There is no NHL hockey season going on right now, and at the moment, with college football and the NFL heating up, hockey is likely the farthest thing from your mind. But there is a new NHL hockey video game, NHL 21.

The weirdness of sports (and sports videogames) in 2020 continues. Around this time every year, EA Sports drops NHL 21, so it sticks with that tradition for this year. And what it drops, whether you're in a hockey mood or not, is perhaps the finest sports video game of the year. Unlike Madden (yawn, roster update) and the so-far-shaky (but much to be revealed come its next-gen release) NBA 2K21, NHL 21 feels new and fresh. You get a unique gameplay experience that feels closer to real-life hockey than it ever has.

Understand this: This is not an easy year for sports games. The coronavirus pandemic shifted real sports schedules and offseasons, so games can't rely on roster updates as a selling point. At the same time, innovation, predictably, is at its lowest moment with new consoles on the way. Traditionally, developers aim for beefy visual upgrades when a new console drops, and that seems to be the path most sports games will take.

Not so with NHL, which dares to beef up its on-ice gameplay while also rethinking several classic modes. The on-ice gameplay is the most exhilarating its ever been and also its most distinct. Artificial intelligence is always an adventure in sports games, but NHL finds unique balance, delivering smart goalies and responsive AI opponents.

It does this without any cheapness, and that means you have to focus more intently on how you wield your offensive tools. A variety of control schemes are at your disposal, although the default controls are your best bet. They grant you access to the essentials of the game, and it's those essentials that win in NHL 21. This is grounded, realistic hockey, so get ready to cycle the puck and take smart shots, not a barrage of slapshots.

There are other unique options too. A bevy of moves iconic to the NHL, including an assortment of self-passes, are available. These aren't easy to pull off, but they shouldn't be; use them sparingly, and they help you change direction and reroute the action more quickly and efficiently. The rarity of these moves is what makes them work, too: No matter how long you've been playing NHL, when you pull one off, you still can't help but smile, whether you're facing AI or human opponents.

The on-ice action is satisfying, but NHL bundles more than that into this title, too. Be A Player modes have found their sports gaming niche in recent years, but they've also become predictable: Deliver half-realistic, half-fairytale storyline with a decently iconic actor or two, then let you take the reins after the first year. NHL's Be a Pro steps things up with a series of new little additions. The coolest of these is this: You finally get to actually do something with all the money you make. You pick up "salary perks," little additions that sometimes make sense (and sometimes don't), but always tie to something that seems aimed at proper sporting awareness. Do you bring a lawyer into your payroll? Yes, it just might help your offense.

As with many sports games, Be A Pro is just one available mode. There's another obligatory card-based version of the game, and the unique World of Chel mode is back. Franchise mode returns, too, and, sadly, like the other sports games, it sees few upgrades. Franchise modes are among the deepest modes in all sports games, so overall, it's sad that across sports titles, they've gotten little attention in recent years.

Still, NHL tries, delivering a unique experience with its trade deadline simulator, which has you making deals against the clock, theoretically replicating the rush of the ultra-quick deadline, where you don't always get to make the perfect trade. It's not a perfect idea, but give NHL 21 credit for innovating.

And give NHL 21 a ton of credit for delivering a fleshed out title with plenty of electricity and fun. It's been a rough year for sports games, for a host of different reasons. In this vacuum, NHL 21 steps up and gives you the blend of adrenaline and strategy you want.


4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4 Pro

Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC