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A large variety of offline and online game modes
World of Chel is an excellent online game mode with persistent character progression
Multiple control schemes help new players while appeasing veterans
Huge amount of customization for custom teams and players
Commentators are boring and rote
Jittery, glitchy animations in replays
No narrative-driven story mode
Thanks to the huge amount of gameplay modes and well-integrated World of Chel online progression, NHL 19 is a must-buy for hockey fans.
Ice Hockey may lag behind the top three when it comes to popularity in the United States, yet NHL 19 is one of the most enjoyable and effective adaptations in modern sports video games. It also happens to be the only real option that hockey fans have for a video game. EA Sports’ Real Player Motion technology combined with skill stick controls provides a large pool of moves that feel satisfying to full pull off, while still being accessible for rookie players. The new World of Chel gameplay mode creates a unified online progression system with a staggering amount of customization and unlockable goodies for your budding skater.
Setting up is merely a matter of putting the disc in or downloading the game. Whichever you pick, there will be a few updates and then you should be good to go.
NHL 19 does a fantastic job identifying players of different experience levels, from new players to hardcore annual veterans. Two main control schemes are available (three if you include the fun but basic NHL 94 two-button setup): Skill Stick and Hybrid. Hybrid combines the basic hockey controls from the 90s, with separate buttons to pass, slap shot, and wrist shot while allowing some advanced deking maneuvers with the right stick.
NHL 19 offers a wealth of gameplay modes that take full advantage of the sport’s malleability.
With Skill Stick controls you rely almost entirely on the right stick and the shoulder buttons to perform different shots, deking maneuvers, body blocking, and passing. Be default these controls are recommended for veterans as they can be quite tricky to learn. We found it easiest to start with the Hybrid controls and eventually graduate to the full Skill Stick. Thankfully, NHL 19’s string of quick tutorials do a great job teaching all the basic and advanced skills you’ll need to compete.
NHL 19 has a staggering amount of online and offline gameplay modes. Franchise Mode is still borderline impenetrable for all but the biggest stat doctors, with the new scouting feature adding yet another ranking and monetary element that GMs need to track.
Most players will find relief in playing through their favorite teams in Season Mode, quickly switching between players, pulling off breakaways and slap shots while nailing big hits on defense. AI teammates rarely felt frustrating or stupid, and the enemy team can be effective, coordinated, and brutal on higher difficulties.
You can also create your own custom hockey player, get drafted into the NHL, and play through an entire career in the Be a Pro mode. Player customization is deep, from the length of facial hair (including playoff length!) to the tape on the hockey stick. Like many career modes, it features RPG elements where you earn experience points for performing well in a game, such as getting assists and blocking passes, which are offset by gaining penalties and taking bad shots. Earned experience is used to unlock new skills from several different skill trees, improving our shot accuracy, physical strength, or puck awareness, ultimately creating a skill set that matched our preferred play style.
AI teammates rarely felt frustrating or stupid, and the enemy team can be effective, coordinated, and brutal on higher difficulties.
While the career mode checks all the right boxes, NHL 19 strangely doesn’t have any kind of story or characters, such as FIFA’s The Journey or NBA 2K’s The Way Back. It’s a glaring hole that’s become impossible to ignore among the modern sports game era.
World of Chel (a play on how the NHL abbreviation is pronounced) is the big new feature for NHL 19. It’s an all-in-one online hub for creating our own custom skater (similar to Be a Pro mode) and playing four different game modes: ProAm, Ones, Threes, and EASHL. ProAm offers a series of ho-hum single-player challenges against legendary teams.
The fast-paced 3 vs. 3 format Threes returns from NHL 18, and feels like the perfect balance between classic hockey without the chaos of a full team of online strangers, not to mention far easier match-making thanks to drop-in connectivity. NHL Ones is a much different experience, pitting three players against each other in a half-rink with an AI goalie, allowing star players to show off their solo prowess, much to our embarrassment.
World of Chel isn’t a revolutionary addition, but it does provide a satisfying progression loop for our online career whether we’re winning or losing, and most importantly, keeps us coming back for more.
Finally, there’s EASHL, which provides the classic 6 vs. 6 online hockey setup. In every online mode, we encountered several connection problems that resulted in dropped games, though thankfully we still received any earned experience. After each game experience is earned based on our performance, similar to the offline Be a Pro mode, unlocking new skills and specialties that we can equip to multiple load-outs and positions.
EA is not one to shy away from loot boxes, and upon leveling up in World of Chel we’re also given hockey bags that contain random customization items like goalie helmets, goal horns, and a multitude of hockey jerseys, hats, and jackets, all of which have their own rarity and color schemes. Thankfully the World of Chel is free of any paid microtransactions, making the hockey bags a source of purely fun random loot drops in between matches.
Thanks to the heavy amount of padding and gear players wear, not to mention the more zoomed-out camera, limited player models and faces are less noticeable in NHL 19 compared to other sports game. The action looks smooth and natural on the ice, but the immersive visuals begin to break down when the camera zooms in for instant replays and goals.
Player faces often look hilariously bad, with the same basic yelling animation played on a loop. Often the player models themselves would get stuck on something and appear to stagger or glitch. These unfortunate moments only occurred during replays and never during the action itself, however.
Player faces often look hilariously bad, with the same basic yelling animation played on a loop.
NHL 19 also falters with its main menu design. The gigantic series of panels that lead to various game modes is unattractive and cumbersome. We’re given the option to pin our favorites to a smaller favorites-only menu, but hunting for other game modes remains a bit of a chore.
NHL 19 sees the final year of EA Sports’ partnership with NBC Sports. That’s great news because the play-by-play and color commentary by Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk has grown tiresome, predictable, and limited. We began hearing repeat phrases within our first game, and many times their commentary appears to be disjointed from the on-screen action. With big name licensed stars doing commentary comes a vastly limited number of tracks they can record, and it definitely shows.
The pump-up pop soundtrack also feels generic and uninspired, featuring songs like “High Hopes” from Panic! At the Disco, “Natural” by Imagine Dragons, “I Want It All” by Parade of Lights, and “Head Up” by Don Diablo, featuring James Newman.
NHL 19 is priced similarly to other major video game releases at $59.99. With the number of gameplay modes, customization, and career progression, we found it worth the price for hockey fans. As an annualized series that sees incremental improvements each year, however, it may be worth just getting NHL 20.
EA hasn’t had a serious hockey game contender in years, leaving hockey fans with only one real option when it comes to gaming. Thankfully, NHL 19 continues to improve every year, providing excellent single player and online mode modes and career options.
The only element that NHL 19 glaringly lacks compared to other sports games is a narrative-driven story mode, a la The Journey in FIFA and Longshot in Madden. We enjoy creating our own custom players in the Be a Pro mode and online in the World of Chel, but wonder why hockey gets the shaft when it comes to a full-on story campaign.
Simply the best hockey video game you can buy.
Whether you like controlling an entire franchise right down to the snack bar at the home stadium or just want to drop into a quick game of Threes with random players online, NHL 19 offers a wealth of gameplay modes that take full advantage of the sport’s malleability. World of Chel isn’t a revolutionary addition, but it does provide a satisfying progression loop for our online career whether we’re winning or losing, and most importantly, keeps us coming back for more.