Pieces of NHL 22 feel like a callback to NHL 95, which introduced the spin-o-rama. That innovation was a quick piece of showy stick play that made dodging a defender easier, at the expense of realism. Decades later, such skills now turned into X-Factors, giving certain star players special moves. Now universal across NHL, Madden NFL, and FIFA, these shatter the simulation aspects these respective sports brands were previously known for. And thus, NHL 22 finds itself conflicted. It recalls the series’ growing pains in the early ‘00s where the slapstick, arcade-style play ruled before giving way to a fealty to the real sport. Given the near-total lack of penalty calls except for the most severe infractions (even with the penalty slider cranked high), NHL 22 takes steps toward this fantastical style and yet doesn’t fully embrace it.

It should be noted that this is the first NHL game to run on the Frostbite engine – important to say because you probably wouldn’t know it otherwise. The change is almost invisible, which is something of a triumph when you consider that Madden NFL still hasn’t fully recovered technically after it made the switch four years ago. On the other hand, it doesn’t look dramatically better than NHL 21, as you’d expect for the first game designed to impress on a new generation of consoles. So in that respect, no news is good news.

Instead, the changes are mostly those X-Factors, which do make rational sense in context. Some star players gain speed boosts, others better shot accuracy after a deke, or shot power while skating. The idea being that these videogamey skill boosts represent a player’s specific skillset. The impact of those abilities is kept in check by the fact that each team only has a handful of such stars, so it’s not as if every player on the ice has a special ability. Those X-Factors seamlessly blend into the NHL’s modern playstyle and NHL 22’s still-exquisite right analog stick puck handling control scheme; the latter’s precision gets better with each annual game. For all the integration, however, their effectiveness feels awfully insignificant in execution, and in some cases, invisible all together. Being able to deke without a speed penalty is a nice bonus to have here and there, but nowhere near the superpower that NHL 22 makes it out to be.

The bigger issue with NHL 22 is mostly superficial. Supposedly a rink-side reporter, Carrlyn Bathe is relegated to hyping X-Factor abilities as if speaking on a promo reel that runs incessantly at GameStop. During a faceoff between the Blackhawks and Penguins, she states, “Patrick Kane’s puck on a string zone ability is how he manufactures offense. Crosby’s beautiful backhand ability is that wicked shot he uses to score.” That’s jarring next to James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro’s commentary, since they’re calling the game straight (if stiffly).

Compound that with hyperactive screen overlays before face-offs, icon identifiers, and other visual noise (which, mercifully, are customizable to a degree), and NHL 22 looks less like a broadcast than it does an arcade game trying to call your attention. EA is selling this as augmented reality, and nothing here is completely out of bounds when you consider how networks now use ever-increasing computing power to mark up hockey rinks with lines and graphical stat displays that aren’t really there. Yet, the focus of NHL 22 isn’t on real-world stats, but rather these game-ified skills.

NHL 22 looks visually uneven, as if wrestling with its style.

It’s strange, too – NHL 22 visually looks wildly uneven, as if wrestling with its style. A quirk like a fan’s hair sprouting noisy polygons during an intermission is a minor glitch. The ice surface that looks like a treacherous, war-torn road filled with streaky potholes rather than scrapes isn’t so attractive. Weirder, brighter jerseys appear almost cel-shaded at a distance, a lighting oddity unnoticeable when you’re in close.

Entering into the solo career Be A Pro mode, strangeness continues. Maybe it’s perspective, but the agents and team managers seen between game events seem to have bizarrely oversized hands. If this reads like a nitpick, so be it; a new console generation brings upgraded expectations, and NHL 22 makes some glaring mistakes despite gains in player likenesses and texture fidelity.

NHL 22 makes some glaring mistakes despite gains in player likenesses and texture fidelity.

Once on the ice itself, Be A Pro is fine, if stunted. Other sports games mimic movies with characters and spoken dialog, but here, it’s all silent other than Cybulski’s fictional podcast narrating the events while text boxes determine the created star’s personality and team synergy. That certainly feels like a step down in quality compared to what other sports games have done. And yes, progression is designed to push them toward gaining their X-Factor for what it’s worth, although the earned experience points have greater impact.

Franchise mode hides X-Factor players in the free agent/scouting pool, making the hunt for them secondary to winning the Stanley Cup. Having a successful scouting run means gaining those abilities for your team, although it matters more when those players are rated higher in general. This season also brings the expansion, the Seattle Kraken, into the mix, and the resulting expansion draft – which is nice because it’s the only addition to a mode that’s effectively identical to last year’s.

Of course, the eSports-focused CHEL league involves X-Factor abilities, too. In Ones, Threes, or general team play, HUT’s elements push their way in allowing individualized in-game avatars to wear unlockable gear for visual kick, and yes, X-Factors when found. For the hyper-competitive types it’s fine, but general online play against others in one-off matches doesn’t have the bloat of CHEL.

NHL 22’s sublime puck and skating physics retain true simulation qualities.

Promotional chatter aside, it’s worth noting the greater gains in NHL 22 are those from leveling the playing field between pros and newcomers. NHL 22’s sublime puck and skating physics retain true simulation qualities as the puck bounces off boards or trickles into the net unseen, but unlike the growing separation between casual and hardcore players in say, NBA 2K, there’s a reasonable middle ground now in NHL. It’s easier to find a realistic play style that results in authentic stats and scoring without needing to understand hockey’s intricacies or fiddling with difficulty sliders. If anything, that seems more worthy of celebration than skills that are tweaked to suit a handful of players.

If there’s a fair comparison to EA’s recent NHL struggles, it’s MLB: The Show. Both found a workable, near-flawless formula to replicate their core on-field/on-ice play some five or six years ago; now the challenge comes from finding the “new” in what was hard to improve upon. In NHL’s case, that’s led to the brash Threes, filled with fireworks, goofy stadiums, and open three-on-three play. There’s still the three-way free-for-all mode Ones too, pitting trios of players against each other and a single goalie in a half-rink contest. At this point, it feels like reaching even if those modes offer competitive charm for small online groups.

It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a repeated pop-up about community inclusiveness when you’re first browsing the menu, and while on the surface that feels like a corporation trying to please activists for brownie points, we also have to keep in mind that hockey in general suffers from a racial divide. For instance, HC Donbass player Jalen Smereck was hit with a racist taunt just last month, so NHL 22 propping up tolerance in the moment is timely.


Source: IGN Video Games All
Source:

Please follow and like us:
Liked it? Take a second to support XPLoot on Patreon!