NHL 19 preview: A multiplayer experience feeding on creativity

EA Sports
EA Sports /

A focus on zany, creative looks at online hockey play brings a different focus to NHL 19, as our preview presentation and gameplay looked at what’s new.

With the NHL evolving its game over the past few lockouts years, EA Sports has been following suit. Every one of their major titles has undergone technology changes this year, but NHL 19 continues to push forward philosophical changes with their focuses on expanding multiplayer options and building their own community.

The World of CHEL is a bold step forward for the franchise, one that works with a strong, accepting community behind it.

I got the chance to preview NHL 19 at a press event in Toronto this past week, taking a look at the changes, testing out some new gameplay modes and seeing the new Real-Player Motion technology in action. No matter the basic game mode you appreciate, providing players with close to a thousand clothing customization options as well as creating daily challenges for non-monetized unlocks creates an inviting hub.

NHL 19 CHEL Docks
EA Sports /

Whereas last year’s entry focused on the new expansion team (and almost Stanley Cup champion) Vegas Golden Knights, Be A Pro player campaign and NHL Threes, NHL 19‘s World of CHEL brings its attention to a multiplayer hub. Visually, it brings players to outdoor ponds in the snow-packed mountains out West, where outdoor rinks provide the authenticity many Canadians like myself are familiar with.

If you thought the three on three hockey mode was frantic last year, NHL Ones turns hockey gameplay into a messy chess game of scoring prowess. Your custom-created avatar is placed in half of a cutoff hockey rink against two other random online players in your skill range. Your job is to score the most goals after a few minutes in a free-for-all gauntlet.

What makes this mode more tactical is that as soon as you scramble for the puck, two other players will do their best to strip the puck from you, lay you out, take it and score for themselves. On offense, you need quick feet. On defense, you need to trust both your skills and the other random player to block the scoring opportunity all while edging out an advantage on getting to the puck if the shot is blocked or the puck is loose.

With contact rules off the board, NHL 19‘s new Ones mode is chaos incarnate. You might get full-body layouts or hip checks that level your player and drain them of energy, causing you to take some moments out to catch your breath. It’s the natural evolution of Threes that is quick, but thrilling, taking a different look at Canada’s national pastime.

NHL 19 CHEL player
EA Sports /

It’s not just the NHL Ones mode that’s part of the World of CHEL. NHL 19 will also include NHL Threes (now with player drop-in selection), EASHL and a new Pro-Am mode (line up your custom player with and against NHL pros in three-on-three challenges), centralizing progression for each mode into one reward loop that offers customization options for your player.

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There are 900+ clothing options for your created character, with options to change up your look with jackets, pants, gloves, parkas and even toques. Some of the wilder custom looks would make even Don Cherry blush, fitting in closer to the Norwegian curling team than a “proper” NHL player. That’s the kind of stuff you love to see, as I’m sure players online will love to express themselves as silly or serious as their personality suggests.

Of course, there are other unlocks in the World of CHEL, including some for position archetypes, player bonuses and custom outputs. As you level up or complete daily challenges, you will unlock them with hockey bags that offer randomized loot. These are not ever going to be monetized, EA Sports tells me, so reserve your pitchfork-aiming for elsewhere.

NHL 19 Connor McDavid skate
EA Sports /

EA also assures me that they’ve been taking beta feedback into consideration, and it shows with the new-look Real-Player Motion technology. They’ve thrown guinea pigs to the slaughter with their precision animations, getting realistic contact-on-contact motion capture for players skating, colliding, poke-checking, slamming into boards and more.

As part of their engine changes, they’ve even accounted for players as small as Nathan Gerbe taking out Zdeno Chara-like mountains of hockey players and weaved animations naturally. I even noticed players bracing for eventual impact, showing the effort put into making more realistic hockey.

I even got confirmation from creative director William Ho (who guided me through the presentation and gleefully chirped my NHL Ones play) that they’ve been taking gameplay balance into account, tweaking how loose tripping calls were during the beta. The gameplay changes on a rink level are subtle but noticeable.

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With a focus on a more refined hockey community hub, NHL 19 looks to build upon the solid single-player additions made last year. The game releases for the PS4 and Xbox One on September 14.