EA Sports ignited the NHL gaming franchise back in 1991 with their first major title, NHL Hockey. Since then, the franchise has seen 32 major entries, and that's not even including spin-offs like NHL Slapshot or 3 on 3 NHL Arcade. So, it's safe to say EA Sports holds a monopoly over the Hockey gaming genre. However, despite their reign, few of those major entries stand out as the best or at least are memorable. That's because few games improve on prior years' gameplay and fail to make substantial differences. Most of the time we get a re-skinned version of last year's game, with a couple of sweeteners. Unfortunately, NHL 23 is one of those entries.
I got my hands on NHL 23 and put in some solid hours testing out all the game's features. And I quickly came to realize, which was further confirmed the more I played, that NHL 23 doesn't fall far from the tree, that is NHL 22. And to be honest, I am not a fan of NHL 22. I will concede that NHL 23 is an improvement over the game from a year ago, but it is still making very little progress and is another entry that will come and go, and here's why.
What's New With Gameplay?
To be honest, not much except for one major addition, “last chance puck movement”, or in other words, desperation moves. This gives you a last-ditch effort and go all out to make a pass or shot. 500 new gameplay animations are used to accomplish this, many of which concentrate on more lifelike body checking and contact. Now, if you hit a player partially or rub off on the boards, you can actually feel and see yourself knocking them off balance. Players used to react to partial hits in the past, but if there wasn't direct contact, most of the time, they could keep the puck in their possession and move around you with ease.
Although it is easier to be knocked out of puck control, you can combat it with the “last chance puck movement”. You activate the desperation passes or shots by double tapping up on the right joystick, or the pass button (Depending on your controls). This will take effect even if you're mid-animation and it's a feature I quite enjoyed. Particularly for someone like me who prefers to take a lot of shots at the goal rather than using fancy plays or skilled maneuvers to score; I lack those skills.
Overall, I'd say the “last chance puck movement” is a great addition, that's making for a more realistic game with better flow. It also makes for some highlight real moments, where you can dive for a loose puck and turn something out of nothing. This is the most significant change to the gameplay, but besides it, everything else follows suit to previous years.
More of the Same
Even though the desperation moves and new player contact are highlights, they don't encompass the entire gameplay. The skating is somewhat clumsy and delayed, much like it was in NHL 22. You notice this the most with stops and starts, and quick shifty movement, which still feels more dragged out more than it needs to be. The only aspect of skating and movement that feels different is “Sprint skating,”. It actually got faster, which resulted in more times players blowing by me for an easy zone entry. This was already a problem in NHL 22, and now that it's faster, it's abused even more in NHL 23.
Some of my passes will still go wild, even though I'm clearly indicating with the joystick where my intended target is. AI still tends to do some pretty bizarre line changes and just form a cluster in front of the net. Unless you switch players and go after the puck carrier, the AI will play passive defense until your goalie makes a stop or covers the puck. Speaking off, goalies have gotten a re-work to make more “human-like saves”, but it's hardly noticeable. You can still get those cheesy goals or weird bounces where they simply, don't know how to react.
With all this taken into consideration, NHL 23 doesn't feel much different than its predecessor. Except for the moment-to-moment gameplay where you use the desperation plays, or get a turn-over due to the new player contact. But there's only a handful of these instances a period. Outside of these brief moments, the gameplay feels more or less the same as it did last year.
It's About Time
One of the biggest changes coming to NHL 23, is the inclusion of women IIHF players in HUT. Needless to say, this is long overdue. Now, you can have mix-gendered teams, which gives you more options with lines and team chemistry. It's a great inclusion, and I like the idea of mixing up my team dynamic, but it's not necessarily changing much or adding to the gameplay.
Sure, you have more players to unlock and fill roster spots with, which is exciting, but Hut functions entirely the same. You have to grind to earn player packs to unlock players. Otherwise, you can pay those pesky microtransactions to speed up the process of getting a stacked team. This is a similar feeling to paying for attributes to boost your player in NBA 2K23, and quickly dominate The City.
Since so many players are drawn to buying the game because of HUT, the developers know they can exploit this game mode to bring in more money. Yet, they get away with it even though HUT continues to operate exactly as it always has. And for someone like me, these new additions make no difference because I don't grind HUT until my fingers bleed.
New Game Modes
While there was no new content or significant changes to Be A Pro or other game modes, Franchise Mode saw some significant changes. Now you can custom Franchise Mode, and the offerings are pretty extensive. You can select the number of teams in a league, between 6 and 48. With that, you can customize their Conferences and Divisions. Furthermore, you can customize the length of your season, between 6 and 84 games, and the playoff qualifications. All of this is a dream come true for those of us who enjoy grinding Franchise Mode and writing our stories.
The real highlight for me was that you can now swap out teams for Legacy Teams. Which really if you do it for each team, takes Franchise Mode to a whole other level. Getting to play with and against so many legends like Patrick Roy, and Pavel Datsyuk, to name a couple, really makes Franchise mode more enticing.
It's additions like these that make me feel like I'm getting a better and enhanced experience. It also gives players more of a reason to exhaust these game modes. I wish I could have seen more customization and general accessibility in other modes and aspects of the game, as this demonstrates the thought put into improving on previous years' features. But at this point, considering how repetitive EA NHL has been in the last few years, I'll take any new features I can get.
Make Some Noise!
While pre-game intros are looking pretty cut-and-paste, the same with commentary, and highlights, there is an overall improvement in the arena's environment and fan involvement. I first noticed this when getting a hat trick with a player. Fans went ballistic, more so than in previous years, and hats reigned down from the stands. This made for a special and memorable gaming moment for sure. You can even alter what fans throw onto the ice for hat tricks. Such as plastic rats, roses, or even teddy bears.
One thing that is immediately noticeable is that the crowd is much more aware of the game. They'll react to big hits, scoring chances, and even get louder as you close the gap on the scoreboard. Then they'll start chants that really make the game feel important, and you'll start gripping the controller tighter. This, however, works both ways. If a home player is injured or a bad call is made by the ref, the crown will boo. All of this contributed to heightened my immersion in regular matches with friends.
These are features that improve my experience and I wish I saw these small touches littered throughout more areas of the game. As they really make the game stand out from previous years. However, they are far-and-few. But nonetheless, they did a good job of touching up crowd immersion and the overall atmosphere of the games.
To recap, with the changes in NHL 23, from NHL 22, we're getting the “last chance puck movement” and more realistic player contact as part of the 500 new animations. Franchise Mode is the best it's ever been with the customization options. Lastly, the arena atmosphere and crowd engagement are finally at a level where they truly feel like they're involved in the games. These are the features that are making NHL 23 stand out from its predecessor.
On the other end of things, the gameplay doesn't feel or play all that differently. The only exception is the few moments when the “last chance puck movement” and player contact comes into play. But it's not as impactful and frequent as you'd expect. Nonetheless, it still has its moments of brilliance. We're finally seeing professional women players in the game, which is long overdue. But even with it, HUT and other game modes, except for Franchise Mode, function the same as always and aren't breaking any barriers.
So is NHL 23 better than last year's game? I would have to say yes, it has its shining moments. However, it's essentially a more refined and cared-for version of NHL 22. It definitely isn't a memorable addition across the 32 total games in the Franchise, and will most likely be forgotten in the wickets.
With that in mind, is the game worth it? That question depends on what attracts you to the game. If you're one for Franchise Mode then without a doubt. But if you're looking for a fresh experience, that's improved, especially in terms of gameplay, NHL 23 doesn't fall far from the tree that is NHL 22.
NHL 23 Review (PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S)
A General Improvement, But More of the Same
NHL 23 is an improvement over last year’s release, with some general enhancements and a few noticeable changes. However, it is not enough to make it feel like a new experience, and when it comes to gameplay, it does not break any barriers that distinguish this entry as one of the most memorable in the franchise’s history.