Over the past 30 years, I’ve played virtually every entry in both the NHL and Madden video game series, dating back to NHLPA ’93 and John Madden Football ’93. Something struck me soon after Madden 21 was released, and so I went back and played NHL 20 extensively (again) to confirm my suspicions. The experience was fascinating, because despite having an additional year to develop, it was plainly clear that NHL 20 was a far superior product to Madden 21 in virtually every respect. This is the first time I can remember that a prior-year entry for one sport was meaningfully better than the current-year entry for the other. Of course, Madden 21 was going up against a game that got a five-star (out of five) review from Inside Hockey this time last year, so they had a bit of a Sisyphean task at hand.
Now NHL 21 must go up against what was in many ways the perfect sports video game (NHL 20). Rather than making wholesale changes to an excellent product, EA took the approach of trying to improve upon near-perfection. As a result, the differences this season are more subtle, but they’re no less important. Many new animations have been added to the game, making each game you play feel fresher and more dynamic. Perhaps most importantly, EA has focused tremendous attention on player chemistry, particularly the way that players on a forward line or defense pair interact and work together. It will take more time to properly and fully absorb the impact of the changes, but the early results are excellent with the on-ice flow improved meaningfully.
Visually, NHL 21 is absolutely fantastic. The game presentation is terrific from start to finish, including both the cut scenes and the in-game play. And back to those subtleties, where players in Madden 21 often defy physics in oft-laughable ways, the “illusion” is never broken in NHL 21. The physics of the players and puck – and how they interact with one another and the rink – is very realistic and consistent, and you’re never pulled out of the feeling that you’re experiencing an NHL game.
My favorite mode is HUT (Hockey Ultimate Team) because it gives me an opportunity to assemble a team of my favorite players (typically also on my fantasy hockey squad) and compete in a wide array of challenges. Making the team assembly process extra-fun is the ability to combine players from different leagues and eras. For future-minded Rangers fans, this means that you can assemble a Rangers-themed squad with Alexis Lafreniere (the #1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft). And for fans of the earlier editions of the NHL series, it’s fun to turn back time and play with legends like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Gordie Howe. And the addition of HUT Rush brings a really fun new 3-on-3 element to HUT.
NHL 21 doesn’t represent a meteoric leap forward from NHL 20, but expecting one at this late stage in the present-generation consoles’ lifecycle would’ve been unfair. Instead, what we’ve got is a near-perfect hockey video game (and simulation), with fantastic graphics and many meaningful if subtle improvements to the gameplay. If you enjoyed NHL 20 as much as I did, you too are likely to appreciate NHL 21’s excellence. It’s not unfair to say that with its improvements upon NHL 20, it has taken the mantle of “best hockey video game ever.”
For NHL 94 apologists who are horrified by my last sentence, this is a good time to point out that preorders of NHL 21 also included a retro edition of NHL 94 (downloadable on October 30th) featuring today’s teams and rosters but with controls and graphics from 1994. So no matter whether you prefer “old school” or “new school”, NHL 21 has you covered.