TUCSON, Ariz. — "NHL 22" was almost certain to register with the impact of a cross-check into the boards due to two outside factors: The full-fledged debut on new-gen consoles as well as the debut of an expansion team.
Any hardcore NHL fan will need to pick up this year's game simply because it includes the Seattle Kraken and plays on their PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series S or X. But there are plenty of other adjustments meant to lure in players like a late-game, one-goal deficit draws a goalie off the ice.
Foremost among the additions is the implementation of X-Factor abilities, which are spread among the superstars, signifying game-changing abilities that lift special players above the pack in categories including shooting, skating, passing and intelligence.
No matter how many stat boosts were plunged into a particular player, video game hockey never quite captured what it is that makes players such as Connor McDavid or Alex Ovechkin into ice gods. The X-Factors — which bless players with certain almost magical qualities that other players don't have — inch closer to reality.
There are some other nifty touches, including an excellent commentary team and broadcast enhancements.
Real-time stats are projected onto playing surfaces and walls, just as they are on TV.
Tech geeks will appreciate the fine touches that improved the visuals and physics. Devs instituted the Frostbite engine, which adds touch-ups and improvements from everything from the cloth on jerseys, facial animations, skin shading, skate spray and players' awareness of the puck location.
If you're looking for fantasy instead of the harsh truths of the real world — looking at you, Coyotes and Rangers fans — it's Ultimate Team that will juice you up. With a new slate of power-ups and rewards drops for your card-based team's wins, there is ample replayability as you tear open card packs and buff up your squad with players from the past and present. Devs answered player demand for any-time matches, rather than the cumbersome scheduling system from past editions.
World of Chel captures the freewheeling spirit of the street game, and while the mode only features minimal enhancements, it's easier to get into the palate-cleansing mode thanks to a sreamlined menu interface.
"NHL 22" also hangs on to some legacy strengths, including the presence of "NHL 94"-style controls — my preferred method — that eschew the advanced thumbstick nuance in favor of ease and momentum.
While there is no full-scale reinvention of the puck here — and nor was there one in order — the incremental advancement that is "NHL 22" more than justifies its spot on the roster. The puck may drop, but video game hockey fans' expectations never will.