NHL 21 Review

"Refinements & Polish"


October 20, 2020 at 8:35pm
By Jason Stettner

Well, I imagine this is the last year before we get some sort of total upgrade for the game since it’s lagged behind the other EA Sports titles in terms of engine shifting. With that, don’t expect a next generation version of NHL 21 since it’ll be only available through backwards compatibility, again unlike the other EA Sports titles.

Whatever the case, they’ve worked over the generation to put together a generally solid hockey package. It’s come a long way, and while not nearly perfect it does get the job done. It does so actually fairly well, and I was happy with the smaller refinements present this year. Some nice polishing to the overall package which is appreciated.

Now, I’m actually very hard on this franchise. I’m Canadian, played hockey most of my life and have always enjoyed jumping into the series each year while playing. I’ve been reviewing them the entirety of the generation as well, so it’s neat to track how it’s changed over time.
NHL 21 Review Xbox Wallpaper Screenshot
The experience here is largely the same as the previous one, but they have added some appreciated new mechanics while also greatly improving Be a Pro mode which really hasn’t been that exciting since it was first introduced. That area now has you sort of go through the life of a Pro.

You can even play in the Memorial Cup as a start which is awesome. Well, you can start off in other countries but it’s super cool to have that as a launching point. You can also just get drafted, or go right to the NHL. The choice is yours, as are the various decisions you’ll make while playing.

You get into various calls, interviews and more with others in a text based format to influence your career. This will impact your career on and off the ice. You’ll be able to earn certain points to improve various skills, and of course train among other staple aspects for Be a Pro. It’s a cool mode, I did like the work they did there.

Aside from that, HUT Rush is also being pushed as a new way to play. It’s got a sort of weird style scoring system and is a bit of a wacky twist on the existing Hockey Ultimate Team format. It brings in outdoor arenas, modifiers and mascots too.

The traditional modes are also back including the exciting World of Chel which features more things to work towards, they really should be supporting player imports in that mode though. I grow tired of recreating a character every year, perhaps even just the basic look should be something I can bring over.

There’s play now which is where I spend most of my time, seasons, tournaments and other online competitive options. With playing online there’s Threes, quick Ones Now and other smaller variations including the always popular EASHL. It’s fairly comprehensive and covers a wide range of options, or well ways to play. You can enjoy the majority of this locally too, or bring others from a local environment online. Or just play with others online if you don’t have local folks to enjoy it with.


The general gameplay experience is basically the same as in previous years, but with some really appreciated minor improvements to the mechanics which I’ll discuss momentarily. Firstly, the solid broadcast package has returned. It’s been a great shift and a gift to get Canadians available for commentary. Their lines are more natural, and fresh to the game being played which is appreciated. Calmer, and the lines just fit in well from Be a Pro to regular matches. You get James Cybulski as the play-by-play commentator and Ray Ferraro as color commentator.

I do wish they’d offer more visual settings for the scoreboard however. Not a fan of it either being on as a bar on the bottom of the screen, or off as options. It’s rather obnoxious when it covers the bottom of the screen. I do also suggest that the first thing you do when playing the game is that you turn off the skills trainer. It adds really unnecessary assist options visually that I feel detract from the experience. When it comes to performance, it’s smooth as usual and the visuals are the exact same as prior years. They still haven’t fixed the jerseys acting like capes and there’s clipping during cinematics.

The AI was massively improved here, with greatly adjusted transitioning. That was the case whether it was in the neutral zone, during turn overs or even shifts in play to offense/defense. I was very impressed in this regard, it was getting better but I was very happy with it here. They felt far more responsive and natural in their positing, good work. We also get some seriously cool moves to perform during play. That includes tricks that actually keep your momentum going. There are slips, banks and chips too! The goalies also have a sweet set of new desperation moves and positing, much more natural to the real thing.

I should go over the fact that I played this as a Xbox One X enhanced gameplay experience, it looked good there at a 4k resolution with HDR support. I am very disappointed we don’t get to see a next generation version yet, I’m very much looking forward to a next gen hockey experience and I guess we’ll have to wait for that.
NHL 21 new features

The Conclusion

EA Sports NHL 21 delivers a well rounded package with a great selection of modes and various enhancements to core mechanics. It gets the job done, and I think they’ve put together a mostly great experience right at the end of the generation. I’m anxiously expecting a larger upgrade next year, especially in regards to this legacy engine. They’ve pushed it as far as it’ll go.

With that, the mechanics they’ve added really do help make the game play better. Those little tweaks allowing better movement, and the shifts to positioning were well appreciated. I enjoyed the new Be a Pro adjustments, that’s been something I’ve expected for awhile and I think it hits the mark fine enough. It’s just become a comprehensive full hockey experience and something to play.

It’s not perfect by any means, but I think it plays and simulates the sport. It’s something that the younger kids picking up each year will appreciate, and be satisfied by. A known tradition for myself, and many others growing up that played the sport. It’s in a good spot, and I expect them to really push the envelope next year as I will be anticipating greatness.

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NHL 21 Review on Xbox One X
Review Code Provided by 47

Rating Overall: 8.2

Gamerheadquarters Reviewer Jason Stettner