New console generations can prove rocky for sports franchises: performance issues, bugs, and a reduction in features are routinely guaranteed. Certainly, that's the fate that awaited EA's NHL series when it transitioned to the PlayStation 4 – after all, we still have nightmares about the abysmal NHL 15. Surprisingly, EA Vancouver has deked its way around this issue with NHL 22, and while the result isn’t an overwhelmingly new experience, it's refreshing to see the ice hockey sim remain on track.
The most significant thing to be aware of with the NHL franchise as it debuts on the PS5 is that all of the modes from NHL 21 are present and correct. This is even more significant when you consider that this year is finally the year NHL has switched over to the Frostbite engine, years later than EA’s other sports titles. You won’t notice too much from this change, but what is there is positive. The core gameplay experience remains unchanged, but things like ice surfaces and arena lighting are demonstrably better than in previous years. This engine switch does introduce some new texture bugs, though many of the lingering ones from previous seasons have been stamped out, making the trade something of a wash.
Sadly, apart from the switch in engine, the list of new features is rather slim. The biggest gameplay change is the introduction of X-Factor abilities, brought over from Madden NFL. These X-Factors function like activated abilities for many of the best players in the league, but honestly, it doesn’t feel too impactful on the experience. While the abilities – of which there are a ton to pick from – aren’t quite as noticeable on full team modes, they do feel more significant when you play locked as a player in modes like Be a Pro or use your skater in World of CHEL.
The biggest problem is that while, yes, the X-Factors presented as abilities are new, the things they allow to occur on the rink were technically already a part of the experience. Moments that would previously have looked like flukes or been successes thanks to RNG now have names and animations attached to them. The overall result is still a net positive, as the presentation is massively improved by their presence, but X-Factors don’t feel nearly as game-changing as we were hoping they might be.
While there are a few smaller changes, that’s actually it for huge stuff. The small tweaks are all welcome, though, so they do bear mentioning. Roster sharing, while not available at launch, will return. This restores a feature not offered to the community for a long time, dating all the way back to the PS3. A brand new feature for the DualSense comes in the way of advanced rumble allowing you to feel the ice as you skate. The rumble seemingly changes with the condition of the ice too, allowing you to feel how worn down things can get by the end of a period. It’s a small thing, sure, but it’s a worthwhile one.
The final noteworthy improvement pertains to stick physics. While in past years, sticks had a tendency to not behave themselves, this has finally been remedied. While the changes are largely in the animations, players no longer drag sticks through bodies like they’re corralling some spectral dissident of the hockey gods. Sticks move around players or collide with them as you would expect a piece of lumber to do. This further ties in with picking up the puck as well. Reaction times when it comes to making passes and controlling passes on the rush seem to have been dulled somewhat. In theory that sounds like a detractor, but we found it made the game quite a bit more fun: not every tape-to-tape pass is going to be cleanly controlled. All of this stands out in online modes and adds an unanticipated element of fun to the affair.
Unfortunately, steps to prevent cross-crease passing exploits seem to have gone backwards. Goalie responses appear to have been set back to a few years ago, when there was almost no point in doing anything else. Given that cross-crease frequency has felt under control the past few years, this is pretty disheartening to see, but something like that could be easily remedied with some slider adjustments. Fingers crossed.
Beyond these changes, everything else is either the same experience from years past – even HUT this year, which just has a new coat of paint and that’s it – or changed ever so slightly. Unfortunately, many of these alterations come with caveats. For example, on-ice graphics have replaced the list in previous instalments, but you’ll need to be a fast reader, as they often aren’t onscreen long enough. There’s a new team to mess around with in the Seattle Kraken, but there was clearly no consideration put into Be a Pro regarding them. For example, we were congratulated by reporters for setting the franchise assists record in our first game – with, er, 0. Menus are much faster, but the colour change has made much of the text harder to read. The list goes on and on.
NHL 22 surprises by making its debut on a new console without removing any of its modes, but those who played NHL 21 may find this version a little too familiar. X-Factors on paper should be a game-changer but are mostly underwhelming. The switch to Frostbite does massively improve the fidelity of the rink – even if character models still look downright demonic – but should that really be the biggest change to the game? The ultimate question is: can the price increase be justified on the PS5? And given how little really has changed from last year to this year, the answer has to be a “no”.