Every team depends on its star players to be difference-makers. They’re the ones fans look to when the pressure’s on to make the play and get the win. The problem is star players don't always live up to their promise, and when there’s not enough supplemental talent around them, a team can crash quickly to the bottom of the standings. NHL 22 makes the grave error of investing everything in the league’s elite talent to elevate the game in all modes, creating an entire ability system around them to showcase their more dangerous assets on the ice. The problem? These top players don’t make a huge impact on the game, and without any other meaningful additions, fans don’t have much to cheer for.
Inspired by EA’s Madden, this year EA Vancouver introduced Superstar X-Factors, which provide special skills to the best of the best. For instance, Alexander Ovechkin has the “One Tee” ability, which not only gives him exceptional power and accuracy to one-time the puck, but also increases his ability to one-time less than ideal passes. X-Factors are a welcome effort to shake up the metagame, which hasn’t changed in some time, and I like the thought process behind them: raise players’ awareness when these elite talents step on the ice and make them feel different. However, I never felt the tension defensively or power offensively that X-Factors should provide. All the players – star or fourth-liner – still feel pretty similar on the ice, and that’s a big problem. X-Factors, like star players, should be difference-makers, but instead, they’re just kind of there, and I rarely felt like they were contributing to some impressive play destined for the highlight reel. Where’s the fun in that?
Unfortunately, EA Vancouver went all-in with X-Factors, adding them to most major modes as the big, new change and not much else to go with them. Again, they’re not a major shakeup to the experience, so that left me feeling like I was playing more of the same. Sure, in franchise mode, you want to target players with X-Factors in the draft, but the mode still has the boring trade deadline minigame, the baffling player demands, and no way to really communicate a direction for the team to the coach.
Be A Pro, where you create your own rookie and get drafted to an NHL team, received a fresh coat of paint last year, and it felt like a promising start. Imagine my disappointment when the bland dialogue, half-baked salary perks, and lackluster events returned. You can earn X-Factor abilities by playing games and completing certain milestones, but even after unlocking a few, I didn’t feel like they made a huge difference in my game. I was also frustrated to see the conversation system still makes you choose between being a “star” or “team” player, and your responses to be a star are something any real coach would bench a player for saying. Additionally, the mode still lacks meaningful events to keep the NHL season exciting for the long haul.
The only place I felt X-Factors enhanced the game was in World of CHEL’s EASHL, as they allowed me to build a player more to my style. I play power forward, and I have the “Unstoppable Force” X-Factor, which makes it hard to knock me off the puck, even when I’m off-balance. I also like that when you pick a position, you can redistribute some of your stat points. I hate how slow the power forward is, so I was happy to sacrifice some of my slap shot accuracy for some extra speed. EA has balanced this, so some valuable skills, like speed, cost more points than others, but I like that it encourages you to experiment with a build that works best for you. The only possible negative is it feels much easier to score this year in EASHL. Most games I played ended up high-scoring, and my stats felt padded compared to previous years. I don’t mind feeling the exhilaration of scoring more, but I saw many questionable goals, like weak wristers, go in.
The overall gameplay does feel a bit different from last year, with a more realistic, slower pace. Body checks seem properly balanced; there were only a few occasions where I felt knocked off the puck too easily. However, the poke check remains overpowered, especially since it’s easy to spam without taking penalties, even in online play. Hockey players certainly poke check, but it’s not used to anywhere near this degree in the real NHL. In addition, the puck can be hard to track, especially in the corners, which has been an issue in the past but is somehow even worse this year.
I also experienced some technical shortcomings, such as my player indicator disappearing, NHL star players appearing on my minor league roster, and glitchy animations. PS5 users are treated to haptic feedback, as well as goal songs, coach commands, and puck noises going through the controller. At first, it’s a neat little feature, but it quickly wears out its welcome. Worse yet, it can’t be turned off unless you go outside of the game and into the PS5 settings, which is a huge oversight.
Sports teams build around their core players, rarely making sweeping changes until the inevitable rebuild must occur. Sports games are no different; each year offers a chance to improve a mode or feature, but at some point, more meaningful changes need to happen to the foundation before things become stale. The Superstar X-Factors were an attempt at this, but EA Vancouver ultimately fell short of having them impact the game in exciting and worthwhile ways. The lack of a critical eye to various modes also doesn’t help. Truth be told, playing NHL 22 is like watching a predictable team. On the one hand, there’s comfort in knowing what to expect. On the other, it’s not fun seeing the same plays over and over again.
NHL 22 relies on its superstar talent, and it’s not impressive enough to give the gameplay the new life it so desperately needs.