The latest installment of EA’s NHL franchise comes with a few new bells and whistles for experienced players, and expanded Be a Pro and World of Chel modes. They’re great additions to be sure, but it still feels like they’re merely papering over the cracks in gameplay fans have been complaining about since the first current-gen release.

Be A Pro Gets A Major FaceLift

It’s clear where the development team’s focus was since the release of NHL 20 a year ago, with the story mode known as “Be A Pro” getting the bulk of the attention. As seen in numerous other sports games, this mode follows one player around on and off the ice, creating situations that will affect his brand and how his teammates and coaches perceive him.

While the in-game communications with coaches are nice, they can be sometimes difficult to decipher into meaningful gameplay actions. When he calls you aside during a stoppage and says “Up the pressure” you’re sort of left to shrug and continue playing the game normally.

Your interactions with your agent, teammates and the media are bit more unique, and allow you to take the story in your own direction, which isn’t the case in similar modes in MLB The Show 21 and NBA2k21. 

World of Chel Continues to Expand

The game’s new flagship mode returns for a third season and continues to add new features and expand on an already engaging reward system. In World of Chel, you can play either solo or as part of a team in EA Sports Hockey League, earning reward “bags” that contain cosmetic items and in-game celebrations.

This year, you can compete in eliminator tournaments, small three-game challenges where you must run the table to be crowned champion. Doing so will unlock special reward bags with specific items in them.

Playing as part of a club? You’ll be able to customize your jerseys, arena, logo and mascot all en route to competing in Ranked Seasons games, where you’ll climb the division ladder in search of a EASHL Club Finals championship.

An element that’s surprisingly missing from World of Chel is the ability to purchase these reward bags to customize your player. With no impact on gameplay whatsoever, one would’ve expected the microtransactions from Hockey Ultimate Team to make its way into this mode as well.

Without a clear path of objectives to unlock specific items, it can sometimes be frustrating to not be able to unlock a specific item for your player or EASHL club.

James Cybulski is No Doc Emrick 

Cybulski, a local radio personality for TSN in Vancouver where the development team is located, pairs up with NHL series veteran Ray Ferraro to provide some truly terrible in-game commentary for the second consecutive year after taking over for recently-retired legendary broadcaster Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk.

Cybulski’s voice is so overbearing, that you’ll rush to find a way to turn off his commentary and play with just the natural sounds of the game itself.

New Gameplay Dekes Are Nice, But Unnecessary

If you’ve played any game in the series since NHL 15, you’ll feel like you’ve played NHL 21. You’ll see some new goalie animations, and notice they’ve got slightly better lateral movement. The AI has improved marginally, so there are no more confusing standoffs at center ice. But largely, it’s the same gameplay experience.

New for this year, however, are a few new signature dekes that have been made famous by current NHL stars like Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov. Known affectionately in hockey communities as “The Michigan,” you can now scoop the puck lacrosse-style from behind the net and tuck it in over the goalie’s shoulder and under the crossbar.

It may prove difficult to pull off, with the opposition bearing down on you, so you can also take a page out of Sidney Crosby’s book, banking the puck off the back of the net and evading an oncoming defender. 

On a breakaway? Now you can confuse the goalie into his own net with the fake-deke made famous by Lightning star Nikita Kucherov. Or you can replicate Matthew Tkachuk’s brilliant between-the-legs goal.

All of these moves will require a lengthy spell on the practice rink though, and don’t really address the issues that have been plaguing gameplay for years, such as the predictability of passes and the constant up-tempo pace.

VERDICT

If you’re a die-hard hockey fan, this will likely be your only taste of the NHL until January, when the new season hopefully gets underway. If you’re in search of a strong RPG mode with your ice time, you’ll love Be A Pro. 

If you’re heavily gameplay-driven, you’ll probably have a love/hate relationship with World of Chel and Hockey Ultimate Team that’ll leave you scratching your head. And with no next-gen version of the game coming later on like Madden 21 and FIFA 21, it might be a good time to take a year off from “Chel.”


Pros

  • Be A Pro mode is the RPG hockey fans have been waiting for.
  • World of Chel’s reward system keeps you coming back.

Cons 

  • James Cybulski is terrible as play-by-play commentator.
  • Gameplay still feels stale.
  • No next-gen crossover game like FIFA 21 and Madden 21.

Score: 5/10