NHL 18 is grappling with the same issue a lot of hardcore sports sims are facing at the moment: getting fresh blood into a comparatively hardcore genre that is mostly saturated. But EA's hockey sim is going in a rather different direction from its peers.
Where Madden 18 is featuring an ambitious new story mode, NHL 18 is going back to its arcade roots with NHL Threes—a three-on-three mode with colorful arenas and super fast-paced scoring.
Aside from its bigger, more boisterous UI and brand new commentary, NHL Threes differs from the core game in a number of crucial ways. The rink is much smaller, resulting in chaotic, end-to-end rushes; and outside of the opening draw of the period, faceoffs mostly fall to the wayside. Instead, after a successful score, the other team will receive the puck and be able to begin their rush immediately.
But the biggest difference is in how the games actually play out. You can do normal periods, but NHL Threes also lets you play to a designated goal limit, which can theoretically extend games indefinitely (EA hopes it will keep rounds relatively short). Spicing things up even further are so-called "Money Pucks," which will result in a random goal being worth extra points. Money Pucks can also take away points from your opponent, making them even more valuable.
The practical effect of all this is that NHL Threes feels like classic NHL on amphetamines. The small rink size and super fast pace generates constant breakaways and odd man rushes, bringing with it tons of goal-scoring opportunities. EA is touting it as a kind of ambassador mode—the mode you would jump into with a hockey-loving friend who hasn't really played the video game.
It's an interesting twist on the usual NHL formula for sure, and I had plenty of fun dashing up and down the ice trying to score goals. But as for attracting new players, I'm not necessarily seeing it.
It might actually have more potential than that.
Is NHL 18's New Mode More Hardcore Than it Seems?
In attempting to attract new players, NHL Threes addresses at least one major problem: scoring opportunities. New players often have a hard time even getting to the net, much less shooting. NHL Threes should at least make it easier to get in and fire away.
But it doesn't have any real answers for the other barrier to accessibility in NHL, which is actually scoring. This is a problem because, let's face it, scoring in NHL is really hard. Even if you're a reasonably experienced player, there will be times when the opposing goalie just seems to stand on their head and stop literally everything. This is doubly frustrating if you're struggling with the controls, which are quite complicated even if you go with the more simplified variants.
Really, the most likely "ambassador" scenario is that a veteran will bring in their friend and proceed to score on them at will on breakaway after breakaway. Doesn't sound very fun, does it?
In that light, I actually think it'll be the hardcore fans who embrace NHL Threes. The sneaky interesting thing about NHL 18's new mode is that it will support a variant of EA Sports Hockey League, a popular mode in which you can team up with your friends to form a team. EASHL is a great mode, but if you don't have five readily available friends, it can be tough to get a meaningful game going. Matchmaking is frankly obnoxious in EASHL, and playing with the CPU is the worst.
NHL Threes, though, only really needs three players per side, making it much easier to get a regular group together, and its breakneck pace and goofy aesthetic makes it a perfect way to blow off steam. In effect, it could be another Rocket League, albeit without the insane aerial stunts that make that game so memorable.
Should NHL Threes gain a following, its colorful arenas also make it a better eSports candidate than its peers, as they help to remove it a bit from the real-life sport. EA has been pushing eSports pretty hard of late, but they've yet to meaningfully address the fact that it's simply weird to watch people compete in a digitized version of a real sport. By leaning more toward the Rocket League side of things, NHL has a better chance than most of distinguishing itself.
At least, that's what EA is probably hoping.
We'll see how things shake out, but it is a well-supported mode that stands a better chance of succeeding than MLB The Show's ill-fated Retro Mode, which fell off hard after launch. And it does much to solve the problem of matchmaking in EASHL, which has proven to be a major barrier to entry over the past couple years despite NHL's best efforts.
Will it be the ambassador to NHL that EA is touting? It's doubtful. But as a new way for veterans to enjoy EA's venerable hockey sim, it has promise. You can sign up here for the public beta, which goes live on July 25. You can find the rest of the details on NHL 18's gameplay improvements here.
NHL 18 will be releasing on all the usual consoles (but not Switch or PC) on September 15th.