The signs have been there all along, folks. Three periods in a game. Three forwards on a scoring line. Three Stars of the Week. Three goals in a hat trick. Truly, three has been a magic number for the National Hockey League. And in keeping with this mysterious tradition of threes, EA has brought the new NHL Threes mode to the Xbox One (the third stage of evolution for Microsoft’s console!) Does this new mode triple the excitement of the coolest game on earth? Or will players find their interest fall to one-third the level they hoped? I am at least thirty percent certain these questions will be answered in the review that follows.
When I first played the new NHL Threes mode in the beta, it struck me as a shallow gimmick. Just a simple way to throw in an arcade mode with little more than a trio of skaters and a goofy announcer as the key selling points. Neither one of those aspects are novel, either. Back on the original Playstation, EA released a highly stylized arcade hockey game following the same formula called, ‘Rock the Rink.’ That title was fun for its time. But we live in the days of superior hardware and processing power. To my eyes, Threes was doing little to capitalize on those resources when it first graced my television screen.
Then I get my review copy and discover that Threes offers more than just a faster pace of play with fewer skaters. Most notably, there is the ‘Circuit’ option which is effectively a campaign that sees you taking an underpowered triumvirate of skaters on the road against opponents from various leagues including the NHL. As you win games, you also unlock new items to aid you on your journey. Alternate jerseys, arenas and even better players from the rosters of the teams you have bested. I actually won the rights to an opponent’s mascot. Not to have him cheer on my team. To play on my squad. He is a hard hitting bobcat with a scoring touch. That package of gifts is rare in a human player. But finding it in a feral cat is phenomenal.
As expected, the actual on-ice experience with Threes is a loose, free flowing, wild ride. The experience is occasionally punctuated by the sudden appearance of a key player for the opposing team. And by this I mean, a full on interruption of a face-off featuring on-ice skaters shrugging their shoulders in bewilderment as the camera cuts to a WWE style introduction of what you are being assured is the baddest thing in skates since the Hanson brothers laced them up for the Charlestown Chiefs. Adding to the over-the-top style presentation is a color commentator who works exclusively to ‘sell the sizzle’ as opposed to giving an informed perspective on the neutral zone trap.
When you take all these elements together, you get an amusing arcade experience with higher replay value than expected. Surviving the Circuit mode is no small task. There are many stops in each region with teams from various leagues. Furthermore, there are tiered objectives per match. Fail to satisfy each and you have to try again to reach the remaining reward. If you do not mind short periods, goal multipliers and several other shades of mayhem, the honeymoon period with NHL Threes will last longer than you think.
Though NHL Threes stands as the most striking new addition to this year’s release, there are other important refinements sprinkled throughout the game. The enhanced deking options added to the skill stick let you string together a series of fakes to create a smoother path through the defense on your way to the net. These dekes deliver on their promise of creating space between you and the defense, increasing the amount of quality scoring chances you see. On a short-handed breakaway, I effortlessly moved the puck by a pair of oncoming defenders with just the press of a button and the flick of the right stick. This set up a beautiful shorthanded goal that will live forever in my library of game captures.
There is also an advanced tier of dekes that allow for a more dazzling array of moves. Yet in my experience, they proved far too difficult to pull off during actual games. Flicking a stick and/or pressing a button is fine. But when the tutorial for the advanced moves started to include rotating a stick, pressing two buttons and then releasing said stick as I pushed it forward while keeping one or more additional buttons engaged, I felt a little overwhelmed. And in an intense game situation with collapsing defenders swiping wildly at my precious puck, the advanced dekes get even harder to to successfully complete. I suppose that is the point. But fortunately for me, the standard dekes proved effective enough.
Another key enhancement to NHL 18 is the AI for CPU controlled players. They are not as dopey as they have been in years past. On offense, I found my linemates positioning themselves better and working harder to keep a possession alive. This made for fewer errant passes thanks to the CPU keeping my linemen where I needed them. The same was true on defense. My guys did not just play their man, they worked passing lanes, the point, etc. It was a rare sight to see an unaccounted for attacker moonwalk through the crease on their way to an easy goal. In the last couple of installments in the NHL series, this was a common occurrence. And that punctuated my enjoyment with brief, intense moments of rage. The only odd moments I encountered with the CPU this year involved how my full force checking the opposing goalie did not generate a whistle. Shooting a puck on net after the whistle? That always results in an opposing forward squaring up to fight. Crashing into the netminder full speed? No problem, apparently. That aside, I am glad to see the AI get a boost for this year’s release.
The rest of NHL 18 looks much like you would expect. You have your Franchise, Be a Pro and Ultimate Team modes. Each offers you pretty much the same experience as last year’s edition with a minor option or two added. For example, Franchise Mode gives you a chance to run an organization in the 30 team NHL, the new 31 team league with the Vegas Golden Knights or setup a 32 team league that includes another expansion franchise you fully customize. The EASHL returns and will feature the Threes concept, too. NHL 18 is effectively the hockey themed banana split you have enjoyed for years now but with three cherries on top.