Playing a sports game can be a bit of a slog. After a certain point, people are just ready for the next edition after grinding out everything you possibly can in the last game.
For me, that time came about two months ago with NHL 21. I had a great time with it - probably the most fun I've had since NHL 14. But it was time to move on, especially with the acquisition of a Playstation 5 after seemingly having to win World War III to acquire.
And so far, I'm happy with EA Sports' latest offering, NHL 22.
The menus got a major overhaul and the quality definitely is a noticeable aspect of the game. They're vibrant, quicker than previous iterations of the game series and overall easy on the eyes. The old tile system seen from NHL 21 is gone, and thankfully. It was confusing to navigate and reminds me too much of the ill-fated Windows 8 layout that was quickly dropped before Windows 10. It'll take a bit of time to get used to the more organized tier system, but it's a huge upgrade.
Playing on a next-gen system, the game looks beautiful, visually. There are still some bugs in the player models and the crowd is very repetitive, but many top star players look as good as they've ever been. McDavid looks like McDavid. Artemi Panarin looks like bread - I mean Panarin. You expect that in a sports game, and it looks like they've done a good job with that.
The lighting and shadows on the ice look fantastic. On the PS4 edition, it looks a bit darker and grittier. It's way more appealing on the PS5 edition, making for great screenshots. Honestly, I spent a good portion of my time just taking fun photos in the game because everything just looked... alive.
Three things that were heavily refined in the game are passing, hitting and, thankfully, poke checks. When passing the puck, there's a bit of a skill gap. No longer can you just pass anywhere and get it on your target. You truly need to know who you want to pass to, and after a bit of getting used to, good players can use it to their advantage. Hitting is similar in the way that you really need to line up your target instead of relying on auto-targeting. It makes a good hit more satisfying, and players can hold their balance a bit more as a result.
But the poke-checking. WOW. About time. You can go for poke checks without the constant threat of taking a soft tripping penalty. Is it a bit overpowered? Arguably. In a game against THN's social media mogul Jared Ostroff, a much more superior player than myself, I was able to limit his high-danger scoring chances by abusing the poke check. Good players will need to adapt instead of forcing tripping calls, and I like it. But maybe it could be a bit less effective unless you build up the momentum to get the full poke.
And yes, you can still score the same way you could in every game. Cross-crease goals are still overpowered – side note: they should be, because they are in real life, too, although goaltenders should get better at reading them – and you can still cut in and shoot opposite side and come out on top in most situations. The defense will, more than ever, punish you for holding on and not doing anything with the puck, so don't diddle-daddle.
My favorite mode is the World of Chel, specifically EASHL. I spent a lot of time trying to imitate Andrei Vasilevskiy on my team, the Oakville Pickles. Instead, Vasilevskiy is probably the one looking up to me. We got our first taste of EASHL action in the closed technical test a few months back and while the core experience is the same, the amount of customization options for an individual player is astounding. Just getting used to all of them should keep the mode fresh. There's no new end-game EASHL content after you make Division I from what I've seen, so I guess there still isn't much to do after you reach the max status.
The thing you're probably wondering the most: X-Factors. Honestly, while it isn't a selling point for me (didn't this exist in the mid-2000s games already?), I do like how it has been implemented. In EASHL, it's nice to have more variations in how a player performs – players built for speed using "Wheels" truly perform. In a regular game, Connor McDavid has that Wheels X-Factor, and, oh boy, he's hard to defend against when he gets the puck moving. It's how I'd feel in real life if I was an NHL defenseman – and, truthfully, I have saved some shots on him as a goalie. It's just as hard as you'd imagine.
X-Factors aren't going to make a huge difference if you're playing games not involving the top players. But if you have them in the lineup, you're more likely to build a much stronger team. This should be great for Franchise Mode and HUT, where there's actually something on the line. Only 50 NHLers have it to begin with, but it adds a bit more flavor and authenticity for those individual players and it's a nice positive.
In the end, there's only so much you can change about a video game based on hockey. You can't build a compelling story mode. You can't change the rules. It's hockey, simple as that. To draw people in beyond roster and team updates, you need enthralling game modes. While there isn't a single big "WOW" factor to this game, it's better than previous iterations. You truly have to look at this as a transition into the future, with the move to the Frostbite engine and first real crack at next-gen gaming.
It's crazy that a game built on a sport that doesn't change from year to year can still somehow feel refreshing. But with the improved visuals, it's just that.
So, should you get it? If you enjoy the series, it'll feel like a nice move up. If you're new to hockey, this is a fantastic starting point. If you're on PS4 or Xbox One and looking for a much different experience, you're not getting it with this. If you're looking for major steps up, you're not getting it.
But, to me, it's an enjoyable title that'll get a lot of playtime over the next 12 months. Whether you have issues with certain elements of NHL 21 or not, it's hard to argue that the game isn't a good time, and 22 already feels better. When roster sharing comes out, this game should get a new boost of life.
Need to Know:
Review Copy Provided By EA: X-Factor Edition (Tested on PS4/PS5)
Release Date: October 15, 2021
Platforms: Playstation 5, Playstation 4, Xbox Series X and Xbox One
Version: Standard, X-Factor Edition
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Vancouver
Graphics Engine: Frostbite (all platforms)
Cover Athlete: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Commentary: James Cybulski, Ray Ferraro