It’s been 30 years since Electronic Arts released the original NHL Hockey for the Sega Genesis, and each year since, an updated version of the game has built upon its predecessor. Sometimes the advancements felt enormous (see: the addition of the one-timer and goalie control in NHL 94), while other times the updated rosters were the most important improvement. Most often, the advancements were reflections of the platform, with each console generation (from Genesis to the current next-gen platforms, PS5 and Xbox Series X/S) offering improved graphics that made the visuals ever more realistic. This year’s game manages to hit on all fronts, offering a huge leap forward with regard to both presentation and gameplay.
As the first NHL game released for PS5 (reviewed here) and Xbox Series X/S, NHL 22 was expected to offer yet another big leap in visual presentation, and it most certainly delivers, with fantastic graphics and some really functional augmented reality. However, while much of the focus will be on the visual bells and whistles, there’s a much subtler advancement that promises to really elevate the game: significantly improved stick control. Historically, using the R1 button (PS4/5) to stick-check while on defense resulted in a penalty a disproportionate percentage of the time, such that using the R1 button with any regularity meant there was a good chance you’d spend extensive time on the penalty kill. Not so with NHL 22. Now, the use of the stick on defense is a huge asset, making it possible to steal the puck and actually play defense, with penalties only an occasional (and reasonable) consequence.
Another huge feature added to NHL 22 is Superstar X-Factors, which adds a bit more nuance to star players’ attributes. Focusing on six areas (skating, shooting, passing, defense, goaltending and hockey IQ), they make it possible for superstars to shine more uniquely (and accurately) than ever before. Back when NHL Hockey was released in 1991, the gap between the NHL’s best forwards and worst defensemen was enormous, and it was arguably a big part of the game’s initial appeal (seeing players like Lemieux, Jagr, Roenick, Yzerman and Fedorov dominate as they did in the early 1990s). Today, that gap is much smaller, and Superstar X-Factors promises to differentiate the stars with 29 different X-Factor attributes.
As far as game modes go, Ultimate Team, World of Chel, Be a Pro and Franchise mode are back, offering a wide range of game types and styles to play. Whether you like skating as mascots or NHL superstars, whether you like playing 5-on-5 or 3-on-3, whether you prefer a hockey simulation or an arcade-style experience, there’s something here for every hockey fan. And perhaps most importantly, it’s clear that the game’s developers aren’t resting on their laurels and taking advantage of their exclusivity license (something that can’t be said for a certain extremely-popular American football video game). The physics of the players and the puck are better than ever, and there are virtually no situations where the “illusion is broken” and you’re reminded that you’re playing a video game. The realism is extraordinary, and the much-improved stick physics represent one of the most important – if subtle – leaps taken in the series’ 30-year history.
If you’re a hockey fan or a video game fan who likes hockey, NHL 22 is an excellent game that offers huge improvements over its predecessors and makes good on the enormous promise of the PS5’s enhanced graphical capabilities. Load times are fast, gameplay is smooth, and the overall experience is fantastic.