Sports games bring with them a certain expectation from fans. The titles get churned out every year, with relatively little difference, except maybe a few new ways to try and pry some extra money out of your hands with microtransactions. But you keep coming back because if you love a particular sport, there aren't any alternative options. This results in stagnation. But, it turns out NHL 21 is actually the best iteration of the hockey franchise in the PlayStation 4’s life cycle.

Calling this iteration rather than an evolution is very deliberate on our part. NHL 21 is absolutely an incremental step forward, but it is a step forward, in and of itself a rarity with sports titles. A lot of the improvements are minor things, like broken animations or texture issues that went completely unfixed in NHL 20. Would those have been better suited to being patched? Of course, but with sports, we have to take what we can get. However, a few of the changes are fairly large in scope.

Most obvious and most noteworthy is that Be A Pro has seen its first update in approximately 84 years. After being a static, tepid mess for close to a decade, the mode has finally received an injection of personality. Your rise from the minor leagues is tracked, with analysts and news reporters discussing you, your performances are discussed in more colourful terms as opposed to just looking at a chart, and generally, the mode just feels more in line with its peers at long last.

Not to say there isn’t room for improvement. You conduct lots of interviews and have conversations with teammates, but it’s all conveyed solely in text. While it would have been cool to see things fully voiced and acted, this is still a large step. Your personality impacts your perception both on and off the ice, too. You have to juggle the balancing act of impressing your team, management, and the hockey world in general, and upsetting certain groups impacts on-ice performance.

If your teammates don’t like you, then they will be less willing to get you the puck. Likewise, if you’re selfish with the puck, they won’t stick up for you if you get clocked. Talking big has it risks but if you back it up, you can make basically everyone except opponents love you. But you always have the option to go the safe route, and offer the safe answer, basically being a personality black hole. Think a Connor McDavid type. There’s also a vastly improved stat-tracking system, which finally brings back all-time records and franchise records, which have been absent for something like 15 years. And your coach calls you aside to challenge you mid-game. You’re challenged to either go get an important goal or lock things down to preserve the lead. While mechanically, the game plays just like it always has, the number of bells and whistles added to the BAP mode are legitimately impressive.

Most other modes don’t fare quite so well, with many like Shootout, Online Versus, Threes, Ones, Single-Season, and the like remaining mechanically identical to last year. Franchise Mode is also largely untouched but does include some changes to stat tracking and coaching staff, as well as the draft process. Again, nothing on the ice is different, but all of the in-between moments seem to be in a better place now. It’s also worth noting that the Threes Circuit mode is well-and-truly abandoned. It hasn’t changed in a couple of years now, and there are no longer even any Trophies connected to it. Yes, Threes still exists, and the online versions are still kicking – and still fun for some arcade hockey – but the Circuit is clearly just dead weight at this point. We wouldn’t be surprised to see it completely absent as early as next year.

One completely new mode is located within – hold your surprise – HUT, aka Ultimate Team. HUT Rush is a new mode that combines the arcadey style of Threes with the traditional sim style of regular HUT. You can play it both in online and offline modes and, honestly, it’s pretty fun. It’s also a good way to gain rewards for HUT quickly and without spending money. It has a Battlepass Progression system, and you can gain numerous levels in a short stretch. HUT in and itself actually looks surprisingly similar to last year. All of the same ways to pry that cold hard cash from you are still present, but perhaps more than EA’s other titles, NHL remains pretty fun even without funnelling a single cent into the mode.

Ultimately, to the surprise of no one, most of the changes are fairly minor, but perhaps most impressive is that nothing got worse. Can you tell that sports games generally have low expectations? The worst things in the game are simply things that are the same. Menu navigation is still the miserably slow tile set up it’s been for years. You have to navigate about 11 different menus before you can get to your desired mode, and each tab takes about a minute to load. It’s still just as awful as before. World of CHEL tweaked the way ranking and attributes work, but it doesn’t feel meaningful, it just feels like a lateral move. It’s less that the systems were changed and more just the names were. The soundtrack is different, but again it’s not better or worse, it’s simply as good as last time.

Things are more or less the same aesthetically, too. All the rinks look the same – Colorado’s rink has had all signs of it becoming the Pepsi centre removed, though, since that contract may not be renewed over in Denver – though the ice looks ever so slightly better.

The biggest aesthetic change comes by way of animation. For custom players, you now have the option to customise the manner in which you shoot and skate, which has an impressive level of detail to it. If you want to emulate a skater with a strange gait or rip one-timers on your knees like Sidney Crosby, you can now make that happen. Likewise, goalie stances can be customized too, allowing for a greater level of personality to show itself on the ice.

To balance that out, some changes are unwelcome, with some of the jerseys unlocks in world of CHEL being just wrong. We unlocked the classic Mighty Ducks jersey early on, and the crest was about twice the correct size, and the striping on the bottom of the jersey was wrong. Is that the end of the world? Of course not, but it’s also a pretty easy thing to get right.

Conclusion

NHL 21 is absolutely a step forward. We won’t be able to see if this improvement is a one-time thing until next year, but as it stands, this final release of the generation is also its best in that span. With a long-overdue update to the Be a Pro mode, alongside the pretty fun HUT Rush and the changes to Franchise, the series took a bigger step forward than it normally does. Sure, there’s a give and take quality to many of the alterations, but the overall product is a net positive. It won’t be scooping up an endless stream of awards any time soon, but this series has been in far worse shape in the past.