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NHL 22 does not feel like the next leap forward for video game hockey

In the case of EA Sports NHL, the last transition was a rough one; NHL 15 needed an extra year to make the jump, and the result was a barebones experience that threw away most of its foundation for a fresh start. With NHL 22, the series again needed an extra year to make the jump, and while the transition is a much smoother one, it still has its share of issues.

It’s definitely more of an arcade style hockey game than a “hockey simulator”, but what makes it really all feel cohesive is the presentation, and player A.I, two aspects which are arguably the best they’ve ever been. Part of why the presentation is the best it’s ever been, is because we’re seeing NHL in 4K for the first time on PS5, which is very impressive.

From a gameplay perspective, the biggest change is the addition of Superstar X-Factor Abilities in NHL 22. These are broken down into two categories: Zone abilities and Superstar abilities, and they are available to two types of players: X-Factor and Superstar. Zone abilities are more defining and are reserved for X-Factor players, like Sidney Crosby and his Beauty Backhand Zone ability. Superstar abilities are more specific and less powerful, such as improved shot deflection or better agility in direction changes. An X-Factor player can have both Zone abilities and Superstar abilities, while Superstar players only have Superstar abilities.

The only bright spark for X-Factors is found in the World of CHEL and the Electronic Arts Sports Hockey League (EASHL), where player freedom is more pronounced. This way, you are able to shape how you want to play with the stats and X-Factor abilities that make sense, such as the Wheels ability for a speedster or Snipe for those that can keep calm on the ice and find the target.

To be fair, the physics tweaks do improve the experience for the most part. Offline, you can still tweak the settings sliders very extensively to fine-tune the gameplay to your liking. Skating, passing, and shooting feels familiar, and still mostly satisfying, and the physics puck and stick interactions add a little bit more detail to the plays on the ice. The referees are really improved, letting more things go and finally making the defenders feel like they can use all their tools – from poke checks and defensive sticks to bit hits – without the constant risk of drawing a penalty.

The problem once again lies with what many players see to be a lackadaisical approach to these annual sports releases, when game modes are entirely copy and pasted from one year to the next instead of being revamped or tweaked in any significant way. That’s the case with the Be A Pro mode, which is practically indistinguishable to its NHL 21 counterpart.

NHL 22 comes loaded with all the game modes from NHL 21 and nothing more. Sure, there are tweaks here and there, like new power-up items for Hockey Ultimate Team, World of Chel quality-of-life improvements, and improved stick physics across all the modes, but nothing stands out as vastly different or improved. You can still do an online or offline shootout, enter a practice mode, or hop into an online versus match. HUT Rush still exists, which I had completely forgotten about since I tried it out while reviewing NHL 21 last year. There are tournaments and season and playoff modes. They’re all there, but what’s missing is any kind of fresh take on any mode in the game.

NHL 22 is now available on PS5 and PS4.