After NHL 20's lacklustre offering, NHL 21 seems to be skating in the right direction with its single-player career mode this year.
While the Madden and FIFA series have leaned into their own story modes in recent years with Longshot and The Journey, EA's other flagship sports franchise, NHL, has left this on the bench. That is still the case in NHL 21, but the game's developer is finally updating its career-minded mode, Be A Pro, with what appears to be the biggest and most welcome changes to it in years.
I recently had the chance to play around four hours of NHL 21's Be A Pro, and it's clear right from the start that EA isn't repeating the mistakes of last year.
The first thing you'll notice in NHL 21's Be A Pro mode is that the UI is completely overhauled, and for the better. The hub has been revamped to display more information on the screen at once. This sounds very basic, but in returning to NHL 20, its Be A Pro screen feels very barebones and lacking by comparison. NHL 21's Be A Pro hub shows you most everything you need on one screen, with sub menus available for your game schedule, skill tree, important news, salary details, and more.
The Be A Pro structure is familiar--as in years past, you start out by creating a character and choosing whether you want to start in the Memorial Cup or in Europe, and compete for a place in the NHL, or you can jump directly into the NHL and guide your player through their rookie season. I tried both ways, and found it was more exciting to start in one of the lower-tier leagues, as this makes your journey to the NHL feel more fulfilling.
Outside of the new hub and layout, another major change for Be A Pro in NHL 21 is the new conversation system. You will have text conversations with coaches, management, and teammates to discuss your future, and there are multiple dialogue options to choose from that can alter the trajectory of your career. EA says there are "hundreds" of story beats that can play out. I only played around four hours, so I didn't see them all, but I was impressed with their variety.
In one instance, a teammate asked if I wanted to go bowling as a team-bonding exercise. I said yes, but then I got a call from my agent saying an opportunity came up to make some cash. So I was presented with a choice--go bowling with my teammates to increase my likeability with them (which would in turn improve line efficiency) or call my agent back to take up the brand opportunity (which could pay dividends down the road with further brand opportunities and sponsorships).
I ended up going bowling, but it was a decision I spent some time thinking about as I weighed the pros and cons--the ratings impact is also shown on screen so you can see just how much your decisions may affect your career. These kinds of dilemmas can also occur in conversations with members of the media and coaches. For example, in a media interview you can promise to have a big game the next time out, and you're rewarded for coming through and punished for failing with impacts to your statistics.
While most of these conversations happen off the ice, there are also some conversations with your coach that occur in the middle of a game. In certain pivotal situations, you can promise to get your team back on track with a goal, or you can reassure your coach that you'll play a more measured game to protect a lead.
I found that these conversations made me feel a sense of ownership of my player as I guided them through the early stages of their career. In about four hours, my character's journey is only just beginning, and I'm excited to see how their story will play out and what other choices I might need to make throughout my career.
Creative director William Ho said in a group interview that he hopes people don't just mash the conversation buttons and move on.
"We really want people to look at the responses and look at the ratings impacts … we've tried to make those ratings impacts with the fiction of each conversation and each promise," he said. "So keep your eyes peeled and don't just button through the conversations."
It's also worth noting again that NHL 21's Be A Pro mode is focused primarily around your rookie season in the NHL. The majority of the content and the new voiceover and narration pertains to your rookie season, though Ho said there will be a "significant amount of content" available for your sophomore seasons and beyond as it relates to stat-tracking for your milestones as you progress toward new franchise records. Still, Ho acknowledged that he anticipates the main feedback around NHL 21's Be A Pro mode will be that fans want more.
Also new for Be A Pro in NHL 21 is an in-universe radio show hosted by NHL 21 commentator James Cybulski that plays while you're looking over the menus between games and other notable events. Cybulski, who in real life is also a radio host and broadcaster, does a fine job of recapping the previous week's events and giving you something informative and entertaining to listen to as you complete more mundane tasks like assigning skill points, looking at your calendar, and more. Cybulski even takes callers and chats with hockey analyst and former player Ray Ferraro, and it genuinely sounds like a real radio show, complete with phone-caller audio and mistakes like Cybulski messing up the name of a caller.
NHL 21's Be A Pro mode also contains a new menu for Salary Perks. As you progress through your career, you'll make more money, and then you can choose how to spend it. Some of the perks include hiring a lawyer, a doctor, a stylist, or a stockbroker. Like real-world athletes have done with their money, you can also choose to invest your earnings in things like mutual funds, clothing brands, fragrance companies, or apps. Players can also buy houses and cars. Purchasing these items also impacts your player attributes. For example, hiring a lawyer grants you +2 aggressiveness and -1 shot blocking--how EA arrived at those figures, I don't understand, but it gave me a good laugh.
Be A Pro also does a better job this year at providing quick and helpful feedback around player progression and letting you know what you need to do to improve and how close you are to achieving the next rank. During your shifts on the ice, the game tells you your XP rewards for good passes, well-aimed shots, and big hits. When you're on the bench during a change, you get helpful feedback about what you need to do to improve, and then it's up to you to execute.
When a game finishes, you get an even more in-depth breakdown of your performance with new menus that have sliders that show you experience points gained--or lost--toward the different facets of your game. This year, these progress bars notify you about how close you are to the next ranking, and this visual aid gave me the extra push to play one more game to keep ranking up and improving my character. And like last year, the skill tree returns, so you're able to build out your character to your liking depending on how you like to play. It remains a thrill to see your player's OVR rank rise as you progress through a season and succeed on the ice. Another nice touch is that, if you make it to the first line--meaning you're one of the best offensive players on your team--the playcallers James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro will give your line a special nickname.
I haven't played a full season of Be A Pro and gotten to see everything there is to offer at this stage, but at first blush, it appears EA is taking things in the right direction. I still hope that one day EA decides to make a full-blown story mode for the NHL series, but until then, Be A Pro will have to do--and thankfully it seems much better this year.
NHL 21 launches on October 16 for PS4 and Xbox One, but you can start playing from October 9 with EA Play. Keep checking back with GameSpot for more on the ice hockey game in the days ahead.