NHL 21 review: A series skating on thin ice

Michael Gwilliam
NHL 21 review

EA’s flagship ice hockey game is back once again with NHL 21 and while there are a handful of overhauls to Be A Pro Mode, the wait for groundbreaking updates looks to be rolling on for another year. 

If you’ve played any NHL game in the past five years, you’ve probably accustomed to the controls, presentation, and general style of the game.

NHL 21 isn’t much different, offering up more of the same from what you’ve come to expect, with very little in the way of franchise-altering changes.

However, for new players, it serves up one of the best experiences to be had in a sports game.

NHL 21 Review

  • Copy: NHL 21 (PS4)
  • Price: $59.88 – on Amazon
  • Developer: EA SPORTS
  • Release date: October 16
  • Platforms: Xbox One, PS4

NHL 21 cover


Despite very few noticeable changes from previous entries in this generation, NHL 21 does manage to improve upon what already works.

There are more dekes at the player’s disposal, better AI, and improved goalie mechanics this time around, which do make the game feel better. They just do little to push the game fully forward.

To be frank, it doesn’t really deliver a true evolution for the series, nor does it offer anything to be considered revolutionary.

Behind the new pass
NHL 21 features improved AI.

It’s not necessarily expected that yearly sports titles reinvent the wheel every 12 months, but to go back in time, look at NHL 2005 from 16 years ago.

NHL 2005 brought in “Open Ice Control” which let players in possession of the puck take control of another teammate to set up for breakaway passes. Even though it may have been overpowered, it was a clear sign that EA wanted to change up the formula.

Nothing as drastic exists in NHL 21. It just feels like a carbon copy of the previous title with some slight improvements that only the most hardcore of players will notice.

Carey Price makes a great save
The goalies in NHL 21 are better than ever.

Perhaps this is because the developers feel comfortable with what it has going for it. While it works, it’s arguably gotten stale. Skating, passing, hitting, and shooting feels tiresome and remains a tad too arcadey.

Hockey is perhaps the most arcadey of all sports (what with its fighting and brutality), so it’s no surprise that it’s translated well to video game form for all these years. But, in a world where 2K gets its NBA series to feel like a genuine simulation, NHL still finds itself playing a bit offside when it comes to being a legitimate recreation of the sport with its HUT Rush and outdoor arenas.

Going into next-gen, it would be wise to go back to the drawing board and implement significant changes to core gameplay mechanics. They likely will at some point, but we still don’t have a coach’s challenge for some reason. It’s far too easy to enter through the neutral zone. These issues have plagued the series for too long.

Custom player winning trophy
Be A Pro has been extremely revamped.

Be A Pro

While the gameplay brings nothing really new, the Be A Pro mode has received the most attention and is by far the standout of the year – similar to that of UFC, which focused heavily on the adventure and customization elements.

EA have morphed Be A Pro into more of a journey. Talking to the media, expectations from teammates and coaches – there is quite a lot to unpack.

Even though the mode doesn’t have a set story like we’ve seen in Madden and FIFA in the past, it instead tailors the experience to a pro’s whole career beginning with a rookie season.

NHL locker room
Be A Pro mixes RPG elements with hockey.

Leveling up, gaining skill points, and selecting specific dialogues tree make the mode feel like an RPG at times. Saying the right things to certain teammates may trigger events where a set of tasks need to be accomplished such as getting three assists in a game.

You can choose to simulate a season leading up to these larger events, which lets players decide how much of an 82-game season they want to play without missing out on any key career moments.

I often found myself simulating one or two periods of big games not part of these larger event matches before taking the reins to speed up what could have potentially been a slow, tiresome mode.

Be A Pro feels like DLC and not worth the full price.

Sadly, there is a lot of repetition in Be A Pro that significantly breaks the immersion. There is also a serious lack of consequences for failing a task. Again, this mode feels like something that could have been released a few years ago. It’s a nice, welcomed inclusion. But for some people it might not warrant the purchase of a new game if they bought NHL 20.

Once more, the revamped Be A Pro gives something new for EA to build upon and perfect, but it alone isn’t enough to recommend NHL 21 to anyone familiar with the last few installments.

NHL 21 review | Verdict: 6.5/10

Really, your enjoyment of NHL 21 will ultimately come down to whether or not you played NHL 20, 19, or 18 (possibly even farther back). Be A Pro would work as a glorified $15 DLC to last year’s game, but not for the full price of admission.

If you’re new to these games or haven’t played in a few years, then you will probably have a lot of fun, because it is still fun. But it’s also extremely stale.

Serious changes need to be made to gameplay going forward. Until then, the series is skating on very thin ice.

Reviewed on PlayStation 4