NHL 21 Hands On Preview 1

Alright, stop us if you’ve heard this one before: NHL 21 feels a lot like last year’s game. Between all the modes on offer and the actual presentation of the game, you’d be hard-pressed to notice any key differences between last year’s product and EA Vancouver’s newest entry in the chilled sports franchise.

Now, in fairness to the dev team, the annual NHL technical tests are usually more of a stress test as opposed to an unveiling of new features. Given that the biggest changes to be expected for NHL 21 haven’t even been discussed in detail yet makes their absence from the technical test unsurprising. But it would have been nice to see something new. After having spent some time playing a few traditional online versus matches, as well as exploring all of the World of CHEL offerings, the differences from NHL 20 to NHL 21 are slim to none.

The first, and perhaps “biggest” change is that you can now customise your player’s skating and shot styles. The shot styles see you pick from a number of presets for wristers as well as slapshots, but the skating style is much more robust. With a collection of sliders to tweak things such as how wide your gait is or how aggressively you pump your arms, you can get some pretty impressive variance out of it. This feature also brings with it the decidedly creepy slider option of “spine angle”, which innocent though it may be, sounds downright disturbing. Other than that the only change is really the ranking system, which is tied to seasons of play. The divisions appear to function more like a traditional ranked game and could make online matchups better, but we’ll have to wait and see.

NHL 21 Hands On Preview 2

The perks you can equip your custom players with have been revamped with some fresh new ideas. It’ll be hard to tell how successful these changes are until the community at large gets its hands on them, but for now, it’s a welcome change – as long as these changes don’t create more online mechanics for people to exploit. The NHL franchise has enough of those already thank you very much.

Shooting, passing, hitting, deking, it’s all there, and it all feels like it always does. This area is one where no change is frankly welcome. The skill stick is pretty great, and sure, maybe some fine-tuning would improve it, but given how iterative this franchise is, there are bigger problems to address. And hopefully come October, when the game launches they will be. Be A Pro finally getting a touch-up is very encouraging, as are the – hopefully robust – changes to franchise mode.

One other thing of note is that in the past technical tests have generally had high volumes of players, but despite playing at peak gaming hours, we found it challenging to get into games, sometimes waiting minutes for a regular online versus game. It was a bit easier to get into the 'Ones' CHEL mode, but that’s more of an arcadey distraction from the simulation-style modes. Is it just a fluke? Or a sign of a growing trend? It has gotten slightly harder to reliably find matches online year after year for the past few NHL titles.

The fact that NHL 21 is skipping the PS5 altogether should be a good sign. It could mean that NHL 22 might be a massive leap forward for a series that desperately needs it. But we already know that’s not going to happen. The development cycle on sports games is simply too small and too rushed for any team to be able to consistently move a franchise forward meaningfully. It’s a sad, often disappointing truth, but it's reality.

We’ll know more when the final game does launch, and of course, be bringing you a review, but in the meantime, have you tried out the NHL 21 technical test? How do you feel about it? Pass the puck in the comments section below.