Review

NHL 21 Review

  • First Released Oct 13, 2020
    released
  • XONE
  • PS4

Worthy of a celly.

Update 11/12/20: NHL 21 is among the catalog of EA Sports titles that is available to play on Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, but unlike Madden NFL 21 and FIFA 21, the developer is not creating a bespoke new version of the game for the new consoles. Because of that, while NHL 21 is playable on the new machines through backwards compatibility, you should not expect much in the way of significant improvements.

On Xbox Series X, EA told fans to expect the game to look as if it was running on Xbox One X, albeit with faster load times and better frame rates. After playing a few hours of NHL 21 on Xbox Series X, this does seem to be the case. I reviewed NHL 21 originally for Xbox One X, and this note reflects the comparisons against the Xbox Series X edition; I have not tried the game on PlayStation 5.

Speaking to the loading times on Xbox Series X, the game boots from the system in about 15 seconds. After that, it gets a little more complicated. Following the initial load, NHL 21 connects to the server, so how long it takes to get to the main menu depends on the speed of your internet, just as it did on current-gen consoles. However, once you've loaded into a mode, booting into a game is so fast that the loading progress bar doesn't even reach the end before it starts. The load times in NHL 21 were never long and painful, but this improvement is enjoyable all the same.

While EA says frame rates are improved, I can't say that I noticed much of a jump in terms of smoothness. I said in my initial NHL 21 review for Xbox One X--which you can read below after the break--that the game offers a smooth and reliable experience, and this continues to be the case with NHL 21 on Xbox Series X. In terms of presentation, my eye can't make out any significant improvements. The quality of player models, and specifically facial hair, appears to be more lifelike, but it's not such a big jump. All of this is to be expected, as EA as a company is focusing on Madden NFL 21 and FIFA 21 for next-gen right now in its sports catalogs. It appears hockey fans will need to wait until next year for the first true next-gen NHL game. -- Eddie Makuch


EA was supposed to release NHL 21 during this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, but complications due to COVID-19 led to a delay. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup weeks ago, and as a result, ice hockey has escaped the wider public sports consciousness as other leagues take hold. But NHL 21 is a compelling reason to care about hockey again, as this year's game delivers a major improvement to the story mode, adds a flashy new arcade-style mode in HUT Rush, and makes the on-the-ice gameplay better than ever thanks to a series of new skill moves that let you play with more style.

Be A Pro 2.0

The biggest new addition for NHL 21 is the expanded and improved Be A Pro. After NHL 20 delivered basically no updates on the career-focused mode, NHL 21 offers a huge step forward thanks to a cinematic-style campaign of sorts, where you create a character and guide them through their career, beginning in either Europe or the Canadian Hockey League and competing for a spot in the NHL. The story beats play out through non-voiced dialogue sequences and cutscenes with coaches, media, and teammates. The main choices you make come from the Team or Star paths, and both have pros and cons to consider as you weigh your options to shape your career in the way you want to.

As an example, my agent called me to ask if I wanted to attend a charity event for a wildlife protection company. I chose the "Team" response, and my brand rating improved because the simulation suggested my fans would see this as a sports star being humble and genuine. However, choosing this option came with a negative effect, too, as my agent told me it was a noble choice but I should also plan for my life after hockey and try to make as much money in my prime as possible. I enjoyed the struggle of making these choices, and I found myself choosing one option and then loading a previous save to see how things would have played out differently. The choices you have to make can be real head-scratchers and they generally seem believable and taken from real-world headlines. But while the conversation system and cutscenes are generally enjoyable and a step up from the past iterations of Be A Pro, they are at times very cheesy and contrived, so the conversations and their impact don't always resonate.

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I started my Be A Pro season in the Canadian Hockey League's Memorial Cup, and it was an enjoyable challenge to start my career as a low-level, poorly rated player who had to compete well with what few shifts I was given to win over my coach and teammates. Very few hockey players have a meteoric rise; it's often a slow grind, and this is faithfully represented in NHL 21's Be A Pro. The aim is to make it to the NHL by performing well enough to get signed by a team in the draft. To that end, NHL 21's Be A Pro mode delivers a multitude of feedback systems to help you improve. During games, a coaching system gives you live feedback about how you're performing and what you need to do better. After each game, a detailed statistics page populates with even more information and shows you sliders that represent how much further you need to go to improve.

You can tailor your player to your liking with NHL 21's skill tree system, allowing you to decide what type of player you want to be and then building a skill profile that focuses on anything you want. As I got better and better, I enjoyed seeing my player grow and evolve with their OVR rating rising, and the intuitive feedback systems helped me to understand what to prioritize to become a better player and teammate.

The rest of what makes Be A Pro so great this year are the more subtle improvements and attention to detail. There is a new radio show featuring NHL 21 commentator James Cybulski, who is a radio host in real life. It plays while you're moving through the menus and completing tasks like assigning skill points, checking the calendar, and tracking your progress, and it's exciting to hear Cybulski speak about what happened during the previous week and shower you with praise or discuss your less-than-ideal performance with his witty and informative commentary. It's a natural-sounding broadcast show, complete with Cybulski taking callers and flubbing his dialogue in some cases just as it would happen in real life.

There is also a new Salary Perks option that lets you decide what to do with your earnings, which can become significant as you progress through your NHL career. Some of the options include supporting charities, buying cars and houses, or even investing your money into app development, and they impact your player's ratings, which further encourages you to invest in your player's life off the ice. For example, buying a sports car gets you a limited-time buff toward speed on the ice, while hiring a lawyer gets you +2 aggressiveness, which is pretty silly but fun to see at the same time.

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NHL 21's Be A Pro mode is a far cry from the Longshot and The Journey modes from EA's Madden and FIFA games, respectively--which are far more fleshed out and include voiced dialogue--but what is there for NHL 21's Be A Pro mode is entertaining and feels like a first step, and one that I hope EA builds upon in the future.

Dangle Game Upgrades

On the ice, NHL 21 excels yet again. The big new additions to the gameplay mix this year are a series of skill moves that make NHL 21 even more true-to-life and faithful to where the real NHL is at these days. Players like Andrei Svechnikov, Sidney Crosby, and Alexander Ovechkin are wowing fans with their skills, and this has seemingly inspired the flashy new skill moves in NHL 21. The new slip and chip dekes are relatively simple to execute, and they are useful for getting around defenders in the open ice. The bank net self-pass, which Crosby made famous, is particularly helpful to quickly change directions and keep defenders guessing. The more challenging dekes, the "no-move move" and the lacrosse goal, are aimed at the highest-skilled players and I found them to be extremely difficult to pull off. The lacrosse goal in particular is the hardest deke in the game--and it should be, given that it's only been performed in real life on camera a handful of times.

The new skill moves are a welcome and enjoyable part of NHL 21, but they are not overpowered, and you don't necessarily need to use them to score goals. Like in real hockey, the majority of goals that are scored are the result of playing with speed, making hard passes, and putting in the effort to fight for the puck. It's a thrill to pull off some of the new skill moves during a game, especially against human opponents, but I scored the most goals--and had the most goals scored against me--by breaking the defense down with speed and making good and smart passes. Like in previous years, cycling the puck and waiting for a cross-crease scoring opportunity is the best way to win, even if it's not the flashiest way to do so.

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Also of note, your AI teammates, along with defenders, are smarter and more capable this year. In comparison to NHL 20, I found the AI to make better choices and skate together at a more capable level, and this contributes to making NHL 21 feel even more authentic to the sport.

AI goalies are smarter in NHL 21, too--they get into position and reading shots better than last year, and as a result I found myself scoring fewer "cheap" goals, which helps make the game feel more true-to-life. The sloppy goals from previous games can still happen, but I experienced fewer of them in NHL 21. Several new desperation animations for goalies have been added this year, too, and they elicit some jaw-dropping sequences just as they do on a TV broadcast.

There is still some weirdness to be found in NHL 21's gameplay. Player models do not always react to the action on the ice in a natural-looking way--there can be horror-show clips of players knocking into each other and limbs bending in inhuman ways, for example. And it's disappointing that the player models and the crowd animations are largely unchanged from last year. But these shortcomings are few and far between, and they don't negatively affect the experience in a consequential way.

Excellent Controls And Detail

The controls in NHL 21 are once again phenomenal. Using the recommended skill stick controls, the gamepad feels like an extension of your stick, and the controls feel intuitive and simple to grasp across the wide variety of moves you can perform. In particular, I found that poke checks are remarkably represented in NHL 21, providing a fine level of control to break up passes and give your opponents headaches as they try to enter the zone or make a move.

Elsewhere, NHL 21 delivers subtle improvements to the presentation that help the game look and perform more realistically. Jerseys generally look more like the real deal, featuring crinkles on them that give the appearance that they are actually worn instead of just slapped onto the character model. The animations, too, appear smoother this year, especially the backskating and pivoting animations that are fluid almost to a level of a TV broadcast. Some of the skating animations are still a bit wonky, but for the most part NHL 21 has a stunning package of realistic-looking animations that ice hockey fans will appreciate.

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The attention to detail in NHL 21 is impeccable and makes the game feel like a true representation of hockey culture. PA announcers during intermissions talk about hot dog giveaways, commentators James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro have an excellent rapport and effectively balance being informative and entertaining at the same time. The way a player looks over their shoulder when entering the circle for a faceoff, how the crowd noise crescendos into a roar during the third period when the game is close, and how the ice creaks and cracks when playing on ponds are just a few examples of how NHL 21 successfully captures the spirit of hockey by getting the small details right.

HUT Rush

In addition to the updated Be A Pro, the other biggest new addition for NHL 21 is the HUT Rush mode, which is a great addition to the Hockey Ultimate Team mix. A less serious, more arcade-style mode, HUT Rush challenges you to rack up the highest score by completing skill moves and chaining them together for multiplier points. HUT Rush makes you play differently--no longer are you trying to score goals the basic way, because that won't be good enough.

In HUT Rush, it's all about playing with style and using the new skill moves to do so. HUT Rush ties into the new skill moves nicely, providing an avenue for which to put the new skills to good use. There is an online element to HUT Rush as well, with new events promised to be added weekly.

Hockey Culture

There are a multitude of modes to play in NHL 21 depending on what kind of experience you want, and I enjoyed the variety. Beyond the traditional 5v5 mode and the aforementioned HUT Rush and Be A Pro, the Threes and Ones modes return, and they remain as engaging and fun as ever with their less serious, more stripped-down mechanics. World of Chel returns as well, and this online mode succeeds in creating a hub of sorts for you to create a character and develop them. In World of Chel, you compete against other human players, progress through a seasonal battle pass-style cosmetic system, and earn other progression rewards that represent the carrot to keep chasing. Hockey Ultimate Team offers literally hundreds of challenges to take part in, and this is before you even begin competing with other humans in online versus modes. There are leaderboards for some HUT modes, as well as the standard online versus mode, and I found myself coming back to see how my stats compared to the global playerbase.

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The Franchise mode, however, sees only minimal updates--the main new feature, a trade deadline simulation, doesn't end up feeling very satisfyingly tense and demanding as you race to make trades against the clock. That said, Franchise remains a very strong offering that lets you live out the fantasy of being an NHL GM as you make all manner of choices to help your team succeed, from identifying draft picks, to maintaining and repairing the toilets in your stadium's bathrooms, to keeping your fans happy. You need to manage just about everything, and it can be a real head-scratcher to have to make decisions that might be good for your organization but bad for player morale. In that way, it feels realistic and true to the experience of the dilemmas that a real NHL GM might face.

Simply put, NHL 21 represents a gigantic offering with each distinct part bringing something to the table that shows off a different corner of the hockey world and its culture. And speaking of culture, NHL 21 introduces new banners that pop up to tell you that offensive team names and other toxic behavior will not be tolerated. Further, NHL 21 has built-in player-reporting tools, so you can quickly and easily report offensive user-created team names you may come across. The NHL video game series and the sport it's based on is known to have a diversity and toxicity problem, and it's good to see EA take a step in the right direction to weed out some of the bad actors. However, with the game's online modes only just getting properly populated now, it's too soon to say if these reporting tools will be effective in thwarting bad behavior.

NHL 21 is a fantastic ice hockey game that pushes the series forward with an enjoyable, engaging story mode in Be A Pro and a flashy, arcade-style way to play with HUT Rush. The new skill moves are a welcome addition to the mix to give players new ways to be slippery and keep defenders guessing, but the best part of NHL 21 is its solid foundation thanks to its excellent controls and presentation package that is getting even closer to mirroring a TV broadcast.

Back To Top

The Good

  • The updated Be A Pro career mode is a huge step forward that delivers a mostly engaging story about the challenges of becoming a pro
  • HUT Rush is lots of fun and offers an exciting way to use the new skill moves
  • The controls are fantastic, allowing you to perform a range of actions intuitively
  • The new skill moves let you play with more style, and they aren't OP
  • Hockey culture is represented faithfully, from the frozen ponds to the arenas
  • A multitude of modes and ways to play helps the game appeal to whatever type of hockey you want to play

The Bad

  • Franchise mode doesn't get any significant or exciting updates
  • Some gameplay oddities surrounding physics and collisions can exist

About the Author

Eddie Makuch spent around 25 hours playing NHL 21 on Xbox One X. Review code was provided by Electronic Arts.
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coltonnaslund

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doesn't seem realistic. I see USA cheering against Canada in the screenshot. Shots fired

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Stickman2119

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IGN gave it a 6, Game Informer 7.5 and Gamespot 9. I enjoyed NHL20 so I will pick this up.

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Lizard_King89

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Reviews like this are why this website should never be taken seriously. This is a copy and paste of last year's game (with the exception of a revamped BAP mode) and it gets a 9? What a joke.

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stealthy1

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@Lizard_King89: Not even close to the same game. If you owned it you'd know. So much better then last years game.

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Lizard_King89

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@stealthy1: Glad you're having fun with it but there hasn't been enough innovation or change in the past 5 years to deserve my money.

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5tu88sy

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@Lizard_King89: I don't play sports games but I wonder how they can make each iteration much different from the year before? Better graphics and that's about it really.

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NickBasile

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@5tu88sy: That's a good question -- I've always felt that it would be more reasonable for sports game franchises to have seasonal/annual updates instead of releasing a new game each year. There are oftentimes new mechanics here and there, but they're generally the same skeleton and similar mechanics with a few new gimmicks. Business wise though, I reckon this would not make as much financial sense since minimal effort can be utilized to make large profits within a year. I know Motion capturing is a difficult process, but any game that can be released with less than a year development, regardless of cost for development, seems a bit impractical imo, especially when compared to games that take 5+ years to develop.

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Lizard_King89

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@5tu88sy: Actually they could improve a lot but they just don't choose to. It's easier for them to reuse assets and update the rosters than put any real effort into innovating in any way.

GM mode hasn't been updated in years because they put all their resources into HUT which makes them money from people buying packs. They haven't updated the Stanley cup celebration in years. If they're going to charge 60 bucks every year the least they could do is put some effort into making the game.

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ragethorn

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@Lizard_King89: That's why competition is good.

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Spaceme17

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Another paid EA review. GameSpot is really going full-on IGN aren't they.

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ragethorn

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The Reviewer must've never played another NHL game before. It legit looks like the same entry as last year.

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sippio

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I think back to NHL on PC way back in the day on Ultra and when you compare the improvements to today it's just not enough..

*At some point the sheople will stop being sheople and demand yearly patch/update/dlc instead of dropping $60..

*Shame on the parasite streamers who open packs. Ultimate Team ruined sports games!

i bought Madden from 1992-2012 solid. Although the last few years were just repitition..

NHL was alot of fun in 2014(i think 2014) where you could get a whole season going with 1 dude for every team. and you had 24 hours to play you're game or it was simmed..

This is what they shoulda improved upon.. i don't think that feature has ever returned..

*Hmm,,i wonder if NHL 2014(With Goalie Brodeur on cover) is still going??

i booted up my PS3 last summer and saw i had NHL2014 installed figital from a Playstation+ month.

Can anyone confirm if 2014 is still going online? or are servers dead(probably)

and if it was the last year they did online GM/or/ franchise mode 1 person per team etc??

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DivisionCAlpha

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Edited By DivisionCAlpha

P.S.- EA are the best criminals in the videogames industry, they are geniuses actually. Instead of just updating NHL 20 with a patch that would improve the player movement and the pace.... which should have been free what they did instead was release a free patch update to NHL 20 as NHL 21. If that is not having some brass f(cking ballz then I don't know what is. This is having the brass nuts of a bull mixed with the f*cking nerve and gall of an 18th century aristocracy. I have never been so offended as a consumer of any product like I am with this company. It's pure genius... free patch updates disguised and re-packaged as a new shelf product for 60 bones. 60 dollar free patch updates. Whichever criminal runs that conglomerate he is a criminal genius with the cojones to match.

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tsunami2311

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@divisioncalpha: NHL from EA has not been worth $60 in over 2 decade imo, certianly not now and it might soon be come $70. NHL stop being fun imo back around 2005 even then last one I truley liked was 2000 after that the simplistic and fun went out the window

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DivisionCAlpha

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@tsunami2311: It has not been worth the money since NHL 94'.

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DivisionCAlpha

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Edited By DivisionCAlpha

Don't be fooled by this guy's review. This game is at best an 8 and that's being optimistic. They did improve the player movements and the pace of the overall game but not much else has changed. Franchise mode is basically still the same joke, and the game menus/UI is basically a rehash of last year. So to give this game a 9 for simply improving a small aspect of the same game is a joke to me. Either this Makuch fellow has a few buddies over at EA or he's an NHL die-hard because this game is far from a 9. It is last year's game with updated pace/movement... and that's it.

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tsunami2311

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I have not play or bought NHL game since 2005, the simplisty of NHL games gameplay is anything but that or has that changed?

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Kezzy123

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Why do reviewers not review every patches every game adds? Because it would be ridiculous. Why do they review new NHL games? They ARE a patch each year. And IF you are going to review a PATCH, then why not review it as such....including only whats new and THE VALUE.

If someone advertised that oh...Dead Cells is adding a patch this month...and you can pay $80 for it...im sure people would be outraged....but hey...if you put a new cover on it and publish it as a whole new game...its alright!

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PrpleTrtleBuBum

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@Kezzy123: what people expect sport games to do? many shooter sequels are also exact same with new levels and a couple of guns. hockey cant change levels

sure they could do differences like nhl 02 03 and 04 (from in-game powerups to other stuff) to had but these modern games have a lot of fans

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DivisionCAlpha

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@Kezzy123: THIS IS THE SAME GAME AS LAST YEAR WITH THE EXCEPTION OF TWEAKED GAME PACE AND PLAYER MOVEMENT. EVERYTHING ELSE IS THE SAME. THIS IS NOT A 9 NOR DOES IT WARRANT BEING CALLED A NEW GAME. THIS IS AN UPDATE.

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Kezzy123

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Im confused. I thought EA cut funding to buy scores from reviewers when I saw the almost realistic 6/10 from IGN...but then I see this ridiculous score here and cant take it seriously. This game is at most a 4/10....its awful representation of hockey its also a scam in that its a PATCH (Not even an expansion) that you are charged AAA title price for each year. Stop giving them good ratings and encouraging this scummy practice.

What a shame.

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Bakula

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I'm sure it's ~4/10. EA is complete garbage that can't even optimize menu responsiveness, let alone hockey gameplay.

4 • 
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timthegem

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Congrats to EA on incorporating things that have been present in games like Football Manager for over 10 years. Way to go!

4 • 
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Kezzy123

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@timthegem: im surprised they didnt go ahead and just give it a 10 while at it. Would be just as ridiculous.

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Lunatic420s

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Shameless Gamespot

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rotchild

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Edited By rotchild

Another review in the "molds" of FIFA? And when people thought gamespot couldn't do any worse... This game is the exact same reboot of NHL 14. How can it be a 9? I mean, the game physics of skating on a ice surface does not resemble even for 1 bit/second what skating on a real ice surface is. One of the (if not the) most important aspect in a sports game is if the physics resemble the real-life sport. Then you state that very thing on the cons of the review ("Some gameplay oddities surrounding physics and collisions can exist"), and yet you still give this reboot a 9?! And what about the passing?! OMG, the passing...

You should go read IGN's review (it scored a 6) and think about how all this faulty arcade "experience" marred this entire generation. What a waste...

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lokar82

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Can I control more than one team in franchise mode yet? Been waiting since NHL 2k8 offered this 12 years ago.

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DaShaka

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Same trash as always and he gives it a 9? If this is your first or second NHL game, maybe....

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ConsoleHaven

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@dashaka: maybe a 9 for hockey fans and people who’ve been off it for a while? Same goes for Madden. Some people I know buy consoles for one sports game specifically and buy yearly updates. I wonder if EA skipped every other year and sold 30$ stat pack DLC instead whether that would make a difference and possibly make them more money in the process.

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Kezzy123

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@consolehaven: hockey fans??? haha. Anyone who knows ANY hockey would see this game for the trash it is. All offense cheese no defense no real playmaking just a glitchfest of mediocre gameplay. The guy who gave a 9 to this doesnt know hockey...or games.

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beastlypanda

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Eddie seems like an excellent writer but I feel like he’s either a newcomer or casual. NHL has been in decline this entire generation and this game is no exception. If you’ve been disappointed with NHL 14 and every year since, you already know what the expect. Believe the community. Same as every other EA franchise release, it’s a stinker, and they’re going to keep being stinkers as long as we keep buying them.

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skudruckus21

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"Players like Alexander Spechnikov, Sidney Crosby, and Alexander Ovechkin are wowing fans with their skills, and this has seemingly inspired the flashy new skill moves in NHL 21."

I believe we are referring to Andrei Svechnikov from Carolina.

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Kezzy123

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@skudruckus21: if the guy knew hockey, he wouldnt have scored this a 9. if he knew games, he wouldnt have scored this a 9. not sure why this person is reviewing sports_games

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Uncle_Rell

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LMAO a 9!!!

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Barighm

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Edited By Barighm

Metacritic: 77

User Score: 5

GS score: 9, the highest so far

Now, I wonder why GS is rating the game so much more highly than other...

"The NHL video game series and the sport it's based on is known to have a diversity and toxicity problem, and it's good to see EA take a step in the right direction to weed out some of the bad actors."

Oh, that's why.

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SmashAdams

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Edited By SmashAdams

@grosjoe: Correct, the game was originally due in September. Which is yanno, when the Cup was being played. And the game got pushed out.

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grosjoe

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@smashadams: He changed the first paragraph.

It initially said something like "every stanley cup playoffs means a new EA Sports NHL Game". No wonder I'm not the only one who reacted.

"on October 16, 2020 at 11:25AM PDT" That's AFTER my comment.

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phili878

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How unrealistic, the stadiums should be silent and empty.

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OldDadGamer

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OldDadGamer  Moderator

@phili878: Dude. Now I'm sad.

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slothymcgee1

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Couldn't get past the first paragraph because the writer got so much wrong. Bad journalism right here.

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eddienoteddy

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@slothymcgee1: Thank you for the feedback! My mistake; and the story is corrected now.

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Kezzy123

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@eddienoteddy: Did you ever watch a game or play a game of hockey before?

Cant quite comprehend how anyone who knows anything about hockey (heck, of games in a general) would rate this piece of trash PATCH a 9.

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NHL 21

First Released Oct 13, 2020
released
  • PlayStation 4
  • Xbox One

9
Superb

Average Rating

4 Rating(s)

2.5
Content is generally suitable for ages 10 and up. May contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes.
Everyone 10+
Mild Violence