The latest edition of EA Sports’ NHL hockey video game series – NHL 24 – is available now on PlayStation and Xbox. Last season’s release was quite disappointing, and our hope was that NHL 24 would represent a huge leap forward and take full advantage of next-generation console power. Unfortunately, this year’s game takes some major steps backwards in terms of both realism and fun. And after two years in a row of underwhelming innovation, it’s pretty clear that the annual-release model needs to go away forever. There is never enough innovation year to year to warrant an annual release, and this has been true dating back to the 16-bit cartridge era, when updated rosters often felt like the only reason to buy. But where last year’s release was too much of a copy-and-paste effort to merit anything but faint praise, I still logged 200+ hours playing the game. That’s extremely unlikely to happen again, because the problems with this year’s game are too deep to ignore, and I had to force myself to play the game for enough hours (8-10) to feel that I’d given it a fair chance.
Exhaust Engine: A Tired “Innovation”
As a long-time player of the NHL series (dating back to NHLPA ’93), it’s always been my hope that the game’s evolution would make it a more and more realistic representation of NHL hockey. But where I might’ve at one time seen something like “Exhaust Engine” (a core new feature) as a huge positive, instead I find myself wondering how it took 30 years for this hockey simulation’s gameplay to finally reflect the stamina impact on players facing sustained offensive pressure from the opposition. It was my expectation all along that defenders would tire from chasing the puck and that the goaltenders would tire from facing an onslaught of high-quality chances against: in other words, a realistic representation of on-ice exhaustion. Within that context, a clock-based pressure meter that globally impacts all players on the ice via the “Exhaust Engine” isn’t so much an improvement as a “don’t look behind the curtain” moment.
Hockey Ultimate Team: A Serious Grind
The mode upon which EA Sports ostensibly dotes the most attention – Hockey Ultimate Team, its cash cow – happens to be the mode I play the most. By virtue of my review code being for the X-Factor Edition, my game came with 4600 NHL Points (for use in the game’s store) and an 85-overall Cale Makar (cover athlete) for use in Ultimate Team. Over the course of the pack openings that ensued, I came away with approximately 50,000 coins in value (for use in the auction house) by selling the player cards (either by auction or quick-sell). I also received some un-tradable cards that I didn’t really want and can’t exchange for any value. With those 50,000 coins, I was able to put together a roster comprising most of the players on my dynasty/fantasy team. However, adding the best players on my fantasy team by Hockey Ultimate Team standards (Jack Hughes and Jack Eichel) would be extremely expensive (250,000-300,000 coins each or more). Within the Ultimate Team universe, that kind of expenditure (or lucky pack opening) would be the only way to use either player.
Editor’s Note: since we published this review, additional player cards have been released (including Eichel and Hughes) that make it quite a bit more accessible to play Hockey Ultimate Team. That said, some core issues regarding coin-earning in NHL 24 (see below).
And here we get to the core difference between the motivation-killing Hockey Ultimate Team and the far more engaging Madden Ultimate Team (American football). In Madden, it is possible to earn large numbers of coins fairly quickly by playing games (online/offline) and earning coins and packs (containing auction-able players) in order to “save up” for a player card that costs 250-300,000 coins. Typically it can be done in 1-2 weeks. But in Hockey Ultimate Team, virtually every earned asset is un-auction-able and un-sellable. As a result, the grind to save up 250-300,000 coins for a Jack Hughes or Jack Eichel could take 2 months (if one weren’t willing to spend upwards of $100 on the packs needed to accumulate those coins). And yes, it is most certainly a grind, because…
Gameplay Feels a Lot Mushier/Softer
Though the addition of icon passing is definitely a positive on the ledger, overall there’s a general feeling that I have far less control over the players on the ice than in prior years. And when there’s a high-traffic play in the crease, I feel much less like I can see it happening than that I’m watching what happened after the fact. As a user who wants more of an action-packed immersive hockey experience, I play the game using the “Action” camera, and it’s been notable how many times I’ve felt that the action needed to be “left up to the animations to decide” versus last year’s more-realistic gameplay. In general, player control feels like it’s been downgraded a great deal, and I don’t personally feel that making complex animations more easily accessible has done anything to improve the game’s appeal in a sustainable way.
Lifeless Audio Mix
It’s awesome to see the continued inclusion in the game, whether it’s the referees or new color commentator Cheryl Pounder. Unfortunately, as a longtime player of the NHL series (and Madden and NBA 2k), it’s rare that I get through more than 2-3 games in any of these franchises before turning the in-game commentary off for good. In general, there simply aren’t enough unique “thoughts” recorded, and they tend to get redundant quickly. This year’s game has more “long thoughts” and they result in some very awkward situations (for example, a long-form thought being completed while we should be hearing the reaction to an overtime goal). A surround sound arena mix that sounds more like a white noise machine than an energized crowd does further damage to what’s devolved into a far-less-than-immersive hockey experience.
The Final Verdict
If you’re looking for access to the latest rosters and the best-available graphics in a hockey video game, NHL 24 delivers on that front, but that’s really about the extent of it. For longtime fans seeking a more realistic hockey experience, NHL 24 falls short in some critical, surprising ways. As a long-time Hockey Ultimate Team player, it already feels – mere days after the game’s release – that the value one gets for their time and/or money is far too low to sustain an engaged community.
Rating: 2 Pucks (Out of 5)