I’m back on the ice, and it looks damn nice.
I’ve not played one of these in a while; EA’s longstanding ice hockey franchise has been a welcome but infrequent visitor to my gaming playlist. Having missed out since NHL 16, it’s about time I checked out what’s changed. Previously I’ve championed NHL for being a great sports game that is not boring for non-sports fans (like myself). With NHL 19, there’s an even better route in for the uninitiated.
I realise that “not boring” sounds like limp praise, so let’s take it up a notch. NHL 19 is pretty great. A wealth of modes that offer genuine variety, slick visuals that regularly prompt a double take, and control so smooth that you’ll think your pad is made of ice. There’s a bunch to like, so let’s go through it.
A stand out addition from when I last played is the ‘World of CHEL’ mode. So called after the nickname fans have given to NHL (ENAY-CHEL), this broadens the co-operative mode from previous games, offering more ways to develop your own online persona so that everything you do feels like progress. Your character can unlock new perks and individualisation options, including clothing, equipment and animations (with over 900 customisation options in total). This ranges from amateur hockey wear right up to the pro gear, usable across game types including NHL THREES Drop-in, NHL ONES, Pro-Am and EASHL.
The inclusion of Pro-Am (with its relatively unfettered dress code and outdoor rinks) is more inviting than you might think. The ethos of just jumping in and having fun is a great way to access NHL 19, especially with modes like NHL ONES, which distils the game to its essential core – one goaltender, one goal, and a trio of online players out for themselves to get a puck past him. It’s not only fun in itself, it’s also a smart tutorial of sorts, allowing real play to understand the core mechanics.
That said, there is a dedicated tutorial section that breaks down every element of play into short, digestible exercises. This kind of thing can often be a drag, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s actually pretty handy to know just how deep the controls go, if you really want the master them – all manner of flourishes are possible to sidestep your opponent and make your play look cool.
Speaking of looking cool, this game is just something else. The tutorial demos could have been live action video for all I know (I’m still not sure). The bump up to 4K on Xbox One X might be worth the upgrade alone if you’re playing an older title in the series. I’m not saying that NHL 19 is totally photo-realistic, but the seamless animation (using what EA calls ‘Real Player Motion Tech’) brings it as close as it’s ever been. I wonder if this is what my nan thought when she saw me playing NHL 94, then concluded our conversation by saying “go back to watching your film”.
Also notable for NHL 19 is the inclusion of fantasy teams of ice hockey legends (including Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux who I’ve actually heard of, somehow). For people who know the sport better than I, there’s a lot of heritage on show here that I’m sure will be appreciated. For me though, the great thing is that my character is in it, and I had the rare treat of investing in my avatar in a sports game.
Ice hockey just works perfectly as a video game, and when the experience is as well put together as this, there’s not much I can say to knock it. Accessible to new arrivals and brimming with content for fans, NHL 19 comes with an ice cold satisfaction guarantee.
NHL 19 was provided to us by EA for Xbox One. It was reviewed on an Xbox One S and X.