Sports simulation is a genre that I like in theory, but every time I pick up NHL or Madden, it’s like my knowledge of the sport doesn’t transfer at all to success in the video game version. But that has changed with NHL 18 because, for the first time, the tutorials and teaching systems are making me a better player.
NHL 18 is out now for $60 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. I’ve spent about as much time with it as I have with the rest of the NHL games this generation (EA has the only NHL sim left after 2K stopped making them in 2009), but it’s the first one that doesn’t feel like an exercise in trying to fit my head through a pinhole in a brick wall. The big change here is that EA Sports has refined its tutorial systems to improve onboarding. It starts right as you boot up the game, and the NHL 18 asks you some basic questions that determine how the game should control and play. I am familiar with the rules of the National Hockey League as well as the strategies, my problem is execution. And it essentially asked if that was the case and it set the difficulty to easy, the rules to simulation (with shortened periods), and the controls to the sticks (as opposed to the buttons). From there, I ran through some tutorial videos, and that’s where my learning experience normally would fall apart.
I went through the tutorials. They start with videos, and then you get a chance to try them yourself. My issue is that only half the stuff I learn in these kinds of training sessions ever stick with me during gameplay. Here’s an example of what I mean and how the game handles my shitty memory in an effective way.
On defense, you have a handful of options to force turnovers. You can check your opponent, you can poke check them, you can lift their stick, or block their shots and passes with you body. The tutorial taught me how to do both poke checks and stick lifts, but under pressure, I could only ever remember how to do poke checks. I was going to that move over and over, and the AI was compensating for that. I wanted to try lifting the stick, but I couldn’t remember the button to do it.
But amazingly, moments after I was thinking how I couldn’t remember the button for lifting an opponent’s stick, a floating card popped off of my player when I was on defense that read, “X to lift stick.” It noticed that I hadn’t used that move, and it gave me simple, context-aware instructions on how to do it. By the end of the match, I was mixing up my defensive moves like a pro.
NHL 18 gave me this help in all facets of the sim. On offense, it reminded me to glide with the puck on my stick by holding out the right analog to keep the puck away from defensive players and to get more power on shots. During the faceoffs, it reminded me to switch between forehand and backhand in certain circumstances.
You can see all of that in the video above. I still lost in the end because I took way too many penalties, but I wasn’t giving up easy goal after easy goal. Most importantly, I feel like I have a better understanding of how to play NHL 18 after that match than before I played it, and I want to keep getting better.