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It’s the same thing every year, isn’t it? Annual sports titles get announced, highlight a few key features, and then hunker down for a few months, hoping any sort of pushback gets swept under the rug. It hits some series’ harder than others, Madden NFL being the most noteworthy franchise to endure a rough go of things. But some other sports titles are able to fare a bit better. EA’s NHL franchise has generally been reliably okay, taking the time to include a new marquee feature or mode or something of substance. But with NHL 23, the wheels appear to have fallen off this trend, as the differences this time around are slight.

NHL 22 was the franchise debut on the PS5, bringing with it an engine change, and a large number of visual improvements, all without cutting content. As such, NHL 23 starts off with a reasonably impressive number of things to do. The key here is that EA Vancouver hasn’t taken the past year to add anything new to that library of modes. That’s not to say there’s nothing new. Some of the in-game displays and infographics have been overhauled, the Stanley Cup celebration has been reworked to allow for a more customisable experience, and players scoring hat tricks at home now feature a downright deluge of headwear. Additionally, arena presentation has received some improvements, with on-ice displays featuring as they do in some real-world NHL arenas, and crowds are much more vocal, too. This crowd presence is one of the best changes in the game, as things feel appropriately loud when a team is in an important situation, such as a playoff game or on the powerplay.

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A bevy of animations have been added, further enhancing the presentation package. Players will motion to open players or lapses in coverage with their sticks like in the actual game, and a number of puck pickup and transition animations have made things look a shade less janky in general. Reflections on visors are present, and look alright too.

All these improvements are well and good, but you’ll notice we haven’t spoken of any meaningful gameplay changes. Where are they? Well, there really aren’t any. Last-chance desperation plays have been added where players can try and swat the puck to a teammate as they fall in a last-bid effort to retain possession, but utilising it is awkward and works inconsistently. And the AI doesn’t tend to use it much either, so you’ll go several games at a time without even seeing this system in action. Using the defensive skill-stick has gotten a little more challenging, too, as you’ll now see a massive reduction in speed while trying to interfere with a pass or shot. It’s a welcome change, but it’s ultimately no more different than fiddling with a gameplay slider.

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As for modes, like we said, there’s nothing to report. Franchise mode received a much more elaborate customisation feature, where you can modify the number of games in a season, the number of teams, and so. But that’s about it. Entire swathes of the game remain entirely unchanged: Be A Pro, Ones, Threes, and a slew of other modes are imperceptibly different from last year. Opponent AI continues to be just as flawed as in years past. No volume of new animations is ever going to be enough to mask those issues, so unless something drastic is done, the exploits will always linger.

Irritatingly, some of the weirder bugs from NHL 22 have returned, like the “syncing” issue that would show up on some replay screens and prevent you from finishing a game. Even HUT feels largely unchanged from last year, a major shock given how much of a cash cow Ultimate Team is for each of EA’s sports titles. To be fair, women have been more wholly integrated into the mode, which is an extremely welcome, if long overdue, addition to the title. But beyond that, there’s nothing new to discuss. It remains a pay-to-win mode that you can enjoy without putting money into if you’re patient enough, but it remains one of the less fun things to do in the game.

Finally, cross-platform integration is something that will be welcome — when it arrives. A feature anticipated to be added after launch, this should make queue times a little more bearable, as NHL has a low enough population that it can be tricky to find matches sometimes. This is especially true of some of the less popular modes, like the Threes mode or Ones Now. It’s a shame that it’s only generational cross-platform play rather than including everything. PS5 being able to play alongside PS4 or the Xbox One would be a massive help with matchmaking rather than only being able to play along with Xbox Series X|S.

Conclusion

It’s staggering how little has been done with NHL 23 to differentiate it from last year’s edition. Bugs that should have long ago been quashed remain, Be A Pro continues to be littered with spelling errors and conversations that make no sense, retirement and championship banners in arenas are as far behind as half a decade, and the list goes on. Despite all that, women being integrated into HUT and desperation plays are welcome improvements, as is the overhaul of rink atmosphere. Ultimately, while NHL 23 isn’t a step backward per se, the move forward is so small, so minuscule, that it may as well not have moved at all.