If I had to describe the NHL series between NHL 20 and NHL 23 in one word, it would be “stale.”
Freshening up a formula between annual releases is definitely something every sports franchise has to struggle with, but EA’s hockey series in particular has been in a real slump. NHL 24, thankfully, is not that: it breaks the cycle and reinvigorates the on-ice action with some meaningful new ideas and significantly harder-hitting body checks. Unfortunately, while the gameplay feels updated, not much is done with it – the collection of modes available feels as standard as ever.
NHL 24 Introduces the Exciting Sustained Pressure System
What finally brings the thrills back to hockey this year is the new Sustained Pressure system. When the offensive team stays in the attacking zone, they’ll slowly build up a pressure gauge. Once the gauge is full, they’ll gain a boost to passing accuracy and speed while the defense has to deal with faster stamina depletion. This adds a layer of excitement the series has been needing for a long time.
The Offense Reigns Supreme with the Exhaust Engine
Smartly playing into this cycle of exhaustion and using it to your advantage can lead to a true sense of urgency in crucial make-or-break moments. There’s no denying that the new Exhaust Engine heavily favors the offensive team, but it’s not necessarily as overpowered as it sounds because it does take time for the pressure gauge to fill, giving the defense time to head it off, and the effect is temporary. There’s just nothing that seems to balance out the debuffs that the defense has to contend with. The offense is rewarded for sustaining pressure in the attack zone, so why is the defense not rewarded the longer they go successfully protecting the net? There needs to be a more even push-pull to this new system. These gripes aside, it’s a mechanic I definitely like, and I really hope it’s something that’s expanded upon next year. It certainly impacts gameplay much more than the dull X-Factor system introduced in NHL 22.
A Real Sense of Momentum with the Contact-Based Physics System
A more subtle change this year I loved is the new contact-based physics system. Body checks require more effort to pull off this time around, as you have to charge a check by holding down on the right stick before you can execute it. This means players now have a real sense of weight and momentum as they’re hurtling down the ice, which makes every check feel nice and crunchy. There’s even some risk/reward strategy involved since you’ll stumble on the ice and make yourself vulnerable if you fail to connect a check. It might sound like a minor change on the surface, but I found this really encouraged me to rethink my playstyle on the fly depending on how a game was going. When I struggled in a final period as the Montreal Canadiens against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team with higher defensive stats, I had to focus on timing my checks for clutch moments like passes rather than going for riskier ones that might result in a penalty.
Improved Passing Control with Vision Passing
NHL 24 also introduces Vision Passing, which pops up a face button icon over teammates’ heads to let you be more in control of your passes anywhere on the ice. This is a great idea… in theory. In practice, having to hold down the pass button, look for a good passing opportunity, visually register which face button corresponds to the teammate you’re trying to pass to, and do it all while trying to deke around the opposing team is a multitasking nightmare. It actually hindered my moment-to-moment gameplay as it made the screen look completely inscrutable in movement. I can’t even begin to count how often I found myself shoved into boards or bulldozed over because I was too caught up in looking for the right button. Worse, there’s been plenty of times where I mixed up the face buttons and messed up an easy play due to the visual clutter.
Relive Iconic Hockey Plays with HUT Moments
Thankfully, there’s a game mode this year that’s actually new to NHL. HUT Moments allows you to relive iconic plays in hockey for yourself in a way that’s very much comparable to the Jordan Challenge or Mamba Moments in the NBA 2K series. There are over 50 Moments to recreate at launch, with more on the way. You can play through Marie-Philip Poulin’s historic backhanded 100th career goal, which she achieved earlier this year, or feel the pressure to replicate Sidney Crosby’s stunning Shootout victory against the Montreal Canadiens back in 2005. I’m usually not a fan of these modes because I don’t see much fun in recreating what someone else has done, but it’s nice to see some hockey history presented in an interactive way. It’s not exactly a groundbreaking addition, but it’s a new mode that has purpose – which is more than can be said for everything else.
Lack of Innovation in Offline Modes
And that effectively sums up the changes to NHL 24 beyond the expected roster updates. Offline modes remain almost identical to last year, with the biggest casualty to this lack of innovation being the career mode, Be a Pro, which last saw a big refresh back in NHL 21. Cutscenes still have stiff animations and no voice acting, giving them an eerie vibe that looks like watching animatronics at a theme park pretending to have a conversation. Other sports games like the NBA 2K and (formerly) the FIFA series have much more involved, cinematic single-player campaigns, and to say Be a Pro seems outdated by comparison is a massive understatement. Rising through a personal hockey career should be compelling, but Be a Pro manages to do nothing but bore.
The Disappointing Change in World of Chel
The rest of the updates are steps in the wrong direction. World of Chel gets a major change this year as you no longer unlock new gear by opening hockey bags full of random loot. Instead of loot boxes, there’s – wait for it – a battle pass! There’s already been a ton said about battle pass fatigue and the way games are fighting for our constant attention and commitment, so I won’t rehash that argument. I’ll just be up front: if this first season is anything to go by, the premium battle pass is only going to be for the most dedicated World of Chel fans who were already going to spend the bulk of their time here.
A Lackluster Premium Battle Pass
Is progressing through a battle pass better than relying on luck-based hockey bags? Sure, I guess. But the premium battle pass for NHL 24’s first season is far from impressive. The rewards for every tier come across as more of lackluster afterthoughts rather than compelling incentives. Some of the new goal celebrations are cute, but honestly, I found all the unique unlockable seasonal gear to be ugly. A large portion of the rewards are dedicated to different colored camo covered in skulls which is just boring. And then there’s the Angry Turkey Facemask, which gives your character a turkey beak, just in case you wanted some nightmare fuel to go with your hockey. You’re rewarded with a set of animated gear when you complete all levels of the premium battle pass, but even that’s boring in design.
Server Issues in World of Chel
I can’t imagine myself sitting time aside in my schedule to grind out the World of Chel pass, which is bad since the whole point of this system is to get us to keep coming back to unlock seasonal goodies. That doesn’t really matter anyway, as I’ve run into a ton of server issues since launch. Mainly, the problem is that it’s taken me ages to get into games. On more than one occasion, I’ve started up World of Chel and waited five minutes just to load into an EA server error…