Hockey is a team sport. Yes, there are superstars that stand out, but it never struck me as a sport where one player, on his own, could single-handedly turn the tide of a match the way that they can in baseball, basketball, or even (to a certain extent) football. To me, hockey was always a predominant example of a team sport, where a good team could became a great team by making sure all its complex moving parts formed a well-oiled machine.
It seemed weird to me, then, upon booting up this year’s game, to find that NHL 19 was following the current trend of sports titles by, in one way or another, highlighting the individual over the team with its new World of CHEL (sound out “NHL” and you’ll get why it’s called that). Fortunately, World of CHEL doesn’t take away from any of NHL’s other great modes and features, but it’s not as big of a selling point as, say, NBA Live 19’s The One mode is for that series.
On the surface, World of CHEL and The One are basically the same idea: injecting RPG-style mechanics into a sports game. Players will create their own characters, play a bunch of games, unlock new cosmetic items, and continue to earn experience to level up their characters. Likewise, World of CHEL is split into a “Streets” track and a “League” track. Unfortunately, NHL 19’s newest addition is skimpy when it comes to single-player modes, focusing on hit-or-miss online multiplayer, and neither track provide as cohesive a whole as its EA Sports basketball counterpart.
There are four game types in World of CHEL: NHL Pro-Am, EA Sports Ones, EA Sports NHL Drop-in Threes, and EASHL. Out of these, only NHL Pro-Am is single-player, and it’s pretty slight compared to other RPG-style sports game modes. Taking you through a gauntlet of 31 3v3 challenges, it’s a good way to unlock new items and earn experience early on, but there’s no real replay value to the challenges once you finish them. That sort of single-player, player-locked experience still revolves around the Be a Pro career mode, which is an entirely separate mode where you’ll have to create an entirely separate character. It would be neat if your World of CHEL character translated to Be a Pro mode where you could share the experience you earned between both modes, but NHL 19 keeps these modes siloed. Sure, it gives the appearance that the game has a ton of modes, but it doesn’t do much for the overall coherence of the experience of creating one character and only playing as that character.
Out of the remaining three modes in World of CHEL, Threes was the only one I found fun. Ones is a cool idea, splitting a rink in half and having three players fight over the same puck to score against the same goalie, but in practice it sacrifices a lot of what makes NHL games great for the quick, novel thrill of trying to outplay two opponents at once. EASHL is cool in concept, but I couldn’t find a single game with two full six-player teams, so it was impossible to test how viable that mode was. Threes was a ton of fun, reminding me of a more realistic version of the legendary Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey on the Nintendo 64, but like that classic arcade-style experience, it doesn’t have the longevity I’m looking for in a hockey sim experience.
World of CHEL, therefore, seems more like a blueprint for a cool idea than an actual fully built mode, if that metaphor makes sense. If it figured out an interesting, streamlined way to integrate Be a Pro mode, where experience from both transferred into a more satisfying, single-player, RPG-style experience, World of CHEL would seem like a meatier selling point, but right now it just seems like a flashy way to organize some of its multiplayer offerings. Yes, it’s pretty fun, but it isn’t as substantial as it should be.
Thankfully, character progression is still pretty satisfying. Unlike The One, where you’re locked into a single archetype, World of CHEL lets you experiment with different loadouts for your character, unlocking new badges and specialties that will impact your skills and attributes. You can have one loadout that turns your player into a two-way wingman, for example, and another that lets you specialize in brutally hard body checks. Since World of CHEL is so focused on multiplayer, this kind of flexibility is key, depending on what position you’re playing in any given match. You wouldn’t want a wiry sharpshooter playing defender, so NHL 19 lets you adapt on the fly.
The cosmetics you earn are flashy and ridiculous, too, which I appreciate, though I will say that the action of getting the items is pretty annoying. I understand that the pomp-and-circumstance of opening boxes in a flash of light and receiving new gear preys on the same reptilian parts of our brains that make watching unboxing videos a fun pastime for some people, but NHL 19 takes it a step too far. Instead of just pressing A and watching a perfunctory animation, you have to press A and then hold left on the left stick to unzip your new hockey bag full of goodies, adding just another step to a process that’s already a waste of time.
Other than World of CHEL, the same stalwart modes you’d expect are still there. They largely seem untouched, though I will admit that I skipped last year’s game, so being able to create my own team was a fun experiment that I missed out on last time. Franchise has as much depth as ever, thanks to enhanced scouting, and playing the Champions Hockey League is a nice change of pace. As far as Hockey Ultimate Team goes, I honestly didn’t even touch it, since I consider the Ultimate modes to be money-sucking cesspits, so play at your own risk. Thankfully, the sorts of microtransaction stuff you’ll run into in HUT isn’t present anywhere else in the game.
The other new addition to NHL 19 is the now ever-present Real Player Motion (RPM) that’s making its way into almost every EA Sports title this year. The fact that RPM is probably just some goofy marketing term that an EA Sports executive came up with to describe an overall initiative in Madden, NBA Live, and NHL to overhaul their respective player movement systems and physics shouldn’t undermine the fact that NHL 19’s players feel better than ever to control. Whether it’s realistic or not, players still seem somewhat dictated by momentum, but stopping and starting with the “hustle” button means you have way more control over where you skate and how much you can insert yourself into a play. Likewise, the overhauled physics surrounding big hits mix rag doll and canned animations to a hilarious, visceral effect. Whether the hits are always realistic or smooth is questionable, but there’s no denying that, at least in the moment, pulling off a major body check in NHL 19 is one of the most satisfying experiences in any sports title, period. I’m excited to see where EA Vancouver can take this technology.
NHL 19 is one of the more flashier editions that I’ve played in the series, even if the substance is largely the same. Real Player Motion adds new physicality and control to player movements, and World of CHEL has laid a great foundation for an extensive, RPG-style experience. Now EA Vancouver just needs to introduce some actual depth, preferably in the form of a more expansive single-player career, to back it up.
|Publisher: EA Sports • Developer: EA Vancouver • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10+ • Release Date: 09.14.18|
NHL 19 is one of the best-playing hockey games I can remember, thanks to an overhauled animation system and the best body checking money can buy. World of CHEL is cool, too, at least as a foundation for future editions. Unfortunately, as it is right now, unless you like player-locked multiplayer experiences, this banner addition won’t have much more to offer other than a few challenges and a new parka. Still, if you’ve skipped the last few years of NHL games, you could do a lot worse than NHL 19.
|The Good||Real Player Motion makes NHL 19 one of the best-feeling, best-playing hockey games since the Sega Genesis/Super Nintendo era.|
|The Bad||World of CHEL skimps on the single-player modes, creating a void for players who don’t like playing online.|
|The Ugly||I had to name my World of CHEL character Jumbo Dirtman, since apparently EA Vancouver considers “Dirtbag” a naughty word.|
|NHL 19 is available on Xbox One and PS4. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|