s all that really matters in a hockey game.

In short, yes skating was tuned for the better. But not in the way we all had hoped.

Skating felt tighter, more responsive, and my player felt a little less clunky than how it has felt in the previous next gen releases of NHL. For that I felt it helped create a bit more of a necessary skill gap. But the problem lies in that they tuned the same ol’ skating mechanics that still only feel like they pertain to moving forward or backward, not lateral. This is the number one problem that has plagued this series in recent years.

Natural lateral movement and ease of facing the puck, two of the most organic movements for real skaters, is still almost non-existent. Essentially skaters in the NHL series still feel designed to only go forward or backward. And when those options aren’t useful because it should be a lateral move the skater defaults to a fidgety spin.

Skaters are not able to simply open their hips, pivot, duck walk, t-push, or whatever you want to call it, laterally left or right easily for good positioning. And they certainly can’t do it facing the puck or in small increments. They can’t even do it from a standstill. As some one who played and coached real hockey from junior all the way up through the collegiate level this is laughable for a gaming skating engine because these movements are so basic and effortless when it comes to skating.

It’s still a chore to keep your player from going into something like a spin in a simple attempt, and what should be natural movement, to face the puck. Or say you’re at a standstill in the corner with the puck in the offensive zone with a player coming at you for the hit or to poke you. In that instance you can’t simply make a quick controlled or precise side-step or t-push laterally to avoid contact. Instead, you feel stuck and the default reaction move is to spin, leaving the puck exposed.

I’ve played the NHL series games since the initial release of NHL Hockey in 1991 on Sega. And before that I drank the tears of my victims in Blades of Steel and Ice Hockey. I’ve got 30 years of experience playing video game hockey. I don’t ask for much (and I certainly didn’t ask for “NHL Three’s”). So now today, in far more advanced next gen versions of hockey games where I do like and appreciate the simulation direction the game is striving for over arcade style, it has never felt more tiresome trying to get my skater into the best and most natural positioning I can get to when the skating engine doesn’t integrate or allow for key natural lateral movements. Through countless free skates in practice mode I’ve been able to understand how to utilize the current mechanics they’ve given us as it is in this series today. And even though I make do, it’s tedious for no real reason when it should be simple to control.

A gamer without the puck should be able to hold the left trigger button on their controller and face puck immediately. Effortlessly. That’s it. And while doing so if you want to move laterally in increments, or get up to a higher speed, or completely stop, you should be able to. Instantly. Without a spin or battling to stay square. But you can’t. And to me that’s not skating.

The beta did not include a free skate/practice mode where you could go tool around with the skating mechanics or practice skill stick.

I’m not trying to be a grump here because I did like the new tuned skating in the beta for what it is. It is an improvement. It’s just that it is limited to that stiff rigid feel of next gen “skating” as there is no addition of simple and essential lateral movements, like a linebacker strafing in Madden, or a simple left trigger to properly maintain facing the puck that could make NHL 18 vastly superior to 17. They basically tuned something that is limited.

So what does this all mean? I guess the real question, based off of my initial impressions from playing the beta, is should you or would I buy NHL 18? And the answer is… it solely depends on what game mode is important to you because how it feels now when playing isn’t a whole lot different than before.

What minute core gameplay improvements they made do not really make it feel like a true new edition of NHL. It feels like a pretty nice patch. They didn’t really fix any of the flaws or significantly add to the core mechanics in NHL 17. I’m fairly convinced most people playing the beta, outside of NHL Three’s, would not even know it was NHL 18 instead of 17 if they did a blind test.

Where EA gets me to purchase NHL 18 is Franchise mode. Though not included in the beta, I like to GM my own team over the course of multiple seasons with updated rosters. Even though I turn the needless owner/janitor/hot dog vendor mode off I enjoy creating my own franchise story despite the severe lack of depth in the mode compared to a Madden or NBA2k franchise mode. And with the right adjustments to gameplay sliders the offline play is vastly more realistic and satisfying than the one size fits all online settings. Add in that the real NHL has now added the Las Vegas franchise and made the mode to feature expansion this year I will be buying NHL 18 for that alone. That has me pumped. With no further roster updates, expansion, or Vegas coming to NHL 17 the franchise mode is now obsolete in that version. Also, I’ll most likely be doing a new Franchise mode series on YouTube for you to check out this fall.

If you like 3-on-3 hockey then NHL 18 is the option for you as well. Three’s just may be strong enough to keep people entertained despite what appears to be a lack of depth. But if you only enjoy EASHL, if editing and having updated and current rosters isn’t important to you, if simulation style hockey is more important than arcade, you may want to consider passing on NHL 18 and continuing to play 17. Or at least wait until you find it in a bargain bin somewhere.

I do and have always loved the NHL series even as frustrating as has become to most in the next gen era. One, because I love hockey. And two, at the end of the day it’s just a stupid game I drink beer to. It’s mindless entertainment for me and it absolutely means nothing whether you suck or are ranked. I have fun with it regardless even if most sports titles out there are lapping NHL in innovation, depth, customization, features, and mechanics. But I can certainly still empathize and see how it’s not an enjoyable game for a lot of loyal and new hockey gamers. EA does not prioritize the NHL series’ development or improvement in the least.

I’d say if you were frustrated once again with NHL 17 last year and its next gen core mechanics and gameplay then no new 3’s mode, deke, mascot, or roster update will make you feel any different this year. It’s a lot of the same. But like I once heard a player say on a team flight, “a 4 at home is a 10 on the road.” Take it for what it is and don’t let it ruin your day.

I will have a complete NHL 18 review when the full game is released. Maybe EA will use beta feedback like this to improve NHL 18 before its release. But I fear I may be just copying and pasting this blog again, or even my NHL 17 review from last year, come September.

Follow us on Twitter @BostonPucks and let’s talk hockey.