What do you do when your sports sim is trapped in a hardcore niche with seemingly no prospects for growth? I guess there are a couple answers: either double down on the loyalists, or branch out and try something new. NHL 19 seems keen to attempt the latter.
This year's version of NHL introduces the "World of Chel," which the NHL team is hoping will eventually blossom into a long-lasting live platform. The new mode serves as an umbrella for several sub-modes, including last year's NHL Threes, which takes 3v3 hockey and gives it a Rocket League-like reskin. It also adds character customization, with items being earned by playing the modes and leveling up.
But mostly, World of Chel is an opportunity to take the action from the sometimes stuffy combines of the NHL's various arenas out to the snowy expanses of Canada's outdoor ice rinks. Combined with the bright hats, parkas, and jerseys that can be unlocked through earning XP—World of Chel mercifully avoids any microtransactions—it adds a badly needed splash of color to EA's often stale palette. If the goal is to capture the beauty of hockey in all its forms, this isn't a bad start.
Granted, that's just what this is: a start. Right now its modes include Pro-Am, a series of games against CPU teams led by legendary players, and a drop-in multiplayer variant of aforementioned NHL Threes. The closest thing it has to a "flagship mode" is Ones: a three player multiplayer free-for-all in which everyone battles to score the most goals before time runs out. Winning pushes you up to more elaborate ponds and tougher competition, while losing gets you demoted.
It can be surprisingly addictive. There's a certain appeal to the chaos of trying to hold on to the puck and score while two other players are trying to plant you against the ice, and games can be banged out quite quickly. It feels like the sort of "palette cleanser" that the NHL folks hoped Three would be. On the other hand, it's fairly slight, and not necessarily something that you can hang a whole mode on. Maybe World of Chel needs an NHL Fours: A mode that splits the difference between the hardcore EASHL and the unbearably silly Threes.
In any case, I like World of Chel. Hardcore fans will complain that it pulls badly needed resources from other modes—Be a Pro could certainly use some more love, having been basically left to rot since NHL 16—but I like how much it brightens up NHL 19. After so many monotonous arenas, it feels good to get outside. And it gives previously forlorn modes like Threes some badly-needed context.
World of Chel is further boosted by some major improvements to the gameplay. With the introduction of new animation systems, this is the fastest and smoothest that NHL has played since probably NHL 14. Turning is tighter; it's far easier to recover from mistakes, and the pace is much higher.
The increased pace puts a higher premium on skill, turning high-level games into a kind of duel in which players joust with skill moves and breakaways. It's still early days, of course, but there's enough variety in the strategy to keep games reasonably interesting. With puck pick-ups being noticeably improved, it's even somewhat viable to dump in the puck when entering the zone. As a result, the gameplay feels like it's in a better place with this version than it's been in years.
My main complaint about the gameplay right now is penalties. In an effort to balance out the power of poke checks, NHL 19 makes it way too easy to trip up the opposition and get stuck on a 5v4 power play. This has the effect of making games feel longer—the clock slows down to accentuate the man advantage—and much more annoying. In one game against the CPU, I saw no fewer than 14 Power Plays, which is a ludicrous number for a match that's supposed to be over in 15 to 20 minutes. For context, a typical real-life NHL team averages about three Power Plays per game, and that's over the course of more than two hours. EA badly needs to dial back penalties and let the players play, as they say.
But putting that aside, NHL 19's gameplay improvements feel like a big step in the right direction. Video game hockey has a rich legacy, one that the series has struggled to live up to in recent years. This is the first time in ages that NHL has managed to capture something resembling the speed and excitement of the real sport.
Now if only NHL could improve the rest of the graphics along with it. Don't get me wrong, it looks good in many cases. The crowds in the arenas, for instance, are far livelier than the ones in Madden and FIFA, with numerous dynamic signs and crowd reaction shots. Players will now do group celebrations after a goal, and mascots can be seen performing in the background.
But the players themselves are just so ugly. Many of the NHL's biggest stars are captured accurately, but many more look like weird Neanderthals with bulging foreheads and massive jawlines. NHL has leaned on the same tired character models going on four years now, and as a result it looks quite out of date when compared to basically every other sports game. Nowhere is that more apparent than in World of Chel, where the character customization only serves to highlight the often hideous player models. Time for an update, EA
Elsewhere, NHL's strengths and weaknesses remain more or less constant. EASHL is still the flagship mode for hardcore fans, and it's still awesome, featuring robust jersey and arena customization, a fairly deep competitive metagame, and an enjoyable league system. It's where NHL's strengths shine the brightest, and it's the mode that does the most to differentiate it from the competition. Franchise mode is likewise very good, featuring the welcome ability to import your own teams via expansion, as well as the ability to realign divisions to your own taste. As a Minnesota fan, I always move Detroit to the Central where they belong and exile Nashville back to the East, because there's absolutely no reason for a team from freaking Tennessee to play with teams from Chicago, St. Louis, and Colorado.
On the downside, Be a Pro continues to feel like a gigantic missed opportunity, being a staid, colorless mode that does absolutely nothing to capitalize on NHL's inherently strong teamplay. In a just world, it would be every bit as deep and fun as NBA 2K's MyCareer mode, but without all the crummy microtransactions. Instead, it's barely been touched.
The presentation is likewise pretty stale at this point. Where most other sports sims have different commentary packages to suit the moment, NHL wheels out Doc and Eddie for even minor league CHL tilts. It's one more way in which NHL looks dated in comparison to the competition.
I mentioned before that I like World of Chel, but a less charitable reading of its introduction is that the NHL team is flailing in an effort to attract new fans. Instead of fixing the things fans have been complaining about for years, EA is devoting resources to casual-friendly features like character customization. Looking at Be a Pro, I can understand the frustration of some of the fans.
But NHL 19 also deserves better than it gets. Franchise mode, EASHL, HUT, and yes, World of Chel are all good to great, and the gameplay seems to be on point this year. It lags behind other sports games in some areas, but it also has features that I've been screaming for in Madden, like custom teams and divisions. It's an all-around solid sports sim, albeit with plenty more room for improvement.
Like hockey itself, NHL continues to find itself trapped between trying to appease long-time supporters and attracting new fans. In that respect I suppose you could say that NHL 19's World of Chel is the equivalent of expanding to Las Vegas. On the face of it, it seems like a completely insane idea, but with a year of hindsight, its arguably the best decision the league has made in years. I don't know that NHL will match the success of an expansion franchise going to the Stanley Cup, but it's good to see EA taking some risks and going big. We'll see how it works out.
NHL 19 takes some interesting risks with World of Chel while bringing badly-needed improvements to the gameplay. Its modes are customarily solid, but the faster, tighter action on the ice is what makes it possible to recommend NHL 19 to newcomers and lapsed hockey fans alike.