The NHL series is a weird one. Years ago, when 2K had its own NHL series, there was a competition for attention between the two franchises that drove both series’ forward as time went by. But without the competition that NBA Live deals with or the massive install base of Madden, NHL usually comes off as the series that is generally overlooked. This is by no means feels the fault of developer EA Canada either – the series often feels restrained by a teensy budget and small team. Unfortunately, it can feel like an old car with a fancy new paint job.
Right off the bat, most of the usual modes return in a largely unchanged state. The series’ long running Be-A-Pro, Franchise Mode, Quick Play, and Tournament options all make returns. Be-A-Pro remains as stale and outdated as it was several years ago, functioning as a half-baked stand-in for a campaign. While EA’s marquee Madden and FIFA franchises have already introduced story modes, NHL is, as ever, left in the dust. There is one entirely new mode, which is 'Ones', a three-player, pond-hockey free-for-all that is built around the more arcadey elements of 'Threes' which debuted in NHL 18. While the mode is fun if your objective is less about winning, much like Threes the mechanics are massively exploitable, and when you get up to the higher divisions, be prepared to be miserable. The higher levels actively encourage the use of many of the worst proclivities of the series: poke-check spamming, playing away from puck, goalie interference, and the like. After a handful of matches, we definitely felt ready to hang up the skates.
Threes mode of course returns as well, and is also largely unchanged. The circuit mode is reworked into three smaller divisions, where you only play NHL teams and the difficulty curve for unlocking legendary players is massively reduced. While these tweaks are beneficial, it very much feels like the developer shook up a pre-existing puzzle, rather than starting fresh with a new one. For instance, the first circuit match against the New York Islanders faces you off opposite, er, John Tavares. If you know hockey, you know there was a bit of a kerfuffle surrounding Tavares’ departure from the Islanders, and seeing him there in Threes is incredibly jarring.
But the most widely spread mode is, of course, Hockey Ultimate Team – EA’s golden goose. The different game modes and sub menus nestled within HUT are astonishing, probably packing more variety than the entirety of the rest of the game, and it’s not hard to know why: this is where EA’s money comes from. Ultimate Team is a well-documented game mode in all of EA’s sports titles now, and frankly, it’s perfectly fine. It’s very clearly geared towards trying to get you to spend extra "IRL" money, but there are enough ways to earn XP and rewards by just playing that it doesn’t feel like it’s criminal. It’s definitely a pay-to-win formula, but a good player with a bad team can still absolutely beat a bad player with a good team. Not only that, but you'll constantly be battling with server stability to make matters worse.
As far as smaller scale features, a big thing that was touted in the lead-up to the game’s release was the new physics engine when it comes to hitting. And we’re going to be honest: it doesn’t feel too different – it barely even looks different. Hitting is, however, more frequent. This is because it has to be. After an entire decade of poke checking non-stop without any kind of repercussion, there are actually consequences to doing this – except for in Threes and Ones – which is a refreshing change. Additionally there are new skating animations, which make skating look the best it has ever looked bar-none.
However, when comparing this to all of the elements of the game that are the same way they’ve been for years, it’s frustrating. Teammate AI – particularly Goalie AI – is borderline incompetent, and oftentimes you’ll see the best hockey players in the world looking like they have no idea how hockey even works. Moreover, player prediction for which player you actually want to control remains shoddy at best. The end result is a game with an irksome number of bugs that have been around for years that have yet to be fixed properly. If you’re a regular to the series, you’ll probably have already learned to cope with many of the problems the series has, which means this is unquestionably the best version of the game for you. But if you’re a lapsed player or newcomer, you’ll find layers of layers of quirks and faults with the core gameplay that frustrate to no end.
To be fair, at least the presentation is nice. Rink recreations, and jerseys look wonderful as ever, though player and facial animation still look like they fell into the uncanny valley, then fell into a second, even deeper uncanny ravine. The licensed soundtrack is good, though there only seems to be about five songs. Likewise with the colour commentary, which even though well done, is the same that it’s been for a number of years now. Players' customisation is a bit more elaborate than in years past, particularly for the CHEL, which is where 'Ones” is housed. Lots of goofy clothing items and equipment usually make it a race to see which player has the most painfully garish outfit first, but some of the options on offer are genuinely funny, and that added layer of personalisation is appreciated, even if it is locked behind a loot crate system.
Don’t let NHL 19's slick menus and new skating animations fool you: the same NHL game you’ve been playing for five years is still here. If you already know the series well, this is unquestionably the best iteration of the title, but it comes with the added caveat that it’s hindered by many of the same problems from years past. The reduced significance of poke check, and smaller changes like new skating animations, definitely help elevate the general presentation of the title – but it could and should be so much better than it is.