NHL 21 Review: Be A Pro Receives Some Overdue Attention

NHL 21's career mode is much improved, but the rest of the experience is skating on thin ice.

NHL 21 Review
Photo: Electronic Arts

Before I really dig into my thoughts on NHL 21, the final major sports release before the next generation consoles hit the market next month, I have to point out something that wasn’t in the game. It’s usually hard to knock a sports game for what it didn’t do, but in this case, I think I’m justified in my disappointment.

Where the heck are the Seattle Kraken?

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For the uninitiated, that’s the team which will play its inaugural campaign as the NHL’s 32nd franchise starting in the 2021-22 season. The reveal of their team name, logo, and uniform was met with near universal acclaim. The name is terrific. The logo is clever, fierce, and simple. The color scheme and sweater are easy on the eyes.

Surely, inserting them into NHL 21 would have been an easy addition as a small, relatively low-effort inclusion in this game as a selling point. Franchise Mode includes the option to play as an expansion 32nd team anyway, so why not allow players to be the Kraken?

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Beats me, because you can’t do it. Their logos and team audio aren’t included in custom team creation options either, so there’s no way to exactly replicate the look. It’s a bad, bad sign for an annualized franchise that has gone stagnant in recent years. And a look around at the rest of the game reveal that not much has changed from last fall’s NHL 20.

There’s one notable exception: Be A Pro. The EA Sports NHL series’ career mode has been in desperate need of attention for years, lagging behind the other major sports titles both under and outside of the publishing giant’s umbrella. If I could have directed the developers at EA Vancouver to beef up just one mode — and that’s essentially what appears to have happened in NHL 21 — it would have been Be A Pro.

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Finally included are branching conversation choices, which had been lifted from RPGs and adopted by sports series such as NBA 2K and MLB The Show years ago. Granted, the dialogue options are generally binary and don’t do much to develop the personality of your created player, but their mere presence allows for a more diverse experience than simple menu navigation and player-locked games on a rinse-repeat cycle. Modes like this are inherently monotonous, so anything to break it up is welcome.

The way you engage in conversations with your coach, the front office, teammates, and media will affect three different likeability ratings: Teammate, Management, and Brand. Typically, giving one answer that boosts your Brand might ding your Management score to some degree, as an example. But it’s not hard to keep all three ratings in the green if that’s how you want to do it. Of course, you can choose to be a narcissistic star who rubs the front office and the locker room the wrong way. 

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These ratings aren’t just for show. They can lead to more points earned to upgrade your player in the RPG-esque skill tree — another growing presence in sports games — and additional money to buy luxuries such as cars, living space decorations, etc. These, too, often provide stat boosts for your player. 

Release Date: Oct. 16, 2020
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO
Developer: Electronic Arts
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Hockey Sim

The time between games is also filled in nicely, from an audio standpoint, by a faux radio show hosted by the in-game commentary duo of James Cybulski and Ray Ferarro. It’s an understated but nice touch that I found to be much more interesting and engaging than what most other sports career modes do: create fake social media posts about what’s happening in your career. Those “tweets” became white noise to me a long time ago, but I enjoyed listening to Cybulski and Ferrraro interact with “callers” who definitely sound like their phoning in (and maybe they were, what with the pandemic-related lockdowns).

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Overall, Be A Pro really endeared itself to me. I enjoyed taking my player Don Hope — named in honor of my great-great uncle, a standout amateur goalie in Vancouver before he was killed serving in World War I — from chasing the Memorial Cup to pursuing Lord Stanley’s vaunted grail as the top overall pick of the New York Rangers. It’s been years since the NHL games’ career mode felt this engaging. 

Beyond Be A Pro, the NHL 21 cupboard isn’t necessarily barren of new additions but most of these tweaks feel like slightly different ways to engage with the same systems. HUT Rush gives a more arcade-style spin to the action with multipliers and such, but it’s not like we’re talking about some sort of NHL Hitz revitalization or anything. It’s arcade light. World of CHEL now boasts Ranked Seasons, if you’re into that sort of thing. 

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One noteworthy add-in to Franchise Mode is a real-time trade deadline event. Once triggered, you will compete against other teams as well as the clock to pull the trigger on deals with other teams. It’s a neat concept, and I was enjoying it for the most part…until I received trade proposals that booted me from whatever deal I was looking to swing. Whether I was interested in the offer or not, I had to restart whatever I was working on at the time from scratch. Please, EA, make proposals viewable when I’m ready to see them instead of forcing them on me. When you’ve got a timer counting toward the deadline, every second counts. Nonetheless, I love the concept. MLB The Show and NBA 2K, both of which are known for busy trade deadlines, would be wise to incorporate something like this.

On-the-ice additions are light, but those adept at pulling off complex inputs should welcome new moves such as the behind the net self-pass, as well as The Michigan lacrosse deke and The Kucherov fake deke. Those moves are beyond my skill level, but you can never be mad at the inclusion of more real-life moves in a sports game.

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If you’re looking for permission to get this game, I’d say it’s one you can easily pass up if you bought NHL 20, unless you are a big Be A Pro fan anxious for a more immersive experience. Otherwise, I’d be more inclined to wait for next year’s debut on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, presumably with Seattle as an overdue inclusion.