From where we're sitting it seems as though NHL 18 has received a lot less attention from fans of the series when compared to its most recent predecessors. Most likely this is related to the news that this year's entry isn't particularly revolutionary, that it's more of an evolution of last year's game.
The biggest new feature of this edition, which we were able to test during this beta, is NHL Threes. On top of that, advanced skill moves, better AI, and defensive skill stick is also new to the game this year. With that in mind, here are our impressions of what we've seen so far.
When the NHL changed their overtime rules to become five minutes of 3 on 3 hockey instead of 4 on 4, almost everyone that knows the sport praised the decision. Watching six players battle it out on an icy surface made for ten is the most intense end-to-end fun you can imagine. EA Sports' Vancouver-based development team obviously realised this as well, and have taken full advantage of the change in this year's version.
NHL Threes is the arcade version of the 3 on 3 overtime. Hits are bigger, the game is faster, and the goalies are... let's just say that they're less skilled. With no penalties, but rather penalty shots for infractions, and only one face-off each period, the game is faster than normal and even more crazy than before. If the goalie freezes the puck, the opposing team will take possession at the centre of the rink. The same goes for when a goal is scored. This takes some getting used too, and you may well be caught off guard, at least the first few times.
In addition to this arcade mode, 3 on 3 has also been introduced to the very popular EASHL. Controlling one player each against other teams with the same setup ensures that EASHL is one of the most popular modes in these series, a favourite among hockey fans. Normal NHL rules apply, and the tactics employed by each team are extremely important. You can go all-in to get a goal for your team, but a slight error and you'll turn over possession and cause a breakaway in the other direction, which happens more often with less players on the ice.
Players have been wanting more advanced skill moves (dekes) for a long time, and now they're here. You might argue that this is both a negative and a positive. It'll give us great highlight videos on YouTube, but it will also create a lot of frustration during drop-in games with random teammates in EASHL. There's always that one person who loves to dangle and uses it too much, hurting the team. Advanced skill moves will also reduce the realism, since these moves will occur a lot more often in NHL 18, than they do in real life.
Bringing back defensive skill stick after it was removed following NHL 12 is great news. This is a feature that has been dearly missed, especially by those of us who love to play defence in EASHL. To be able to control where your stick is to break up passes and dekes is an invaluable ability when playing as a defenseman in hockey. Where advanced skill moves take away a bit of realism, defensive skill stick helps us get it back. There will, of course, be people, especially those playing competitively, saying poke checks are overpowered and used way too often, but the fact of the matter is that the stick is used this way even more often in real hockey games than you see in the NHL series from EA.
It is important to note that this is only a beta version of the game, and the full version is still a month and a half away from release. Sadly, our first impression of this year's entry is one of disappointment. Outside of the new functions and modes mentioned above, the game looks and plays pretty much like NHL 17. This shouldn't come as a surprise to most people, since this is the reason that chatter surrounding NHL 18 has been a touch more muted than it was for previous games. Of course, the addition of the expansion draft features is great, particularly for players who aren't invested in EASHL.
Let's hope, then, that EA Sports Vancouver makes good use of the time they have available ahead of September 12, and that the studio can deliver a game that hockey fans are able to enjoy throughout the coming season. We benched NHL 17 much earlier in the season than we did previous games in the series, so here's hoping that NHL 18 has more staying power when it lands on PS4 and Xbox One in September.