Overview of Franchise Review
This is a post-release review for NHL 21, so most likely you’ve made up your mind about a lot of things regarding this game. Therefore, this review is not focused on gameplay or new game modes. This review is heavily focused on franchise mode, so if you’re someone who enjoys franchise mode but is still on the fence about NHL 21, this is the review for you.
Let’s start by asking a simple question: Does the NHL series fall into the Big 4 of sports games titles? Madden, MLB The Show, and NBA 2K are all AAA titles that sold millions and millions of copies over the years. When perusing a list such as the one here, it’s easy to see that NHL has a claim to that 4th spot, but is likely still behind the FIFA series. That’s understandable since FIFA has more of an international appeal than perhaps any sports game in the world.
Why lay all of that information out at the start of a review? Well, because it’s fair to establish a baseline for a review with a game like NHL or another AAA title, and it’s not the same as reviewing a smaller game from a smaller studio with less resources, for instance Doug Flutie Maximum Football.
So let’s begin…
I have really enjoyed the NHL series a great deal since probably around NHL 16 or 17. It’s been one of my favorite games, and a game that I’ve consistently have said needs more recognition, especially with its franchise mode details.
My first impression of NHL 21 is that it is a lot like NHL 20, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it is also understandable with all that’s going on with next-gen development and the Coronavirus impacting work lives.
The Good of Franchise Mode
The new Trade Deadline feature is really awesome. It’s actually very similar to the final day of signings in FIFA (you can tell it was built upon similar code). It’s a very innovative, new addition to the NHL series, but it’s not perfect. I’m leaving it in the Good section because it’s enhancements like this that we should be consistently seeing in abundance year-after-year in all sports games. The knocks are that there is no way to pause, speed up, or exit the process once started, nor is there any mention of how many hours it runs for. You also still have to manually create all of your trades against a clock.
I really Like the inclusion of the record book. It’s fun and interesting to just peruse through the history of the NHL, and I was happy to see that in my quick sim, no records were magically being broken due to the sim engine.
Retired Players Becoming Scouts
I love that players can become scouts. It’s odd though that they are auto-hired to your team, and doubly-odd to have their contract expires 3 days later.
Automation and Help Prompts
It’s fairly easy to automate things, and I like the new help prompts that can help a newbie to franchise get acquainted.
State of the Teams
I like the new state of the teams. Wings are a conservative seller, Ducks are a conservative buyer.
I may be wrong, but I don’t recall secondary positions being in the game before? I liked seeing a player listed as a LF/C, for instance.
Some Finer Details
Little details are done right in areas such as running a ticket sales drive for the next season at the end or the current season
What Needs Work in Franchise Mode
Gimmicky, Repetitive Goals
Granted, this was an online vs game, but you can see the usual deke here being done by my opponent. Note that this was a defenseman on a breakaway. Not pictured: The other 6 goals he scored that you could see a glitchy mile away. If Connected GM is ever to become a thing again (see below), these need to be cleaned up.
The arrangement of menus is very cumbersome and uninviting. While franchise needs more depth, the ways in which it is navigated need to be simplified. Think of franchise mode like a complex interstate freeway system; you need cars to drive on a freeway, but at times the NHL series makes me feel like I’m riding a bike in the middle lane of an expressway. New users looking for more beyond HUT won’t enjoy that. These menus should be driven through conversation/interactions. We see some of this in the NBA 2K series with their MyGM activity points, but even that is too cumbersome. Streamline things. This is a topic in and of itself, and is one I’d love to personally connect with the NHL team about as I have some ideas, no doubt.
Team Strategy Conversations
A system exists, but it’s something that needs expanding. For example, instead of having a coach with strategy preferences, but then also the ability for me to just override them, we should be seeing a conversation/interaction system creating a discussion about team strategies between the GM and head coach. The GM and coach negotiate a plan, and revisit that plan mid-season to see whether adjustments are necessary. If disagreements happen, perhaps it creates another layer of immersion through a team controversy.
GM goals can be odd in places. For instance, the Red Wings owner wants me to beat Toronto in the first meeting of season. Who cares? Also, why is it a GM’s responsibility to sell out 85% of suites, or upgrade an arena? I know these can be considered as adding depth to franchise, but simply put: this should be something more. This customization is nice to have, but use this development time and space for things a GM would actually be looking at, such as development reports, advanced metrics, and so on. As it is now, I can literally see who sells the most BBQ in NHL arenas. In graph form.
Expansion with a default roster (any from EA) gives you a repeat of the 2020 draft. Makes sense, but then why is there a whole 2nd class of talent mixed in with this real life class? I do see that this year you can adjust the talent level of the draft, so perhaps you could put that as low as possible to try and limit an inflated draft class for 2020.
Expansion with a custom roster gives you the 2020 draftees on their proper teams, but then another draft ensues, so you’d end up with 2 #1 picks in 2020. This draft also includes undrafted real life guys from 2020 that seemingly were never taken out of the roster.
How this should work is to have expansion a delayed option for the 2021 offseason to get people playing hockey faster with accurate rosters.
Menus do seem quicker, but still nothing I’d consider quick. Simulation speed seems slow for a game in 2020.
I like the auto owner mode features, yet when I set all I can to auto, I’m still having to accept or decline trades. The dream of a full spectator mode, gone.
For the most part, the sim engine is a strength of NHL 21. However, there are still some sim oddities such as too many players playing in 82 games (no healthy scratches). Also, not 1 goalie took a single penalty minute in my quick sim. For more finer details of the quick-sim season I ran, see the image gallery below.
The Bad of Franchise Mode
No Roster Share
No roster share is an unbelievable and unfortunate miss for NHL. And how many times have your created the same expansion teams over and over throughout the years? Why not have a team import and share feature?
Inflexible Expansion Mode
Not letting expansion happen in year 2 or future years of franchise lacks flexibility and hurts this series. Why not have Seattle as a default expansion team vs spending hours creating a bad impersonation of them? No one wants to start playing a hockey game by having to spend 3 hours creating an expansion team that they otherwise have no chance to implement later on.
While some tasks can be automated with solid results, scouting is not one of them. In the video above, you can see me scrolling to see the first player any of my auto scouts actually scouted through the season date of March 2nd.
Why does Auto save being turned off still generate endless backup saves?
Only notified sometimes of waived players, and scouting relationships must be more than just surface-level interaction.
Overall Franchise Impression
It’s worth nothing at the end of this review that the NHL series desperately needs Connected GM back, and needs it back yesterday. This could be its own topic in and of itself. Imagine running a trade deadline online; it would be another event that groups enjoy playing together online like the draft in Madden. Imagine having 10-20 game seasons that groups could finish in a month. The lists go on and on. Connected GM must be a priority for NHL 22 on next-gen.
My overall franchise impression for NHL 21 is this: There are some nice improvements, but there are some head-scratching events happening in this series as well as a whole. I would recommend spending your limited franchise-gaming time elsewhere in a different game, and wait for next year when hopefully we have connected GM, roster sharing, and can use the actual Seattle expansion team in NHL 22.
A PS4 game code was provided for this review.