To use generic hockey vernacular, NHL 23 rebounds and scores. This is the first major, broad push forward for this series since the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 debuted in 2014. It’s overdue, but it’s good to finally see. It’s the little things sometimes, and enhanced graphics and audio in NHL 23 bring a notable freshness. Not everything receives the same makeover, but where the developers put their focus pays off.
Unlike last year, NHL 23 actually makes use of the hardware power provided by the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, and ice looks like ice. That doesn’t sound extravagant, yet seeing an overhead scoreboard reflect on the playing surface during a period’s opening moments is gorgeous. As skates tear up the surface, leaving behind new (and only slightly convincing) ice piles along the boards, reflections accurately fade. Pre-game, certain teams have custom light shows as their players skate out. Those also look impeccable, with an entire crowd waving glow sticks as a laser light show beams onto the ice.
This translates to the players too, meticulously defined down to freckles (where needed), precise jersey stitching, and visors gleaming in the light. At a distance, assuming the animations keep pace (necessary fast transitions always break the immersion), NHL 23 looks like an actual broadcast, completely and totally.
Revamps on the audio side make strides too, creating one of the most authentic in-arena soundscapes in sports gaming. More than varied cheers and boos, there are intensities, like the crowd’s volume rapidly rising during a tense face-off, or giving up – even booing – when down by an insurmountable goal count. Home teams have individualized chants to push them on, all newly recorded. That sounds typical on paper, but in execution, the authenticity is unreal. Commentary remains the same, however, which means the too-game-ified X-Factor chat returns from last year, but those are the only breaks from NHL 23’s sublime audio-visual reality.
NHL 23 adds flashy new drama in the form of a slew of desperation plays, like diving for a loose puck in front of the net, a puck that would be otherwise unreachable. The same goes for defense, trying to sweep the puck out of their zone, balancing the fun and the strategy. All these take to execute is a double tap on the pass button or quick double swipe on the analog stick, which is an almost natural reaction when excited near the net. Other controls remain as-is, including the elegant stick handling, fluid dekes, and satisfying slap shots, all performed with the right thumbstick.
Star players come with X-Factors, another cross-brand touch that – like HUT – applies to its entire EA Sports roster. These receive tuning updates this year, along with fresh abilities in the mix, but amid hockey’s frantic pace their viability rarely seems obvious mid-play. They remain a passive feature that only occasionally come into play. Sarah Nurse’s X-Factor, as an example, increases her shot and passing accuracy after taking a hit, but to what actual effect or amount isn’t clear. The color commentary thinks this makes a difference though, and those snippets sound more like marketing than actual information.
Winning teams can take part in an interactive Stanley Cup celebration, and it’s neat to have the Cup in hand, passing it around to others, and see the names inscribed onto the trophy. It’s not really meaningful, because choosing who hoists the Cup is nothing more than a bland menu selection, which adds little drama. But it’s a good idea, and I could see EA expanding on it down the line to offer us more control over the festivities, and that sounds like fun.
Aside from the visual boosts and new on-ice moves that apply, Be a Pro mode is untouched. The single-player career rolls out exactly like NHL 22, from the cinematics to the storyline. To be clear, it’s the exact same. All of it. NHL 23 isn’t worth purchasing if this is your primary mode, unless updated rosters mean that much to you. The same goes for side modes like NHL Threes and One-on-One, which seem to show up in this annual hockey game only because taking them out doesn’t make sense.
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Rather than focus there, EA delved into revamping the franchise mode. It’s not a total do-over, but the smartly redone set-up phase can radically alter how seasons progress. Entire divisions can be reordered, the number of teams optionally range from six to 48, allowing international teams into the mix. Playoff terms bounce between how many teams make the cut, and how standings are structured.
EA’s marketing notes it’s now possible to run a franchise with the original six teams, and that’s true. In a case of unlucky timing, NBA 2K23 allowed for a similar idea when it was released last month, yet also offered the actual players from those legacy teams. NHL 23 lets fantasy rosters into the mix, albeit with contemporary stars only; Gordie Howe will not be joining the action.
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By including full IIHF women’s team and tournaments, not just custom players, NHL 23 makes hockey video game history, even if NHL is the only option on the market these days. In the microtransaction-based Ultimate Team, EA’s clearly profitable card-trading team-building mode, those women from IIHF teams make their first appearance. Surely destined to spark nonsense conversations about inter-gender hockey, the move is the right one to go along with Canada’s Sarah Nurse co-cover star debut. As a plus, those playing legacy editions of NHL 23 on Xbox One or PlayStation 4 can migrate their HUT team over to a new console when/if they upgrade to the Series X or PS5. That’s a rarity in these annual, real-world dollar-based modes.
As an additional bonus, online play in HUT offers cross-platform play between Xbox Series X/PS5 or Xbox One/PS4 players. It’s not a total integration as this is all limited to versus (no co-op) and this only applies to HUT and World of Chel competition, but it’s a move that’s worth noting. Still, it’s Ultimate Team, predatory in its execution to keep us all purchasing and digging through packs to find the best players, who remain artificially rare by design.